The Surprising Collaboration Between Writers and Readers

Kate Flora: Thirty-five years ago, when my second son was born, I decided to quit my IMG_0134job and stay home for a few years with my boys. I immediately had the terrified thought, But I’ve always worked. Now what will I do? Then I thought, I’ve always wanted to write. Maybe it is something I can do while the boys nap. Naive thought. My boys were not nappers. It was hard to find those spaces where it was quiet enough to write. But I started a novel, and it sent me on the course I am still on today.

For nearly ten of those first writing years, I toiled quietly at my desk, all of the storytelling happening between me and my characters on the page. That changed when my first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, was published. As readers began to discover Thea, and her family, and the Maine state police detective, Andre Lemieux, who would become her love interest, a surprising thing happened. Through letters and emails and comments readers made, I discovered that while I had always thought my characters belonged to me, creations of my imagination, now they had became characters in my readers’ imaginations as well. And my readers had opinions.

9781614178422In those early days, I was surprised to have a man show up at a reading declaring that his wife had given him permission to date Thea. When a number of my sister writers of strong female protagonists killed off their character’s significant others, I got numerous notes from my readers declaring that if I killed off Andre,they would never read another one of my books.

As Thea struggled with her difficult relationship with her mother, readers wanted to know whether Thea’s mother was based on my own. I was genuinely shocked at that, and explained that my mother was my role model and my mentor. Then readers asked who she was modeled on, and I realized that, in part, she was a blend of my two grandmothers. When readers suggested that I solve Thea’s problem by killing her mother off, I responded that I didn’t believe in killing mothers, and hoped that over time, and the arc of the story, Thea and her mother could reach a better understanding.

When Thea and Andre struggled in their relationship because he was from the world of serve and protect and Thea was herself an intrepid rescuer, readers weighed in. They told me that they hoped Thea and Andre would be able to find a way to work out their relationship challenges. They also hoped that they would be able to find balance between the challenges of their jobs and their desire to have a family, sometimes offering their own stories as proof that it could be done.

Readers also wouldn’t let Thea do dumb things, something I’ve always disliked in mysteries with female protagonists. So when I sent Thea off to confront bad guys without thinking things through, a beta readers said, flatly, “Thea wouldn’t do that.” So the scene got changed.


The photo of Thea that I put on my husband’s desk

Another thing I’ve discovered, and something I believe we all, as readers, appreciate, is that however I envision my character’s appearances, readers create them in their own minds. I’ve had readers send me photos of their local police chiefs with the note that this is what Joe Burgess looks like. My favorite story in this realm is the day I found a picture in a magazine of a woman who looked like my image of Thea. I put it on my husband’s desk and when he saw it, he said, “Thea doesn’t look anything like that.”

What I’ve learned from this? That yes, I am the writer, and I’m the one making it up. I am also in a collaboration with you, the reader. You have expectations. You have come to care about my characters. You worry that Thea mixes it up with bad guys too much. You worry about Joe Burgess facing the challenges of loyalty to his victims and duty to his family. You’re proud of Joe for choosing such a wise life-partner. You want Thea and Andre to find their dream house.

As I write the sixth Joe Burgess, A Child Shall Lead Them, and prepare Death Goes to School, the ninth Thea Kozak mystery, for publication, your relationship with my characters has become a part of my writing.

If you’re not already a Thea Kozak reader and you’d like to start your own relationship with Thea, here are the buying links:





 Google Play

Note: Maine Crime Writers is having a contest, and we hope you’ll join in the fun. The IMG_1393question is “Where Would You Put The Body?” We’re asking readers to send photos answering this question, with a brief description of the place and why they chose it, to: Winner will receive this great Poe tote, with books and goodies. Contest runs until June 28th. The winner will be notified by e-mail and announced in our weekend update.


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6 Responses to The Surprising Collaboration Between Writers and Readers

  1. Amber Pierce says:

    Reader response is probably my favourite thing about writing! It’s so unexpectedly rewarding to see how people interpret things, such as getting meaning out of an unintentional metaphor, or falling in love with side characters, or coming up with consequences and implications beyond the page. It’s so lovely to see the different perspectives, the interpretations I never would have thought of. I can just imagine how that must add up over the course of a nine-book series, too!

  2. Lea Wait says:

    All true! I’ve probably had my biggest reader response to the character Will Brewer in my Shadows series … he’s the “love interest” — but he and Maggie, my protagonist, have some fundamental disagreements. My readers are divided — Maggie should relax and change her views — or she should kick Will out! (So far, he’s been the one changing his views, and he’s still around …)

  3. Liz Milliron says:

    I think my favorite story about reader character ownership was the gruff old man in a camo baseball cap who cornered my friend Annette at a library event (not even her event) and demanded to know when her two main characters were getting together. 🙂

  4. David Plimpton says:

    Interesting discussion. Another angle on what you cover is the concept of the “implied author” I just encountered when reading “Writing Creative Nonfiction” by Tilar Mazzeo, a Colby Professor, much of what she writes also applicable to fiction.

    Wikipedia says: “The implied author is a concept of literary criticism developed in the 20th century. Distinct from the author and the narrator, the term refers to the “authorial character” that a reader infers from a text based on the way a literary work is written. In other words, the implied author is a construct, the image of the writer produced by a reader as called forth from the text. The implied author may or may not coincide with the author’s expressed intentions or known personality traits.”

    I still trying to get my mind around all this, but can see at least six different author types to look out for, all at potentially different levels of consciousness and reliability: named author, narrator (Ist, 2nd and 3rd person), character who is not a narrator, and implied author.

    • Very interesting, David. I have also been fascinated by what I call “imagined reality” where the story and characters of the book live on in a reader’s imagination after the book has ended.


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