When My Head is Swimming with Death

Kate Flora here, on a gray and rainy day, thinking about the healing power of getting outdoors. I’ve just come in from a walk through my muddy garden with a trowel in hand, shifting a brown-eyed susan that wanted to grow between the stones on my front walk, a campanula that was heading out into the lawn, and a few fuzzy gray-green rose campion into a different bed. I moved a butterfly plant that had imbedded itself in the threadleaf coreopsis, and some echinacea that have planted themselves too close to the day lilies. I forgot to change my shoes so now a little pair of Mary Janes are drying by the door. My pant legs are sodden. My smile has returned.

Gulf Hagas

Natural therapy is an odd choice today, for in my imagination, here in this chair, I’ve actually spent the day dealing with disasters and injuries, poachers and drunken boaters, accidents and dramatic rescues, and cadaver searchers all over Maine as I’ve been transcribing my interviews with a Maine game warden. My mind has been out in the big woods all day. But on that journey, I’ve been writing about plane crashes, about snowmobile accidents. I’ve been learning new terminology, whisking over to google to learn how spell the names of the guns and their calibers. I’ve been imagining the incredible beauty and profound danger of hiking in Gulf Hagas, along the Appalachian Trail. Inside my head, I’ve been walking down logging trails at night in search of a sick moose. I’ve been watching selfish fishermen using worms to take overlimits of trout from catch and release fly fishing ponds. I’ve been watching divers search for hunters lost when their canoe overturned. I’m visiting a very different kind of Maine, one more like the one Paul wrote about this week. The big woods, we can never forget, are both beautiful and dangerous.

It’s all part of a journey I didn’t know I was taking when I bought my first computer, nearly twenty-nine years ago, and started writing my first mystery. Back then my years as an avid reader had given me the impression that what a writer did was sit at her desk, set her imagination free, and start writing. I had no idea how important research would become, or the necessity for understanding the psychology of my characters. I had no idea how often the great adventure of writing would be pulling me out of my chair to go and interview experts.

Beyond that, I certainly never imagined that part of the journey would take me into the realm of writing the

A different kind of vanity plate

real. Bringing authentic details in my fiction, yes. But I never thought that I would also be sitting with police reports and trial transcripts. Sitting across the desk for hard-faced police detectives who regarded me with suspicion, while I tried to go through my list of questions without revealing how nervous I was feeling. I never imagined driving more than five hundred miles into northeastern Canada to learn about a real murder investigation and a missing body. I never expected to come to care about real victims, or to care so much about the men and women who toil, often without much appreciation, to get those victims justice.

I’ve said this here before, but it’s something I keep coming back to often. It’s a quote from Philip Gourevich, in his sad, horrifying, and powerful book about the Rwandan massacre, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevich writes: “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.”  Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, imagining it is a necessary part of the job if I am to write the kind of powerful books that will let my readers truly see the stories in their imaginations. And it can be a hard job, going around with such dark characters and images in my mind, hardest of all when the characters are real. That’s when taking a break, going into the garden, having lunch with a friend, reading a funny book, or hitting the gym and getting pumped with endorphins may become necessary. But it’s also a job I embrace, because when I rise to the challenge and it works, I’ve written the book I set out to write, and hopefully, made you feel the story more deeply.

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2 Responses to When My Head is Swimming with Death

  1. I think there is something therapeutic in writing dark, dangerous stuff — it helps us to purge our own demons. I don’t think I am physically capable of doing some of the things my characters do but I do think some of my “id” enjoys being really evil in a safe way.

  2. John Clark says:

    My first published Level Best story was about as dark as you could get and was cathartic in that it finally banished a recurring nightmare that, when I awoke from it, was so vivid, I had to sit for 10-15 minutes trying to figure out it it was real. I was pretty darn glad it banished that demon and, in the process, took readers along for the ride.

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