The Deliberations of the Unconscious Mind: An English Major’s Meditation
Back when I was in college I wrote a paper on flower imagery in one of Shakespeare’s plays. I wondered then, as I have often wondered as a reader, whether the author consciously and deliberately played with flowers and wove those images throughout the play. Indeed, I’ve always wondered how many of the things that writers do with metaphor and simile, and with recurring images and themes, are deliberate, and how much simply happens on an unconscious, or subconscious level. I don’t have an answer for other writers, but I’m beginning to discover an answer for myself.
It is one of the wonders of our craft that the learning curve is infinite. Knowing that we all once faced that first blank page with terror, and overcame that fear, and wrote on to our first “The End,” helps me understand that we are a community of learners at all levels. The learning process never stops, and thus, when I’m not overwhelmed, or discouraged with a difficult plot point, or grouching about my lack of greater success, I’m rather awed by it. I’m currently working on my twenty-sixth book, and it’s still exciting to be doing something that is never the same twice, that always has new challenges to present and new insights to give. I will come to understand what I’m doing on one level and then have to learn it all over again as the works grow more complex and interwoven, and my characters, with whom I’ve open spent decades observing their development, grow and change and become deeper and different than they were years ago when I first began to write them.
The ways in which the conscious writer who plants the clues and slowly discloses the plot points interacts with the unconscious writer is repeatedly revealed to me as I write my fifth Joe Burgess mystery, And Led Them Thus Astray. While I’m trying to work out where the shooter was standing, and who was shot first, and how to approach the scene without destroying essential evidence, I see something else happening in the work. While the mystery is unfolding according to police procedural conventions, something else is happening in the visual and temporal aspects of the book that I didn’t plan.
Even as Joe Burgess drives through a gray late afternoon and gets a call to a shooting scene, he is also moving from day into night, from light into darkness. And as that scene unfolds and he discovers the enormity and complexity of a scene involving multiple victims, daylight fades away. Discoveries are made with flashlights, through small points of light in a vast and unknown darkness. The search team in the woods, seen from a distance, are like fireflies. And when morning comes, what ought to be a lovely late May weekend is smothered in a chilling Maine fog that won’t let up. Light is dimmed. Sounds are muffled. Visibility is limited. The investigators’ discoveries about their shooter, and their shooter’s multiple levels of deception, will take place in a natural world that has deviated from the normal and obscured the light just as the killer has.
Did I consciously plan this? Not on the “make an outline” or “consider how characters are revealed to the reader” or “crank up the suspense” level of crime writing. But did I plan this? Absolutely. Because this, for me, is what writing is about. It’s about using all of the things we’ve read and experienced that make fiction work. It’s about trusting our instincts and our imaginations, and putting ourselves in the chair, and in the zone, where writing begins to flow—consciously and unconsciously—into deeper and more complex storytelling.
Sometimes, when I give an author talk, someone will ask: What is the book about? What do I want a reader to take away? The answer happens on many levels. The book is about the dangers to those we ask to do the hard job of policing in society, and how to balance the higher calling of serving and protecting with the desire to live a normal life. It’s about balancing responsibility to family with the responsibility to the weak and helpless and the victims of crime. The book is about people believing they’re entitled to deviate from the social contract.
And if someone asks about that imagery of light and darkness? Well, that’s the story of the investigation—from darkness with only pinpricks of light and insight to bringing the facts into the light and restoring order. It is about the basic struggle between good and evil, and pushing back the forces of darkness.
Back to the flower images. This is what an English major thinks about when she cannot go into the garden because the garden is buried under snow. And when she’s so deeply immersed in a story that the quotidian seems unreal and the imagined utterly real. I can feel that clammy fog on my skin. Hopefully, someday soon, so will you.
Attorney Kate Flora's fourteen books include seven series mysteries, four gritty police procedurals, a suspense thriller and two true crime books. Finding Amy was a 2007 Edgar nominee and has been filmed for TV. Death Dealer,a true crime involving a Canadian serial killer, is a 2015 Agatha and Anthony finalist. Flora's Joe Burgess police procedurals have won the 2013 and 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. She spent seven years as editor and publisher at Level Best Books. Flora is former international president of Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the Maine Crime Wave and New England Crime Bake conferences. She has taught writing at Brown, the Cape Cod Writers Conference, for the Maine Writers and Publishers Association, and at many national conferences. She teaches writing for Grub Street.See other articles by Kate Flora