Kate Flora’s books include series mysteries, police procedurals, suspense and true crime. Current projects include a true crime and a novel in linked stories. She spent seven years as editor and publisher at Level Best Books. Flora is a founding member of the New England Crime Bake. She teaches writing for Grub Street. Redemption, a Joe Burgess mystery, will be published in February. Kate’s website is http://www.kateflora.com/ and she blogs at http://mainecrimewriters.com/
Your story this year is the second story starring U.S. Marshal Gracie Christian. Is she going to be a recurring protagonist for you? What do you think is required to develop a character with more than one story to tell?
A funny story here, actually. I had no intention of writing another story about Gracie, but two things happened to change that. First, a number of people who read “Gracie Walks The Plank” in the last collection wrote to me and said they thought she’d make a great series character. That was an interesting surprise. And then, second, when I pondered about the story I’d written, I realized that I’d never explained about the diamond necklace. So I had to write a story to explain how she got it.
I honestly don’t know what is required to develop a character with more than one story to tell. When I write a novel, I do a great deal of planning before I start, and I know where the story is going and what it’s about. In short stories, it’s more like a journey of discovery. I get a character in a situation, and then I let them show me what they, and thus the story, are about.
The first Gracie story began with an off-hand remark my husband made about me being slovenly because I went straight from the bed to my desk and was still in my nightgown at 1:00 in the afternoon. That led to the thought, “the slovenly detective,” which was the original title of the story. I opened with Gracie sitting there in that ratty housecoat, and wanted to know what she was doing there.
This year, for “All that Glitters,” I essentially wrote a prequel to how she ended up in that trailer, and it was fun to learn more about Gracie—her world view, her attitude, her ability and inability to get along with people, her rescue complex, and some things about her past. She interests me.
You write novels, true crime and short stories and you also teach writing. What advice do you give to short story writers that you wouldn’t give to novelists, and vice versa?
Mostly it would be two things:
First, to slow down, listen to your character, and let him or her tell you what the story is about and where it is going. You can do that in the more compressed medium of a short story.
Second, I ask writers what has happened in the story that matters, and how the character is changed at the end. Basically…has there been an epiphany? Have the events of the story changed the character? It can be only a slight change, but I’m looking for development, and change.
These things are true for novels, but in a novel, there’s a lot of time to develop the story. In the short story, it’s very compressed and everything that the character thinks or does or that happens to them has to matter to the story or it doesn’t belong. There’s no space for meanders, subplots, or page long riffs about the weather. If there’s food, it has to matter. If there’s movement, it has to go some place. If there’s confrontation, something has to be changed as a result. I also find I end up talking a lot about making scenes, and how writers use those scenes like building blocks to reach the inevitable conclusion.
Inevitability is a nice word in short stories.
You have a new Joe Burgess book coming out in February. What’s it about? Can you give us a little preview?
Thanks for asking. I’m very excited about this new book, which is called, Redemption. My vision for the Burgess series is a quartet, taking place in each of the four seasons. Playing God takes place in February. The Angel of Knowlton Park is an investigation into the awful death of a child, set against blistering, unnatural summer heat. Redemption is my fall book, and it’s a book about endings, and sadness, and the death, and hopefully, rebirth, of hope.
The book opens on Columbus Day weekend, with Burgess having just picked up the two foster kids we met in The Angel to take them on a picnic. A boy rushes into his path, stops the car, and asks Burgess to call the police, saying he’s been fishing and has just spotted a body in the water. Burgess says, “I AM the police,” and watches his day, his plans, his weekend, vanish as he becomes a homicide detective working on a body.
The body turns out to be that of a Vietnam vet who has never truly recovered from the war. Reggie the Can Man is a well-known figure who pushes a shopping cart around town, collecting returnable bottles and cans. He’s also a high school buddy who went to Nam with Burgess, and Burgess has been patching him together ever since. Now Burgess wants nothing more than to give Reggie a decent burial and get on with his mourning. But when the Medical Examiner says it wasn’t a salt water drowning, Burgess knows there is one more thing he must do for his friend.
The investigation won’t be easy. Reggie was working, but no one knows where. Reggie had had some angry tangles with his estranged son over some family land, but no one can find the son. Reggie’s bitchy ex-wife has also shown an interest in the property, but she refuses to talk with Burgess. And a strange relative who claims to be a witch does everything in her power to keep Burgess from finding any answers.
Nothing else in Burgess’s life is going to be easy, either. Captain Cote doesn’t want Burgess wasting resources on an old drunk who fell in the water. Burgess’s girlfriend, Chris, is seriously considering adopting the children, and Burgess knows he’s not ready for that. Even keeping his team together turns out to be a challenge, as Stan Perry goes off the reservation with a seductive married woman, and nearly gets them all shot. Then he gets some shocking news from an old girlfriend.
I’m still looking for the plot for the spring book. All I can tell you right now is that I have a title: And Grant You Peace. But getting to normal, Burgess’s goal, is going to be a rocky road.