Some of us Femmes know from personal experience how demoralizing it can be when a publisher drops a series. The same thing happened to our guest today, Kate Flora. But, how could she possibly have predicted where getting her career back on track would take her?
Tell us about it, Kate, and welcome to the Femmes today.
When my Thea Kozak series—strong, amateur, female PI—was dropped six books in, I decided to try my hand at writing middle-aged male cops. By itself, going from Thea to writing police procedurals was a big stretch. What I didn’t know was that it would take me on a strange journey into the world of true crime.
It happened like this. Being a fanatic Maniac, I decided to set the series in Portland, Maine’s largest city, and promptly realized I would need to know Portland cops if I was going to make the characters and setting feel authentic. E-mail brought me a penpal in the department, and ultimately an introduction to Lt. Joe Loughlin, who was in charge of the criminal investigation division. Joe quickly became my go-to guy for answers and experts, and I became his advisor on op-eds and articles he’d write. Then, in 2001, he got involved in investigating the disappearance of a lovely 25-year-old woman named Amy St. Laurent.
The case, and the complex multi-agency issues it involved because of a missing body, was fascinating, and Joe decided he wanted to write about it. Cue a call to me, and his desire to write became our collaboration on the Edgar-nominated Finding Amy. After an intense three-year swerve into true crime, I went back to writing my Joe Burgess procedurals. But Amy St. Laurent’s buried body had been found via a search organized by the Maine warden service, and the warden lieutenant who’d organized the search, the amazing Pat Dorian, told me that when I was ready to write another true crime, he had a case for me.
I prefer writing fiction, but that immersion in a real case had been fascinating, so I asked Dorian for details, and found myself talking to a new bunch of cops up in Miramichi, New Brunswick, where once again, there was a missing body, an arrest that hinged on finding it, and a bunch of cops willing to tell their stories to an interested writer. This time the story included a serial killer bad guy who ended up stalking the detectives’ families. Five years, two first-degree murder trials, and endless appeals later, the story became Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice. Despite adventures such as going to the range with the cops when they did firearms qualification, going on a stake-out and spotting the bad guy, and driving a 4-wheeler deep into the Canadian woods, I swore I was never touching true crime again.
But as I was finishing Death Dealer, one of the wardens who had been on both searches, sent me an e-mail. He had just retired from the warden service. He’d always been told that he was a great storyteller and should write a book, but he didn’t know where to begin. He liked what we’d done in Finding Amy and could we talk? Well. I needed some information from him about dogs and searching for Death Dealer, so I said sure.
And my firm intentions to stick to writing fiction—by this time, I was into my third Joe Burgess procedural and starting to work on a new Thea Kozak mystery—flew out the window. Roger Guay had great stories to tell. Pretty soon, I was riding around in a green pickup truck on the vast network of dirt roads surrounding Greenville, Maine, holding a recorder. We’d take a turn, and Roger would say: Had a plane crash there. Snowmobile accident there. This is where I found the banana man. And darn it, I was stuck co-writing another nonfiction book.
It was another three-year swerve as we talked, and tweaked, and talked some more. The book I thought was going to be light-hearted stories of moose and deer poaching and fishermen breaking the rules became a far deeper story of working a job where you were on call to rescue lost hunters, hikers, fishermen, boaters, snowmobilers, and others day or night in any kind of weather. It became the story of training dogs to become assets in finding the lost, and the deceased, in crime scene reconstruction, and ultimately, in using dogs as an asset in helping law enforcement find the hidden bodies of crime victims.
It also became a story about what it’s like to work in a world where everyone carries a gun, and where so much of the work involves tragedy. For Roger, all that tragedy came to a head when he and his trained cadaver dog were sent to New Orleans after Katrina to look for the missing. Between the dangers of working in a lawless city and dangerous FEMA screw-ups, those deployments brought on a case of PTSD that almost derailed his career.
Nothing light and fluffy about that. Along the way, I got more lessons about how to train dogs for search and rescue, spent days in tick-filled fields watching the dogs qualify, and got lost in the woods so I could be found. And I got to help Roger Guay realize his dream of seeing his stories in print. A Good Man with a Dog: A Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods came out this week.
I dream of going back to writing fiction again. When I give library talks, I tell people that if they have a story to tell and might need help, call somebody else. But if you gave me a polygraph and asked what I’m working on now I wouldn’t be lying if I said that someone else has called up and needs help writing a book, and now my desk is covered with interviews and books about officer-involved shootings.
And if the examiner were to ask why I keep doing it? Because there is something amazing about helping people tell stories. About giving homicide victims a voice. About being trusted enough to be invited into people’s worlds and offered the powerful details of their stories. And because—perhaps the biggest surprise of all—knowing so much about the real world helps me write seriously better fiction.
Kate, Roger Guay and Saba
Refusing to let herself be “branded,” recovering attorney KATE FLORA writes strong women mysteries in her Thea Kozak series, police procedurals in her Joe Burgess series, along with true crime and short stories. Her most recent work, A Good Man with a Dog, is a memoir she co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden. Her fascination with people’s bad behavior began in the Maine attorney general’s office where she chased deadbeat dads and protected battered children.