Thursday, November 30, 2017

Going to the dark side of crime writing with Kate Clark Flora

HALLIE EPHRON: Kate Clark Flora was probably the first mystery writer I met when I was publishing my first crime novel. An attorney turned novelist who wrote the wonderful Thea Kozak series, she generously welcomed me to the fold. Her FINDING AMY, a true crime, was an Edgar Award finalist. 

Kate has found a special niche for herself, helping cops tell their stories, both as true crime and in novel form with her Joe Burgess series. 

Her new book, Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions and myths about Police Shootings, written with Joseph K. Loughlin, is a journey “behind the shield” which highlights the experiences of the real human beings in the line of fire. 

I'm in awe of the authenticity in her work. Today she shares with us where that authenticity comes from.

KATE FLORA: The reading community we write for is an informed and demanding one, so we all have to do research for our books. Because I write police procedurals and about real crime, some of my research tends to be quite dark. 

I was looking for a reference book on my shelf recently, and scanning the contents reminded me that a stranger, knowing little about me and what I do, might be taken aback by my collection. I’m the person who goes to a library book sale and is delighted to score a criminalistics textbook. I read an article in a recent New Yorker and immediately ordered a book about geographic profiling, only to find that I already have David Canter’s Mapping Murder on my shelf. Every book I write has research files, and I have a file of old New Yorker articles on fascinating subjects like using soil to track where a killer has been.

Sometimes these books are things I read out of curiosity; sometimes, they related to the actual work I’m doing. For example, when I was working with retired Portland, Maine deputy chief Joe Loughlin on a book about Amy St. Laurent’s murder, Finding Amy, there was trial testimony from a forensic entomologist about the fly larvae found with the buried body. I had recently read M. Lee Goff’s A Fly for the Prosecution, so I had a great reference for helping me illuminate the expert’s testimony. 

Also very helpful in writing the scenes about the forensic exhumation was an entire notebook about the process put together for me by a police detective down in Delaware. He created it for a fictional mystery that’s never been published, but it was waiting for me when I needed it for a real crime.


Other books on the shelves have come to me through conversations while I’m doing research. Sometimes I have a conversation with a detective, and order up a book he suggests. That happened when a detective in the Miramichi, New Brunswick police department was walking me through the slides he uses to teach interviewing technique at the police academy. Our conversation led me to Mark McClish’s book, I Know You Are Lying: Detecting Deception Through Statement Analysis. Listening to small language choices the interviewee makes can be very illuminating, as in the moment when the suspected killer in my true crime, Death Dealer, speaks about his missing wife in the past tense.
 
Once, after a conversation with a Portland detective about interviewing technique, I ran into my local police chief. He asked what I was working on, and I told him about the detective and some of the things he’d told me. 

“It’s all flavor of the month,” he said. “I’ll send you a book.” A few hours later, a patrol car stopped and the officer handed me a wonderfully informal, and informative self-published book by a Rochester, NY detective, Lt. Albert Joseph, Jr, called We Get Confessions.

After reading Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear, I found myself late one night sitting in a jail up in New Brunswick, waiting to do a ride-along, and discussing the book with another officer. It, and the companion book, Fearless, are great books about trusting instinct and learning to be safe and resilient.

Because I write with, and about cops, in my Joe Burgess police procedural series and in my nonfiction, I have an entire shelf about cops. One of the great books is Mark Baker’s Cops, another Adam Plantinga’s 400 Things Cops Know. Another, not for the faint of heart but worth getting from the library, is Practical Homicide Investigation

For anyone interested in police shootings in the cops’ own words, I just finished co-writing, with retired Deputy Chief Joseph Loughlin the book Shots Fired: The misunderstandings, misconceptions, and myths about police shootings.
 
There are books about the criminal mind, crime scene investigation, and methods of murder. Sometimes, I carry my enthusiasm too far. Once, while I was cooking for a dinner party, my husband suggested that having a book about plant poisons open on the counter when the guests arrived might not be a good idea. Another time, invited by a library in New Hampshire to talk about “The Dark Side of Crime Writing,” I had happily embarked on a talk about dissection of the liver before I realized that readers might not really to need to know all that goes into making the sausage to enjoy it.

I wonder—are your bookshelves as dark as mine? What are your go-to books for crime writing?

Maine native and recovering attorney Kate Clark Flora writes true crime, strong women, and police procedurals. Led Astray is her latest Joe Burgess police procedural; Death Warmed Over is her latest Thea Kozak mystery. Her fascination with people’s bad behavior began in the Maine attorney general’s office chasing deadbeat dads and protecting battered children. In addition to her crime fiction, she’s written two true crimes and a memoir with public safety personnel, and most recently Shots Fired: The Misconceptions, Misunderstandings and Myths About Police-Involved Shootings, co-written with former Portland assistant chief Joseph Loughlin, and a story in a collection entitled, The Obama Inheritance. Flora has been an Edgar, Derringer, Agatha and Anthony finalist and twice won the Maine literary award for crime fiction. 

HALLIE: This sent me scurrying to my office bookshelf where I keep my reference books...
  • Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms
  • An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski
  • Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions by Robert Hendrickson
  • The Handbook of Doll Repair & Restoration by Marty Westfall
Kate will be here today to answer your questions and chat about her passion for telling it like it is when it comes to police and the challenges they face. 

I'm wondering, for a start, what she thinks the biggest misconception is about police work.

47 comments:

  1. John and I have some interesting conversations about what we see on the news these days, but when we were first married I hardly ever heard anything about his work unless it was something silly or some unique way one of the bad guys got themselves caught.
    Sometimes he’d share some interesting tidbit similar to what Kate mentioned about the dirt or flies or some such thing that helped to crack the case but there was never a single word about any of the rest of it. If there was something going on downtown, he’d call [knowing my propensity to watch the late news] to let me know he was okay since at that time he was walking a foot beat at night in downtown Los Angeles . . . .

    It was always pretty much what happened at work stayed there, especially when it was some sort of a chase or a shooting or any such thing that would remind me what a difficult, hazardous job my husband went off to tackle every day.
    No illusions here about the police and the challenges they face . . . .

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    1. So interesting Joan, especially as I'm considering where Hayley Snow's relationship with a detective might be headed...I wonder how many other police officers keep the details to themselves?

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    2. When I was working on Death Dealer, the story of a real murder where the body was missing and the bad guy was still walking the streets, the detectives told me that word had gotten back to them through the grapevine that if they didn't back off their focus on him as the suspect, their families would suffer. That was something the detectives couldn't keep to themselves. The wives wore panic buttons, their houses were wired with alarms, kids couldn't come to their houses to play, and no family member got in the car without checking. Years later, those detectives were still coming to terms with what it was like to be out working on an investigation and having the phone ring with a call from a family member. The impacts of living with that fear had long-last repercussions.

      Kate

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  2. I enjoyed being a patrol officer after college, but I found the paper work, however important, difficult (tedious) to do in time to get home and go to sleep. That could be why I decided on graduate school, which was also boring and tedious, with a lot more writing, but then I graduated and after a few years recovered from the need to sit facing the door from the back of the room.

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    1. Reine, you never fail to amaze. What city were you in when you patrolled?

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    2. It has definitely been my experience that cops hate paperwork, and writing, and I've incorporated that into my Joe Burgess series.

      Kate

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    4. Hallie- China Lake, California. Not for very long, though. Really.

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    5. Kate, you've got me hooked!

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  3. My research shelf just grew by about a foot.

    I'm fan struck here, Kate, and in awe of all that LEOs do against tremendous odds. I worked with law enforcement through my job as a paralegal, for years. When I picked up Finding Amy, the first of your books that I read, I shared it with everyone - each and every detail was right - no liberties and the writing was diamond brilliant. That has followed through with all of your books, fiction or true crime. As I said, I'm fan struck.

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    1. Kait...I'm blushing. It has been an unexpected journey, for sure. When I was writing a scene in And Grant You Peace where Burgess and Kyle go into a convenience store to stop a robbery, I realized I had no idea what they'd do. Luckily, years of working with cops meant I could send out my e-mail with "Author Needs Help" in the subject line, and they would walk me through it. Perhaps the most powerful way in which I'm now better informed is on the emotional side of how it would be--for the officers and for a victim who has just been staring at a gun and facing the possibility of his own death.

      Kate

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    2. Do you find you have to stand down from relaying the intensity of the emotion through the characters?

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  4. I am fan struck, too! (Kate was one of my earliest encouragers in my own crime writing career.) I am away from home on a writing retreat just now so I don't have the names, but I am rather fond of my shelf of books about poisoning. Best of luck with the new book, Kate! Am off to order it.

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    1. Thanks, Edith. Happy to have known, back in the day, what a fine writer you are, and envious of your energy. Hope the new book is illuminating. There's one section in their of interviews with the three Watertown cops who thought they were stopping a carjacker and found themselves in a guns and bombs shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers. It is riveting.

      Kate

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  5. I love the Thea Kozak mystery series, too, but I have not read any of your Joe Burgess or true crime books, Kate.

    As a retired federal government researcher (and reader), I am all for having and using the right reference material. I appreciate all the effort you put in your writing to make sure your books are both fun to read, as well as accurate and authentic.

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    1. Thank you, Grace. I will get things wrong...or wrong as perceived by one jurisdiction that does things differently from another. But I try. I often quote lyrics from an old rock and roll song...Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then. It's hard to let Burgess go on sleuthing when I know that in the real world he'd be driving a desk for weeks or months or even years. But I allow myself some liberties because it is fiction. I've found that even in nonfiction, two officers will give very different accounts of the same incident.

      Kate

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  6. Kate, we're so happy to have you here! I sure hope your new book gets a ton of publicity--it's so timely. My research is very different--on my desk are books like HEMINGWAY'S CATS, PRESIDENTS IN PARADISE, CUBA!--Recipes and stories from the Cuban kitchen, and CORTADITO (My wanderings through Cuban's mutilated yet resilent cuisine by Enrique Fernandez)

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    1. I may have to learn to do some cooking research myself, Lucy. When my mother died, she had published one mystery, The Maine Mulch Murder, at the age of 83 and was working on The Corpse in the Compost, her second. I have her draft and am going to finish and publish it, but I don't have her recipes. Darn it. So I guess I'll have to learn to "cook like mom" so readers can make her stews and soups and bread.

      Kare

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    2. that sounds wonderful Kate--carrying on your mom's legacy!

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  7. Hallie...addressing your question about the biggest myth? There are a lot of them. (I suggest reading the book, the interviews with officers who've been involved in shootings are amazing) Among them--hands up means surrender (it's often a ploy) that an unarmed person isn't dangerous, and that one shot will knock someone down and stop the threat (Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been shot nine times at least, several of them lethal wounds, and was still fighting with police)

    Kate

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    1. ... or that you can just like that shoot a gun out of someone's hand. It takes a special kind of courage to do that kind of work, day in and day out.

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    2. Oh, welcome Kate! I remember the first time we met--maybe, 13 years ago? At Kate's Mystery Books (an iconic and now closed bookstore, and a different Kate) . I remember the thought went through my mind: That's KATE FLORA! And I am still a huge fan.
      As for research--just looking around my office now, I see Missoula. And The Big Book of Opera Librettos. And Jump, Fell or Pushed: How Forensics Solved 50 Perfect Murders. Gotta smile.

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  8. What an interesting and useful post! Thank you. You've given me a couple of books to add to my collection. Even writing an amateur sleuth series, sometimes police are a logical part of the scene. And I do sometimes have to stop and figure out how they would handle it. Mostly my research shelves focus on the setting of the story, with lots of history, a new set for each book. Lots of books with ships for the last one, Brooklyn Wars. Online used books sources such a ABE, are real treasures for this.

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    1. Triss...of course we all should have the Writer's Digest Howdunnit series books Forensics, by DP Lyle and Police Procedure and Investigation by Lee Lofland. And a friendly cop or two on call to answer our questions.

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  9. Welcome, Kate! I have a tiny book on police procedure I picked up at Writer's Police Academy and Lee Lofland's book on my shelf.

    Of course, right now I'm working on a historical with an amateur who wants to be a PI, so all my police knowledge is going unused (and I'd need to know about what it was like in 1942 anyway).

    Mary/Liz

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    1. And that, in a nutshell, is why I am in awe of anyone who writes historical. When was Kevlar invented? and what did they use before that as protection? When did fingerprinting become routine? Where did they buy their uniforms and boots? Curious minds...

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    2. Hallie, that is exactly why I write historical! No DNA or CSI to get right, and the research is the fun part

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    3. Some of it (like when Kevlar was invited) is easy to find. Information about a specific department in a specific city? A little harder.

      So far the weirdest thing I've researched for this book is public sanitation practices in the 40s. LOL

      Mary/Liz

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  10. By the way, I have tried to sign in as someone other than Old Fogey (which I created many years ago, before I was one) but cannot seem to get any of my other credentials to work. So for today, assume that Old Fogey is Kate Flora, and that it is meant to convey the wisdom (and cranky opinions) of someone who has been in this writer's chair for 34 years.

    Kate

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    1. If anyone is not an old fogey its you, Kate!
      Do you find that horrible crimes shared by the police stay with you?

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    2. Absolutely. I've worked on two true crime books, each of which took several years to get through the interviews, trials, appeals, retrials, and I spent those years haunted by the victims. Because of the kind true crime I write, looking over the investigator's shoulders, I feel like the books give something back to the victims by telling the world who they were and how much their friends, and their investigators, cared about them.

      Kate

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  11. I find that law enforcement officers compartmentalize their lives. Those with successful marriages leave the job at the office. My husband was in federal law enforcement back in the 70s. When he moved to the private sector he made a lot of friends in police departments in Ohio where we were living. The guys might tell funny stories but stayed clear of day to day happenings in their jobs. I admired them so much.

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  13. Hi, Kate, What a great post. I think most people have no idea what goes on behind the badge. I attended the citizen's police academy in Scottsdale, AZ and it just scratched the surface of what the job is actually like - the officers I met were truly a credit to the uniform. I write comedy so I don't go too dark but I do love the plot twist involved in having a book of plant poison open on the counter at a dinner party. LOL. As a former librarian, I have to say thanks for the fabulous list of reference books. I will definitely check your series out!

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    1. Thanks, Jenn. As we all know, Lucy Zahray, our own "poison lady" has give Malice attendees tons of information about poisons. There are several good books as well, including Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants. At my husband Ken's 25th Harvard reunion lunch, I had the good luck, while working on a book set at a private school where poison comes into play (An Educated Death) to be sitting with the headmaster of Phillips Exeter and an emergency room physician. I am sure they have never been asked questions quite like that at a reunion before or since.

      Kate

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  14. Hi Kate! How lovely to see you here. I'm such an admirer of your novels, and now am going to be looking up your non-fiction books. I've added to my reference list, too!! And had to go check my shelves--books on crime scene investigation, poisons, interviewing, Val McDermid's Forensics, lots of books on fire investigation, lots of memoirs about British policing, and my go-to source for the last couple of books, Undercover, the non-fiction account of Special Branch's (scandalous) undercover operations.

    But my current stack of reference books all have to do with chefs and cooking, which is huge fun.

    And I must say I'm glad I write about British cops, who don't as a rule carry guns, and are much less likely to deal with armed bad guys.

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  15. Ah, Deb...chefs and cooking. I had to learn a bit of that for the crazy group novel my blog group wrote, Beat, Slay, Love by Thalia Filbert. When you've got a serial killer knocking off famous chefs, food research definitely comes into play. Now I'll have to add Val McDermid's forensics to my list. Amazing writer. I must confess, though, that she scares me to death.

    Kate

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    1. Kate, my friend Karin Salvalaggio and I saw the Forensics exhibit in London that Val's book is based on. Absolutely fascinating--you'd have LOVED it!

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  16. Old Fogey you are not. Wait until you get to be my age. Thanks for writing I love Joe Burgess and your true crime books - I'm going to look for Shots Fired as well as some of the reference books mentioned.

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    1. Gram...you are the best. Knowing you're out there makes me more eager to get back to Joe Burgess to see what he's up to. Just as soon as I finish Thea 9.

      Kate

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  17. Kate, I do mean to get to your books, and after reading your fascinating piece here today, that goal is moved up. With all of your insider knowledge of the police, your diligent research, and obvious writing talent, reading your books soon is a no-brainer.

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  18. Kathy Reel....I used to say, "that's okay" when people said they hadn't read my books. Now I say: Why not? As for my knowledge of the police...despite fifteen years with very good training officers, mostly I learn how much I don't know. But I did get a great compliment once for an officer who said he thought I knew more about cop's lives than some cops he knows. But that's what we writers do, isn't it--become fascinated with different worlds and try to render them authentically as we can.

    Kate

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    1. Kate, I keep a running list of series and books I'm trying to catch up on, plus a list of new books for the year and ones still to come out. I wish I read faster, but I usually fit in around 75 books a year now. I'm at 78 right now. I simply can't fit in everything every year, and I hate that because I know I'm missing so many wonderful books. I have put your books on my series reading list, and I work hard to get to those series. I feel I should apologize for not having read your books yet, but I do the best I can.

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  19. Kate, just last night I read the same article about geographic profiling and thought it was fascinating. Thanks so much for the book recommendations; I can't wait to add them to my reference shelf. I've had the privilege of doing two ride-alongs with the Seattle Police and have become friends with some of the cops. I love learning about the work they do and wish more people took the time to engage with the cops when it isn't a crisis situation. The work they do is demanding and requires social work skills and the patience of a saint. Obviously, there are bad apples in every profession, but the cops I've come to know are wonderful people and take pride in doing a good job.

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  20. I agree, Ingrid. I've had some fascinating conversations on ride-alongs. For the first one, I was told that "the officers don't want you there" and to stay quiet. After a while, I was saying, "Tell me what you see" and he was reading the street for me. A couple more hours, and we were having deep, serious conversations. I also took a citizen's police academy, and loved it. Went on their shooting qualification with the cops, and took a R.A.D. self-defense course at my local police department--that last for my Thea Kozak character as much as for me. I'm hoping to get back to the Writers Police Academy again, if they're still doing it. I did a ride-along there with an officer who told me all about the night he was shot at, suddenly, out of the blue by a person he was interviewing, and then he showed me the dash cam video of it. It was amazing...and then we talked about the aftermath and telling his wife, etc. All of these experiences help us to write deeper and more authentic characters, I think.

    Kate

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  21. What a fantastic list of reference books! I see several I need to get for myself. I'm very amused, however, that there's a PRACTICAL GUIDE TO HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION. It sounds like something an eager amateur in a cozy mystery might pick up and use!

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  22. Oh, Julia. Practical Homicide Investigation is an immense tome for detectives by Vernon Geberth. The photos are so shocking and graphic that when I got a copy through interlibrary loan to check out before I bought it, the librarian didn't want to give it me, and said, in a very concerned voice, "Are you sure you want to see this?" As I say, not for the faint of heart. Of course, I'm the person the Maine medical examiner offered to show dismemberment photos to, when I was working on a book where that was relevant.

    Kate

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