Kate Flora: I’ve just wrapped up the first draft of Gutted,a book where fog plays a big role, a book set in October when the season is definitely changing, and where much of the action takes place at night. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been constantly looking for ways to “illuminate” the scenes, to make my readers see and hear and feel what is going on with my characters. What does it feel like to step from a warm bar into a very foggy October night? What does it smell like to enter a very bloody murder scene? How can I make someone feel the dirt and poverty of the house where a witness lives? What are the attributes of Detective O’Leary’s favorite bar and who hangs out there?
If I’ve done my job, you’ll see and feel that clammy fog, hear the hesitation in a witness’s voice and the regret in another. You’ll hear the gritty rush of sudden footsteps in the dark and fall in love with brave nine-year-old Nola, who is more mature than her mother.
Now that I’ve put that book away to “rest” so I can edit it with fresh eyes, I have to clear foggy Ocober from my head and return to Death Comes Knocking, the tenth book in my Thea Kozak series. When I pick up the thread of the story, which I’ve abandoned for months, it is high summer in Maine and Thea is settling into her antique Maine farmhouse—not quite finished—and growing her first vegetable garden. I have to call up summer colors, summer weather, summer scents, and summer gardens.
Writing is a process of discovery for the writer as well as the reader, and I am seeing Thea choose the color of the baby’s room and choose the perfect chair, feeling her conflict as a mama deer shows her baby Thea’s lettuce patch. I am watching her penetrate subterfuge as people try to lie to her and seeing the language she uses to herself as she visits a client school with her computer expert in tow, a tiny Asian-African American woman who gets mistaken for a child. I’ve been writing Thea Kozak mysteries for more than a quarter of a century, and in book ten, I am constantly challenged to blend what I already know about my character with new discoveries and insights. Also challenged to meld Thea’s distinctive voice with new circumstances and characters.
It has been more than thirty-five years since I’ve been pregnant, and things have changed, so to depict some of the challenges a tall, eight-month pregnant woman faces in an airplane bathroom, I have to turn to readers who supply their expertise and help me put my poor character there. Also challenging is to dress her, now that, as she puts it, she looks like she’s swallowed a basketball and putting shoes on invisible feet is a chore.
John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says that what writers do is to put their dreams in the reader’s head. We imagine it for you and if we do the job well, you will see it. You may not see it the way we do when we write it, but we always hope that you’ll see the places, feel the chill and the premonitions, and want whack those liars upside the head just as we did when we wrote it. And we hope, as we write through the seasons, that we don’t make awful mistakes, as I almost did in Chosen for Death, my first Thea Kozak mystery, where, writing in the spring a book set in fall, I had blooming azaleas outside a Massachusetts condo in October. A careful reader would see that for sure.