How many of you remember Kate Mattes’ Mystery Bookstore? Kate Mattes galvanized the mystery community in Boston, with her iconic chaotic ridiculously crowded and perfectly appointed bookstore in Cambridge, in an old Victorian house, with bookshelves built by Robert B. Parker himself.
It was in that august setting, at Kate’s not-to-be missed Christmas party, where I first met--- met…no, first saw, Kate Flora.
You have to imagine, 13 years ago. Maybe 14. Super-newbie me, before my first book had even been published, gathered my courage and went to the Christmas party. Clutching my husband’s arm, I walked into this new world of people, and over in the corner, surrounded, was this absolute goddess, the glowing incandescent light from above seeming to highlight her, especially, somehow. She was laughing. and so were the people around her, and I whispered to my husband: I think… I think that’s Kate Flora!
It was all I could do to introduce myself, tongue-tied, not knowing what to say.
Because life is what it is, we became dear friends, and I learned that Kate is not only luminous at parties, but glorious in her everyday life--generous, brilliant, talented, and utterly utterly devoted to her writing. I will say parenthetically that her husband is a total dreamboat, her cooking is beyond description, and her curiosity and joy for life are unmatched.
You can read her bio below. And do, because not only is it stellar and impressive, but because she’s one of our essential founders. Kate is the woman who created the newest Sisters in Crime motto, “You write alone, but you’re not alone.” Without her, none of us would be here. I am not exaggerating.
And today, she’s gracious enough to let us in on some of her secrets.
HANK: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?
KATE: Ah. The “I’m going to write a book” was a childhood dream, along with plays, short stories and epic poetry. But writing got sidetracked by law school, and the “I’m going to get the job they say women can’t have” journey. So the actual writing of the book happened in my thirties, followed by ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner. As for the “I can do it,” part of the question? I wonder about that every time I type: Chapter One.
HANK: Did that first book sell?
KATE: I have three practice books which I describe as “under the sea, in a vault, wrapped in chains, and encased in cement.”
HANK: Oh, that makes me so curious! But I won’t ask. Going forward, how many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?
KATE: Currently, I have 20 books in print, along with 20+ stories. Book 21, A Child Shall Lead Them, debuts in June 2019.
What do I think about that? I alternate between being amazed and wondering how I’ll ever get the plots roiling around in my head down on paper before I run out of time and energy.
HANK: Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?
KATE: I don’t outline, I cook. I carry the plot around in my head for months, doing the wondering about characters, clues, dead ends, and the “why” of the situation before I start the actual writing. I wrote my first mystery (one of the ones in chains) by writing the parts I knew, outlining where to go to connect them, and then making an outline to finish the story. The one time I wrote that lengthy prewriting outline an unexpected character appeared in Chapter One and kidnapped the whole book.
HANK: Love that. What’s the hardest part of the book for you?
KATE: It often depends on the book. I used to hate revision, but now I like it a lot. I have a hard time not rushing my endings because a new book idea is pressuring me, and I have to make myself be careful—probably not quite enough—about loose ends. As in…there’s a dog in chapter one I’d better be sure I have someone to take care of it.
With the nonfiction books, everything is hard, and the perpetual question looms: Am I qualified to write this?
HANK: I love revision, too. I rely on it! But is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?
KATE: I don’t know. I think my first drafts now are like my third drafts twenty years ago. I’ve been in this chair a long time.
HANK: Was there ever a time when you thought you would give up writing?
KATE: Last week? Often. I know I can’t give it up, but I often wish I could give up on the publishing/promotion/buy my book dance, as I am not a very good dancer.
HANK: Hey. You are a fabulous dancer. Still--how often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?
KATE: Interesting question. I guess the times when I have the most doubts are when I’m embarking on something new. Taking the chance to co-write the true crime, Finding Amy, with an unknown writing partner, was scary. I didn’t know how to write true crime, I didn’t know how to collaborate, and I was scared of cops.
I do believe, though, that writing what we don’t know how to write is valuable, as it stretches us as writers. As some famous person, and Kate Flora, like to say, write what scares you. Probably the famous person said, “Write to your fear.”
HANK: What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?
KATE: A steady mantra of “I’ll get through this.” And often, when I’m writing the hardest stuff, I’m writing it because it matters and so I have to persist. My almost completely invisible book about police shootings from the police point of view, Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths About Police Shootings is an example of a book I had to write even though it will likely not reach much of the intended audience. Writing dark fiction is hard; writing dark nonfiction is even harder.
HANK: Do you have a writing quirk you have to watch out for?
KATE: I dunno. Maybe liking my characters too much and tending to protect them from faults or making them too perfect? And we all have those words we use far too often, such as just.
HANK: Ahh… tell me about it, right? Or course. I use those in every sentence, it seems. Anyway. What’s one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?
KATE: I write in the morning, and to get the story and words rolling, I reread and edit what I wrote the day before so I’m deeply into the story before I write my first fresh words.
The writing habit I have to watch out for is rushing the story.
HANK: How do you know when your book is finished?
KATE: When I have three words left that I don’t like, and I change them, and then change them back.
HANK: Been there! What is the biggest mistake you see in people’s manuscripts?
KATE: More than one. Head jumping, or point of view issues. Timeline issues where the author isn’t keeping track.
And of course, wasting reader’s time in two ways—by taking too long for anything to happen in the story, and by narrating unnecessary details. For example, the character puts on her coat, picks up her keys, puts them in her purse, goes out, shuts the door, locks the door, goes down the walk, and gets in her car. Shuts the car door, puts on her seatbelt, starts the car…and??? And by then, the reader is bored silly.
HANK: Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?
KATE: Anyone who is passionate about craft and willing to listen. Probably. Or, flipping the question, do I think writers are born and not made? I have two good friends who are both better writers than I am, but they lack the persistence, and ability to spend hours and hours writing gravel that can be shaped into a good story.
HANK: How do you feel about…stuff? Writing swag handouts giveaways that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?
KATE: I have had it. Frankly, being a writer is already too expensive for some people. I would love to be handed a millennial for marketing so I could just write.
Mostly, instead of swag, I have a handout with the series books in order, other books outside the series, a quick bio, and a recipe. Is that recipe, which might mean someone will take the thing home, swag? The recipes are good.
HANK: You’ve seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?
KATE: I think all writers need to accept that this is hard, that we have to write because we love it, and that we are a community. We can be up, we can be down, we can have a huge contract this year and three years from now, not be making enough to live in a cardboard box.
The advent of indie publishing and ebooks is great, but that doesn’t mean we can produce a less good book.
I think that SinC’s motto, “You write alone, but you’re not alone”, is so important. For support when we’re beginning, for sharing when we can, and for having a kind and supportive shoulder to cry on when your editor leaves, your book is orphaned, and your series dies.
HANK: Hey, you created that motto, sister! You’ve been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?
KATE: Of course, despite 20 books and a bunch of awards, I don’t consider myself successful. But my secret? Bedrock Yankee stubbornness. Despite a box of rejections, I cling to the mantra: Only I get to decide that I’m a writer. That and in a world of inspiration and passion, the word people don’t want to hear: DISCIPLINE. Books get written because writers keep at it. And in the course of keeping at it, become better and better writers.
HANK: What book are you are reading right now?
KATE: I got a wonderful book for Mother’s Day called Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, which is full of terms and descriptions for a writer like me who loves natural history and the land.
HANK: Give us one piece of writing advice!
KATE: You know, it’s the same one everyone gives: You can’t wait for the fluttery little muse to appear and inspire you. You have to show up, keep your seat in the chair, and work at your craft.
With the nonfiction books, everything is hard, and the perpetual question looms: Am I qualified to write this?
HANK: How do you deal with that?
KATE: One day at a time. Partly I am driven by the importance of the project--telling the stories of murdered women, showing those cases where police dedication made them soldier on in difficult cases, being fascinated by being allowed into other people's worlds and being given their trust. And a whole lot of hope that in the end, the stories will work.
HANK: When you wonder--"is this gonna work?" What are the honors you remember?
KATE: I remember that astonishing moment when I woke up in a San Francisco hotel room, opened my email, and found dozens of messages congratulating me on my Edgar nom for Finding Amy. I hadn't known what I was doing. I took on that collaboration as a favor to Joe Loughlin, whose dream it was to write about the case, and in the end, we made it happen. Of course, all of writing is an act of faith--and passion. We never know if the story will work.
HANK: Writing is an act of faith! We all believe that, right? Thank you, dear Kate, for all you have done—and continue to do!
Kate Flora’s fascination with people’s criminal tendencies began in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. The author of twenty books and many short stories, Flora’s been a finalist for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. She won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction and twice won the Maine Literary Award for crime fiction. Death Warmed Over, her 8thThea Kozak mystery, was a finalist for the Maine Literary Award. Her 9th Thea Kozak mystery, Schooled in Death, was published in November. Her 6thJoe Burgess, A Child Shall Lead Them in June. Her new crime story collection is Careful What You Wish For: Stories of revenge, retribution, and the world made right.
Flora’s nonfiction focuses on aspects of the public safety officers’ experience. Her two true crimes, Finding Amy: A true story of murder in Maine(with Joseph K. Loughlin) and Death Dealer: How cops and cadaver dogs brought a killer to justice, follow homicide investigations as the police conducted them. Her co-written memoir of retired Maine warden Roger Guay, A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods, explores policing in a world of guns, misadventure, and the great outdoors. Her latest nonfiction is Shots Fired: The Misconceptions, Misunderstandings, and Myths about police shootings with retired Portland Assistant Chief Joseph K. Loughlin. Flora divides her time between Massachusetts and Maine.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, winning 34 EMMYs and 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards. A nationally bestselling author of 11 mysteries, Ryan's also won five Agathas, three Anthonys, two Macavitys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her novels are Library Journal's Best of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Hank’s 2018 book is TRUST ME, an Agatha Nominee, and a Best of the Year from The New York Post, BOOK BUB, Real Simple Magazine, PopSugar, and CrimeReads. Her newest psychological thriller is THE MURDER LIST, coming in August 2019. Find her at http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com