Kate Flora: I was at a dinner party in Boston last night to celebrate my friend Laura’s sixty-fifty birthday. During dinner, we were talking about writing and her son asked me “Where does a book begin?” The answer, of course, is all over the place. Different books have different origins or inspirations. Sometimes the book begins with something I see, or overhear. Sometimes from a story someone tells me. Sometimes it begins with two or three small ideas I’ve thought about and saved come together and suddenly I can see a beginning
I came home from that lovely dinner still pondering the question and I didn’t sleep well because the answer intrigued me more than sleep. I kept tossing and turning as more answers to his question keep arising. For example, my first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, was inspired by an Ann Landers column. The writer had written to Ann, saying that years ago, she had gotten pregnant at a time when a huge social stigma attached to unwed pregnancy. She had gone to a home for unwed mothers, had the baby, given it up for adoption, and been told to go on and live her life as though the baby had never happened. That it would be her secret. The writer went on to say she’d just been contacted by that child, now an adult, who wanted to meet her. She reported that she lived in a conservative community, had other children, and her husband didn’t know about this child. She didn’t want her secret revealed. What should she do?
For me, as a writer, there was everything I needed for a book in that one letter. A long-kept secret whose revelation would disrupt a life and a marriage, and the question of what lengths a person might go to to keep that secret. A young woman who’d always wanted to know why she wasn’t wanted and whether there were people–a family–who were like her. The story was Thea’s sister Carrie’s, but I needed a protagonist to tell it, and Thea was born.
Joe Burgess, protagonist of my first police procedural Playing God, was born at the now-defunct Mid-Atlantic Mystery Conference in Philadelphia. I was meeting a detective from Newark, Delaware for breakfast. He’d become an internet penpal when I was seeking information from a forensics forum about doing an exhumation of a buried body. At that breakfast, he told me about a case in his town where two college students, she pregnant, he the father, dealt with their unwanted child by meeting at a motel in Newark, delivering the baby, killing it, leaving it in a dumpster, and going back to their respective schools. The heart of his story, for me, was the impact that investigating that case had on the primary detective. He was then the father of a young baby himself, and finding that tiny body, matching the wound on the child’s head to furniture in the room, and then dealing with a case where politics trumped justice. The impact on the detective was so severe he had a heart attack and had to retire.
Pondering on that, a detective deeply careworn and damaged by decades of the terrible things people did to each other, was born. Grouchy, solitary, with the hide of a rhinoceros, but still with chinks that made him vulnerable, Joe Burgess was a detective I, and I hope my reader, could care about. But the idea of him, like yeast beginning to work, was born at that breakfast.
One of the stories I told my friend’s son was about one of my “books in the drawer,” those that are still unpublished. Character and story do, literally, come in my sleep. In this case, in The Darker the Night, the detective, Rick O’Leary, literally came into my mind, sat down beside me on a barstool, and began to talk. I was fascinated by who he was, what had shaped him, and what was the story being that moment on the barstool.
O’Leary tossed back the shot of Jack, landing the empty glass a little unsteadily on the bar where it joined three others. A quartet, he thought idly. A fucking drunkard’s quartet. He squinted his eyes and stared at the line of glasses, smudgy golden gleams in the bar’s soft light. They weren’t going to make music for him tonight. Or do anything else for that matter. It was one of those perfectly fucked-up nights when he knew however many of these he drank, there would be no nirvana. No moments of drunken happiness. No wave of blessed relief from the darkness inside his head.
So, fellow writers, a bit of advice, if you’re interested. Since inspiration for stories can come from anywhere, try to be open to them. It may be a scrap of conversation overheard at Dunkin’ Donuts or in the next dressing room. It might be something you see while driving, like a car parked in an unusual place with all four doors open and no one around. It might be something you read in the paper, like that Ann Landers column. It might be a story someone tells you. Wondering “what’s that about” is something we do all the time. Taking a scrap and asking the “What if” questions can lead to a new character, situation or story. And if some character wants to interrupt your sleep, sit down on a barstool, and tell you about themselves? Wake up and listen.