Character Study

Maine Native and recovering attorney Kate Flora is the author of twelve books, including seven Thea Kozak mysteries, the latest of which is Stalking Death, a stand-alone suspense novel, and three in her Portland, Maine based Joe Burgess police procedural series, the latest of which is Redemption.  Research for her police procedural series led to her non-fiction collaboration, Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine, which was nominated for an Edgar award in 2007 and was a finalist for the Maine Literary Awards. The story has been filmed several times for television and the book 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 stores. Flora’s short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including the Sara Paretsky edited collection, Sisters on the Case.

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 story “All that Glitters” appears in Dead Calm: Best New England Crime Stories, and her story “Bone China” in the crime story anthology Dead of Winter.  Her third Joe Burgess police procedural, Redemption, will be published in March 2012.

Flora‘s profile of Elinor Lipman appeared in The Larcom Review; her profile of Maine’s first Poet Laureate, Kate Barnes, appeared in The Wolf Moon Press and later in an anthology. Short pieces have appeared in ForeWord Magazine and the Northeastern Law School alumni magazine. She is a former Maine Assistant Attorney General.  Flora attended the MFA program at Vermont College. She teaches writing for Grub Street in Boston.

Flora is married and the mother of two sons, one into film and the other into physics. She divides her time between Bailey Island, Maine and Concord, Massachusetts, where she wages two constant battles. One is to protect her perennial gardens from deer, woodchucks, chipmunks, and her husband’s lawnmower. The other is to devise sneaky and skillful ways to get the guys in her life to eat their vegetables.

Her websites are: www.kateflora.com, and www.MaineCrimeWriters.com.

Back when it all began, I used to think writers sat in their rooms, their backs to the world to avoid distraction, and made it up. That was twenty-eight years, five computers, three offices, and twenty-two books ago. Over time, I’ve learned that to make our characters feel real to our readers, we have to do a lot of wondering. A lot of observing. And we have to ask a lot of questions. Our characters have be alive to us before we can make them alive to our readers. They have to grow and change. They have to have failings as well as strengths, needs and desires, met and unmet. And above all, they have to surprise us.

I’m thinking about this today because Redemption, the third book in my Joe Burgess police procedural series set in Portland, Maine, is out this week. When a book comes out, there are book events, and there are readers who are likely to ask questions. One of those questions will inevitably be: where did I come up with Joe Burgess?

Where did I come up with the guy, my slightly overweight, ex-football player, Irish Catholic police detective? Where did his attitudes come from? His need for solitude and his late night musings? The way that the Baltimore catechism still resonates in his non-church going soul? Where did he get his compassion for the weak, his resentment of the entitled, his resistance to authority even in a paramilitary organization? Where do his black spots come from? What makes him laugh? What does he see when he drives down a dark city street, on the sidewalks, in the alleys, in the windows of houses, inside other cars? What does he read in the shifting of someone’s eyes, the clenching and unclenching of a hand? How has he learned to read the world he inhabits and where did he learn it?

Joe Burgess was a slow evolution. I never meant to write a series with a male protagonist like Joe. I was happy writing Thea Kozak, the irresponsible, too brave and sure of herself, stubborn, risk-taking protagonist of seven mysteries. But writing mysteries inevitably brought me in contact with the police. I had to know about procedure because there were always crimes. I had to know about cops, and how they viewed relationships, because Thea was involved with a Maine state trooper. The two of them, Thea and Andre, taught me about how a man who has sworn to serve and protect makes peace in a relationship with a headstrong, independent woman, just as she had to learn how to let him be himself.

Along the way, there were police officers, a citizen’s police academy, a RAD self-defense class at my local police department. Ride-alongs. A million questions. A lot of nonfiction books written by police officers. And then there was the challenge of trying to write something I didn’t know about: the man’s point of view. I was thrilled when my late friend Hugh Holton, a Chicago police captain, said that I wrote good cops. It made me want to work harder.

The character of Joe Burgess had been burbling in my brain for a while when I sat down to breakfast at the Mid-Atlantic Mystery conference in Philadelphia with a police officer from Delaware. He started to tell me a story about a young detective who had investigated the murder of a newborn baby. He told how the detective, a young father himself, had found the baby’s body in a dumpster. How the dent in the baby’s head matched a ridge on some furniture in the room. How the couple who’d killed that baby had planned the killing, and how the case had gotten horse traded down to a slap on the wrist for the baby’s parents, who had gone back to college and resumed their lives as though the event had never happened. When the case was over, that young detective had a heart attack—probably a broken heart, though medical science doesn’t recognize such things—and had to retire from police work.

Maybe that’s not the real story. Maybe, as Tim O’Brien points out in The Things They Carried, this is the only the story of the story. Or the story as I remember it. Or the story as I remember it now or the best version to tell it to you. But it meshed with the cop I was trying to create, a man who had seen too much and had dark, wounded patches on his soul. And Joe Burgess was born. Joe Burgess and two hard stories.

Now the Joe Burgess of Redemption has gotten another chance at living a normal life. He is trying to put behind him his life-long fear that he will become his father—the brutal and violent drunk—the fear that makes him hold back from relationships. He has a girlfriend who lights up his life. Then his Dumbo’s feather is snatched from his trunk, and his flight begins to falter when his high school friend Reggie, the guy he played football with and went to Vietnam with, is found dead, floating in Portland harbor. Reggie came back from the war damaged, and patching him back together and hoping for permanent change has been Burgess’s task ever since. Now that hope is gone forever. And when an astute medical examiner questions whether the death was an accident, Burgess has one last task to do for his lost friend.

I have another Burgess book to write, so I will keep listening. Keep noticing. Keep wondering. And I will keep exploring how Burgess and his fellow detectives, Terry Kyle and Stan Perry, negotiate their world, and how they will surprise me. And I will cherish messages like this, from a police detective, who wrote:

‘Playing God’ is absolutely full of minute little details that capture a reader, but mesmerize a cop-reader…….Like the subtle little mention on page 17 where Burgess changed into a jacket and tie after leaving the crime scene, completed initial reports and then carried on…………………’Cuz that’s what real cops do!!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call to a scene at 1:00, worked all night, gone home, changed into a shirt and tie, and carried on!………..Your book is chock-full of those little things that real cops do all the time, and that other people would give not a second thought to.  So, when you say that you are
pleased when it ‘seems to work’, be very, very pleased.

Thank you, Detective.