Kate Flora: For the next two weeks, I have the pleasure of being a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is a retreat for writers, visual artists, and composers set on a hilltop in lovely Amherst, Virginia, just across the highway from Sweetbriar College. This is my third residency here, and I am thrilled to have this gift of two weeks of uninterrupted writing time. During my first stay, five years ago, I wrote 150 pages in ten days. On my second visit, I wrote the second half of the novel I’d started the first time, and wrote two short stories.
At breakfast this morning, one of the artists remarked that since someone else prepares the meals and changes the beds and there are no responsibilities, it is like living at home. For me, it is a chance to free my mind from distractions like taxes, and book promotion, and laundry, and what to make for dinner. My plan for this visit was to start the sixth Joe Burgess book, and as I write this, I am now thirty pages in.
For those of you who sometimes wonder about the plotting and writing process that goes into writing one of my Joe Burgess police procedurals, I thought I’d take you on a quick tour of how things progress as I begin book six in the series. Tentatively titled A Child Shall Lead Them, it opens, as my police procedurals usually do, with the discovery of a body. Before I began, I know some of the things I would put at the crime scene, and some of the details about the crime I would include to make the process of identifying the victim more difficult. I know who did it, have an idea about other suspects, and some plans for the ending. The rest develops as I write.
Some of my initial questions refer back to what has happened in prior books. Some series writers, those far cleverer and more organized than I, keep character diaries and record important details. I am forced to pull up old manuscripts and do searches. What’s the name of Stan Perry’s pregnant girlfriend? What are the name of Burgess’s sister’s daughters. The name of his other sister? I know the name of one of Terry Kyle’s daughters, but what is the younger daughter’s name? Does Burgess’s other sister have children? Who runs the deli that makes the best meatloaf sandwich in Portland? Is Kyle’s significant other Michele or Michelle?
It may be that a clue to the victim’s identity will be her sleeve of tattoos, so I have to spend some time on websites, learning about the terminology. Horror? American traditional? Ornamental? New school? I will leave the interviewing up to Detective Stan Perry, who has some tats of his own, but undoubtedly I will have to track down the family tattoo artist to get more inside details.
Fifteen years of interviewing police officers, and writing books with and about them, though, often causes me to have more questions than answers. Here are some of the questions that have arisen already.
Where shall I put a body, in the City of Portland, that is remote enough for the killer to have had a chance to hide it? So I ask a Portland police officer for suggestions. Then, because I’m in Virginia and can’t go scope it out, I search on google maps and other sources to learn more about the location.
What value might bringing in a K9 add to the investigation? That involves a call to my retired game warden friend, who knows a lot about dogs and crime scenes. He hasn’t called back, and my list of questions is getting larger.
Then there’s the jogger who found the body. What happens if he doesn’t want to cooperate in the investigation? Another query goes out to my police advisors.
Since the plot involves sex trafficking in Portland, I search on line for the name of the Portland officer who might be a good resource on sex trafficking. When I get home, I’ll have to see if I can meet with him.
And then there are my questions for the medical examiner, details of which I cannot share here without giving away too much of the plot.
Many years ago, when I embarked on this writing adventure, I thought that what writers did was sit at their desks and make things up. For crime writers, though, that simply isn’t possible.