Kate Flora: Something I have learned from more than thirty years at the keyboard is that my writing process is always evolving. It is also different for every book. When I wrote my first book—A Matter of the Will—which is one of those books that will always live in the drawer, I wrote the pieces that I knew. I wrote random chapters, then made an outline and wrote the pieces that connected them. Then I made a second outline of what still needed to be written to make those pieces into a book.
There are always those debates among writers about whether they are plotters, those who outline the book in advance, or pantsers, those who just start writing and fly by the seat of their pants. After my first misadventure with organizing a book, I became what I’ve always called “a cooker.” I get an idea, or a couple of ideas about the story, a character, an event, a question, and then I carry that around in my head for months, asking and answering questions about the story until I’m ready to write.
Usually, before I write the words “Chapter One” and begin, I will know many elements of the story. I will know who was killed, why they were killed, and how they were killed. I will know some of the clues I’ll leave at the crime scene that will lead to the answer. I will know who the killer is and who else wanted the victim dead. I will know something about the final scenes in which the detective, amateur or professional, solves the crime.
But sometimes this process doesn’t work. For my two ventures into true crime, the questions were different. I had to decided where the narrator would stand, what the voice of the story would be, and how to organize the vast amount of material I’d learned through research in a way that would result in a compelling story. When I collaborated with Roger Guay on his memoir, A Good Man with a Dog, I was working from hours and hours of interviews I’d done and transcribed, much of it random answers to question I asked as we drove the dirt roads in his old patrol area. My challenge was to find a way to organize all of his stories in a way that would tell a bigger story, the story of a life, of a career and a calling. In the process, I discovered that what had initially appeared to be a series of anecdotes about a warden’s dual jobs as protector of wildlife, and as a resource for finding lost people was a deeper story about the demands that career makes on those who choose it.
Recently, as I’ve branched out from series mysteries where I know my characters well, to stories with unknown characters, my approach to the stories has been very focused on learning who the books are about. As I’m writing, I constantly discovering things about my new characters and learning who they are and why they want me to tell their stories. So far, it’s a fascinating adventure as they reveal themselves to me.
My one venture in writing romance began with a single scene that suddenly appeared to me. A woman on the run from something, strung out and exhausted from driving, goes into a coffee shop early in the morning. She’s broke, so she orders coffee, thinking at least the cream and sugar will help. She goes to the ladies room and when she comes out, a strange man is sitting at her table. As she sits down, he says, “Smile, and pretend your glad to see me.” I had to know who she was and what she was running from. I had to know who he was and why he wanted her to pretend they knew each other. From that, I wove a story that eventually became Wedding Bell Ruse.
I spent much of 2019 and early 2020 delving into another character who suddenly appeared in my imagination and demanded my attention. This time, a cop named O’Leary sat down on a bar stool beside me and started to talk. His story was dark. He was damaged. And after we’d spent the better part of a year together, he’d become a book called The Darker the Night and caught a particularly vicious serial killer.
Now it is early April, 2021. Another damaged character has presented herself, occupied my mind for most of what I call “covid captivity” and Detective Samantha Warren has joined the cast of characters in my head in a book called Not What It Seems. As with Callie, in Wedding Bell Ruse and Rick O’Leary in The Darker the Night, I’ve spent many months learning who Sam Warren is and why she wants me to tell her story.
In March, I decided to go light, have fun, and write a romance involving a kindergarten teacher, Sarah Jane (Sarey) Sullivan and her dog, Jocko. A hundred pages in, it looks like my characters are going to kidnap this book and turn it into something else. What else? What is the book about? Embarrassing to say, since I’m the author, but the answer is: I don’t know yet. I’m waiting for the characters and story to tell me.
The bottom line? What I’ve learned from all these books and short stories is to be flexible. To listen to the characters, let the story flow, and go with it, even if it’s different from your usual process. Even if it feels strange. Even if its in an area where you’ve never written before. Writing is never going to be something we master, that we’ve got knocked. It’s a trajectory that we’re on, and we’re always learning. Or it’s a wheel, and each time we go around the wheel, we go deeper, we learn more, we become better, we face new challenges, but it’s always a process.
So if you ask me, regarding my current WIP, what it’s about? I don’t know yet, but I’m enjoying the journey that will tell me.
p.s. My new Joe Burgess debuts on April 20th. Here’s the cover: