Kate Flora: I have always cautioned against the belief some writers hold that they should only write when they are inspired. Oh, I love inspiration as much as anyone. Who does not love to be in those moments when the words and ideas flow like a raging spring brook and characters seem to narrate the plots at speeds faster than fingers can type? Who would not like to be able to spend hours or days in reading or skiing or binge-watching the latest programs, confident that the writing will resume when the muse flutters down and lands and begins to whisper in the writer’s ear? I would love to be able to allow myself to play and binge-watch, but I am, and always have been, a slave of duty. I believe that it is important to already be here, in the chair, fingers already on the keys, when the muse at last deigns to show up.
Even without the arrival of the muse, writing gets done. I set daily quotas and every day, at least another thousand words go on the page. It may sometimes read like gravel. It may flow like the proverbial molasses up hill in January. But if I stay in the chair and persist, the writing will get done.
When we talk about writing, though, we often fail to mention how much background work goes into crafting even the most ordinary of scenes. When I am looking for just the right green paint for Thea’s baby’s room, I may have to scroll through magazines or even visit the paint sample display at my local hardware store. For Thea’s brief trip to Agway, I will need to decide what she’s going to buy along with the repellent to keep the deer out of her lettuce bed. What flowers will she bring home that may deter garden pests? When Thea finds a photograph of a man in military garb, I will find myself looking up the terminology for some of the clothes that man is wearing. I will need to know whether a particular government agency issues IDs.
Some days it seems like I will write a page, look three things up, write another page, and answer another series of questions. I will also keep a running list of larger questions that may need to be answered by experts. Questions I can take a ‘research day” off to go and answer. I am surrounded by reference books about crime and investigation.
For this particular book, my tenth Thea Kozak mystery, I am making what may well be a huge mistake—I have allowed my character to become pregnant. It has been decades since I was pregnant, and the fashions, both in clothing and in obstetrics, have changed. What does her doctor mean when she warns Thea about high blood pressure? Until what point in her pregnancy will Thea still be able to fly? Will there be new challenges in getting her clients to take her seriously now that she looks like she’s accidentally swallowed a basketball? How much of her tendency to mix it up with bad guys will go away? Why on earth did I decide to do this?
There are also so many questions that arise from her work. What kinds of honor codes do schools employ, and how are those codes enforced? What is a school crisis plan? What needs to be in such a plan in an era when things move through the media like wildfire? How would someone go about researching a wayward student’s on-line postings?
Right now I’m sitting here surrounded by printouts of information I’ll need in the chapters ahead, and wishing I had a research assistant who could file them, tweak them, and, if necessary modernize me so Thea won’t sound dated.
Years ago, when I was dreamy adolescent imagining the possibility of becoming a writer, I thought that what writers did was sit at their desks and make things up. Now I know that my stories go out into a world of extremely savvy readers who expect that we will do research and make our characters and our plots plausible. Never mind that creative muse who whispers characters and plots into our waiting ears. Is there, perhaps, a muse of research, maybe named Alexa, who can be asked to answer all those questions?