I’ve just started a new book—the eighth in my Thea Kozak series—and the process is reminding me of all the choices and decisions that come into play whenever a new book begins. All of my Thea books have the word “death” in the title. This one is called Death Warmed Over. It’s a story I’ve been carrying around in my head for years, and one that was, harking back to our group discussion about story ideas last Sunday, inspired by a story in the newspaper. But I can’t tell you what that story is, because it’s one of the central secrets in the book.
I reluctantly shoved my Thea Kozak series to a back burner when my agent told me I should give it up. But recently, when I mused on Facebook about writing another Thea, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that I yielded to my own desire to write this book, and my new editor, Jim Huang at Crum Creek Press, said he wanted it.
This may not be true for all mystery writers, but it seems that the instant I start writing the first words in the book, no matter how well I think I know the story, things I didn’t plan start happening. In this series, I bounce between stories that happen because of Thea’s work as a consultant to independent (read private) schools (An Educated Death, Death in Paradise, Stalking Death), and those that happen because of family and friends (Chosen for Death, Death in a Funhouse Mirror, Death at the Wheel, Liberty or Death). For this book, I was going to step out of both of those realms and have the victim and story be more anonymous—a crime that Thea stumbles on when she goes house hunting. Ah, the best laid plans.
The book is supposed to open with Thea walking into a horrific crime scene. Before I’m even a page
into Chapter One, her phone rings and she’s also caught up in a difficult situation at one of her client schools. It’s not something I planned and I don’t know where this subplot is taking me—or her. All I know is that after twenty-nine years and more than twenty books, I’ve learned to trust that the unplanned events that thrust their way onto the page are there for a purpose. Now I’m following along, braiding the awful crime she’s stumbled on with her client’s difficult situation. I’m interested, from a writer’s perspective, in watching the evolution of a complex tale of babies and secrets and things that aren’t always what they seem.
There’s something else that starts happening right from page one, even if I’ve done some ofmyhomework in advance, and that’s the beginning of a separate file of research questions. So far, three chapters in, I’ve got a whole raft of questions about burns and how to treat burn victims. I’ve downloaded Frank Ahearn’s book, How to Disappear. I know that I’m going to have to go back to my police sources and have them talk me through initial crime scene procedure and styles of interviewing a witness. I need to know more about shock. About how the memory works. About the psychology of traumatized adolescents and victims of sexual assault. It looks like I’ll need to know something about hydroponics, the vegan lifestyle, and real estate. I expect sister MCWriter Vicki Doudera can help me with the last one.
And then there’s something anyone who’s written a long-running series can tell you—that starting a new book with characters you’ve lived with for so many book cycles, imaginary people you’ve literally spent years with—is like getting together with good old friends. Their voices are familiar. Their attitudes and world views are instantly there. It’s fascinating to learn about the changes in their lives. Where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing while you were away writing other books. The story may be new and challenging, but there’s a powerful sense of homecoming.
And I know, because I’ve been here before, that however convoluted and complicated the process may seem, and however often I hit that blank wall or find myself puzzling over how I got into this or that blind alley, in the end, I will find my way out. The story will happen, and you and I will know what “death warmed over” really means.