By Kate Flora
Sometimes the course of our careers is mysterious and far from smooth. I never meant to write police procedurals. When I started writing mysteries back in the mid-1980’s, I was a practicing lawyer, spending my days in a world that still found women lawyers a novelty. I had a nice, big feminist chip on my shoulder and I wanted to write books about women as heroes, women in charge, women rescuing themselves. My long-time protagonist, Thea Kozak, did all of that. I happily rode the wave of post-Nancy Drew writers coming of age for several years. I loved Thea. I loved my reader’s reactions to her. I felt like I was rejoining a group of old friends whenever I started to write a new book in the series. And then the series got dropped.
Many of us know what that’s like. You’re writing a book a year, you feel like you understand the drill, you’ve got the rhythm, and suddenly, someone jerks the rug out from under you and you’re lying there on your back, trying to figure out what happened.
But writers write, regardless of the world’s acclaim. My agent was saying try something new. So I looked around and realized that to make it credible, crime writers have to know about crime. I’d been asking my local police a lot of questions. I’d taken a citizens’ police academy course, and a police-taught RAD class. I thought the police were really interesting. Since a writer grows when she challenges herself to do something new, I decided to write about a trio of male cops. Got a lieutenant in the Portland, Maine police department to be my advisor, and my Joe Burgess series began.
Playing God was born over breakfast with a Newark, Delaware cop when I was at the Mid-Atlantic Mystery Conference in Philadelphia. He described the devastating effect a murdered child case had had on a colleague. That story meshed with my vision of the kind of cop I wanted Joe Burgess to be—a man who had seen too much, who had black patches on his soul. My imaginings and his story were fueled by my deep anger at the way doctors had handled my sister’s final illness. I needed distraction. I needed obsession. So I set out to see how fast I could write the story of a philandering physician found dead in his Mercedes, and of the cop whose mother that doctor had carelessly misdiagnosed, who now had to investigate his death. Powerful stuff.
I wrote 10-11 hours a day, and in four months, I had written 485 pages. With brilliant editing from Joshua Bilmes, the book emerged a hundred pages lighter, but still strong and dark. And a funny thing happened. I had spent such intense time writing book that when I typed “The End” and tried to return to normal life, I felt like my friends had abandoned me. My imaginary friends. I had to start the second book so I could spend more time with them. The Angel of Knowlton Park, about investigating in the death of a small boy found in a city park, was written at a normal pace. And Burgess and his colleagues settled back into being characters again. Characters who struggle with the challenge of being normal when their world is so far from normal.
As someone who lived through the Vietnam era, and spent a year jumping every time the phone rang at an odd time, I wondered what the effect of Iraq and Afghanistan, and another wave of our young coming home damaged and unacknowledged, would have on our veterans. That wondering led to the third Joe Burgess, Redemption, when the body of Reggie the Can Man, Burgess’s high school football buddy who never recovered from the war, is pulled from Portland Harbor and an astute M.E. suspects that the drowning was no accident. As long as Reggie was alive, Burgess could always hope for his recovery. Now that hope is gone. The one last thing Burgess can do for his friend is see that his killer is found.
Writing police procedurals has led me down some strange roads, including a lot of nights in cop cars on back streets in dark cities. It led me into the arena of true crime when my police advisor decided he wanted to write about his most compelling case. It has led me deep into the Canadian woods on an ATV in pursuit of another true story. It’s going to take me to Arkansas, following the story of an international child abduction. And down the dirt roads of Maine as I help a warden write his memoir. My personal hero, Jim Huang, revived the Thea Kozak series by publishing Stalking Death. I’m now gearing up to write Death Warmed Over.
Along the way, this is what I’ve learned: If life knocks you over, get up and go on. Only you get to decide you’re a writer. Take chances. If the thought of writing something scares you, that may be the next thing you should write. If you think you write mysteries with strong women, and a strong male character comes knocking with a story, open the door. Follow your heart. Write the story that speaks to you. And believe that if it gets you excited, it will probably excite your reader as well.
Attorney Kate Flora’s twelve books include seven Thea Kozak mysteries, two gritty police procedurals, a suspense thriller written as Katharine Clark, and a true crime, Finding Amy, which was a 2007 Edgar nominee and has been optioned for a movie. Her current projects include Death Dealer, a true crime involving a Canadian serial killer, a screenplay, and a novel in linked stories. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She is a former editor and publisher at Level Best books, former international president of Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake conference. Her third Joe Burgess police procedural, Redemption, is available now. For more information, visit Kate's website.