Kate Flora: I’ve been reflecting lately on the decades of my writing career and being surprised at how much I’ve forgotten. Back in 1983, when our second son was about to be born and I’d decided to step away from the practice of law for a few years, I bought a primitive Epson compute and started working on a novel.
Back then I didn’t belong to any writers groups. Not big crime-related ones like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and not even a small writing critique group. My vision of how writers worked was a solitary soul sitting at desk imagining a story and then writing it down.
Over the years I occasionally found myself in small writing groups, and I did eventually join Sisters, and MWA, and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Mostly, though, I was by myself living in my head with my characters. As I gradually realized, though, crime writers need to know a lot about criminal investigations, along with the many bits of “lore” that inform the plots of our books. Our readers can be very picky about details and can be vocal if we get it wrong. That knowledge forced me out of my solitary comfort zone and into contact with people who could answer my questions.
For an early book that’s never been published, I needed to know about how police would conduct the exhumation of a buried body. I couldn’t post my query to the on-line chat group, but a police officer down in Newark, Delaware, Tom Le Min, posted it for me, forwarded the replies, and even put together that notebook for me of material on how to do the exhumation. That turned out to be valuable not only for the unpublished book, but when I had to write about exhuming Amy St. Laurent’s buried body in Finding Amy. It was a later conversation with Tom Le Min about a case in Newark that gave me critical pieces of Joe Burgess’s character.
Looking back, I do wonder what people thought of me and my questions. A prime example
is a luncheon given in connection with my husband’s 25th Harvard reunion. While the alums were catching up, I realized that I had two people in the room who were ideal for answering questions about my work in progress. In An Educated Death, Thea is helping a client school deal with the fallout from a suspicious campus death. I wanted to know how the head of school would handle the situation—and the principal of Exeter was at the lunch. I borrowed a pad of paper and a pen and started asking Kendra Stearns O’Donnell my questions. She was brilliant and I came away with the kind of small details that make a story feel authentic.
And that wasn’t all. In the course of the book, someone tries to poison Thea to make her drop her inquiries into the student’s death. I had read my book on poisons, consulted with the amazing pharmacologist Lucy Zahray, and chosen one but now I had a captive ER doc in the room. I plunked myself down and asked about the specific physical effects the chosen toxin would have. I came away with a far better understanding of how Thea would feel as the poison began to work, and what symptoms she’d present with at the ER.
Each small step toward getting it right, scary as they were, made me a little braver. Over the years, to help Thea be brave and able to defend herself, I’ve taken a RAD/Self-Defense class through my local police department and a citizen’s police academy in a nearby town.
Even though each time I pick up the phone or send out a blind email asking a question or looking for help I am terrified, I have learned over and over how generous and helpful people can be.
For my first Joe Burgess book, Playing God, I sent an email to the Portland police department, asking their webmaster if there was someone there who could answer my questions. I got a helpful reply from Art Shaughnessy, lots of answers, and eventually a tour of the department. That led me to then Lt. Joe Loughlin, who became my go-to guy for answers, my writing partner, and a life-long friend.
That friendship led to Finding Amy, the Maine warden service, and Lt. Pat Dorian, who guided me through the warden’s portion of that story and then sent me up to Miramichi, New Brunswick, to write another story and acquire another amazing group of friends.
Late night chats in bars, including the cop who started out saying, “We don’t talk about that” and ended up telling me a very powerful story. Long evenings spent riding around in patrol cars talking about the motivation to become a cop. A funny chat in a police station about the insights of Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear. The time I cold called a diver and asked about how to bring up a body. It has all been an adventure I never anticipated. I am so grateful to all the people over the years who trusted me with their stories and who made the time to answer my questions so that I could write better books.
And then there was that fellow who used to collect forensic anthropology magazines for you, but he wasn’t a stranger.
Just as I’ve found through the years, you have to ask! If you don’t because you have assumed you’ll get a no, you don’t give them the opportunity to say yes. Most individuals want to be helpful and share what they can. I’m glad you continued to ask. Your stories are so much richer for it.
My son Thom retired as a police captain from Coastal Carolina U where he taught RAD/Self-Defense classes. One of his students was able to prevent her rape by a middle-of-the night intruder by using techniques she had learned from Thom. He was very gratified to discover that and also was able to successfully track down her attempted rapist.
Good to hear. I found the class helpful but probably need a refresher by now.
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