Kate Flora: I never wanted to write nonfiction. I was dragged into that world to help a
friend and became fascinated by learning about the real world of crime and the stories of those who investigate it. That fascination with discovering new worlds while helping other people tell their stories has pulled me back into nonfiction several times now. Each time, at some point, someone will tell me a different version of the story, or remember an incident differently, and that will add new, and often surprising, dimensions to the story I’m writing. Or have already written.
Something like that happened while I was working on Finding Amy. I thought I knew the story of the investigation from the police point of view, that maze of stories and witnesses that helped them solve the crime, and was ready to move on to organizing and smoothing the draft, when someone—it might have been Bruce Coffin—said, “Did anyone tell you about the night we put a birddog on Gorman’s car?” Not only had no one told me about it, I didn’t even know what a birddog, or bird-dog, was, since obviously he wasn’t talking about a canine favored by hunters. He was talking about birddogging—or closely following. When I asked about the details, it turned out that he was talking about an elaborate scheme to attach a tracking device to the suspect’s car—an activity that had to be done while it was parked in a public place—and then let him know that a body had been found, hoping he would want to check where he’d hidden his victim’s body and they could follow him and discover the location. That led to whole series of interviews with Portland and Maine state police, trying to get the details of the story that ended up in the book, a story that included some very funny shenanigans in a parking lot while they put the device on the car, and Bruce Coffin walking up and down the dark rural street by the suspect’s house, waiting for him to leave—which he never did. Only later did they understand why.
A story like the investigation into Amy’s disappearance has a lot of people and events attached to it, some of which only to come to me long after the fact. At one point in the book, the murderer has confessed the story of the killing to his mother, and his mother calls her former priest down in Florida to disclose the confession and talk about her distress. Long after the book was published, I got an e-mail from that priest, who had read the book, and he shared a very sad story regarding his own son’s death. His son had been killed in a town in Texas, and when they found the body in a drainage ditch, they thought he was an illegal. His body had been in the morgue for a year while his family was trying to find him. The priest had only recently learned this when he received that call from the killer’s mother.
A writer’s job is to imagine things, but it is hard—and heartbreaking—to imagine the father’s distress as he tried to compassionately listen to a killer’s mother talk about her pain that her son was murderer when his own child had been murdered.
Last week, Roger Guay and I were speaking at a library in Ellsworth, and Roger was telling the story of his dog Reba’s first venture into a cadaver search to help the police find a hidden body. In the past, I’ve only heard Roger’s version of the story—that the police, using the details provided by the man who helped the killer dispose of the body, had searched but been unable to locate the victim. Roger and his dog had come in—the wardens having used a detail from the informant about thorns and bushes to find the location—and almost immediately, the dog had indicated on a site. The police had done some digging and not found a body, and the dog had then moved a little distance away and found an arm bone. That bone had a break in it which correlated to a break the victim had had. The wardens, with their outdoor expertise, were able to figure out why the body wasn’t there—that bear had gotten at it.
It turned out that there was a retired Maine state trooper in that Ellsworth audience, and he had been on that search. He told me three things which amplified the story that I knew in fascinating ways. First, that they had done an elaborate grid search of the area, trying to find the body, before calling in the wardens. Second, that in the course of searching further, once they understood what had happened, they found the bear’s skull. And third, and the kind of amazing thing a writer can’t wait to use in a book—they found a bird’s nest made from the victim’s hair.
We become writers, in part, because we’re fascinated by story. And the stories—however they come to us—never lose that fascination, and the possibilities these real world details offer for illuminating worlds and showing complex emotions to our readers.
p.s. That retired trooper, now a private eye, has become a crime writer himself. We look forward to introducing you to him in a future post.