(This essay appeared on the Harlequin Blog April 30, 2012)
We writers have voices in our heads. It’s just a fact of life. The voices speak to us, we write their words on the page, and people read the stories and are captivated, drawn into a land of make believe.
All right. Let’s be honest and call this what it really is. Controlled psychosis.
You laugh, but think about it. Where else in the world are you allowed to let the little voices in your head control your thoughts, your words, and your deeds? Hmmm?
Most writers are loners, happily spinning yarns with their imaginary friends day in and day out. There are a few of us who are extroverts, who don’t like being alone, who thrive on connection, and communication with the real world. The rest of us are completely happy left to our own devices. We’re the ones who would survive solitary confinement – there would be so much time to create, to allow characters to develop and ripen into the kind of people we are fascinated with. Whores and heroes, cowboys and queens and teachers, private investigators and cops, and of course, no story in the crime genre would be complete without a medical examiner.
My medical examiner has existed for several years. Dr. Samantha Owens was first written as the foil to my main character, homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson. In her very first foray onto the page, many books ago, she scrapes something off a dead body into an evidence collection bag and promptly takes a deep long whiff. I knew immediately this wasn’t a weak woman. As her character evolved, she became more than a foil – she was the conscience of the Jackson series. It was inevitable that I’d write a book with her at the center, she’s got too much spark to ignore, or resist.
Thankfully, my agent and the fine folks at Mira agreed, and off I went into Samantha’s world, whistling a happy tune.
But Sam’s story was about to take a turn for the worse. Any time you have a spin off series, it’s good to give the lead character some space from their previous role. In my case, I went to the extreme, and killed off her husband and children. Clean slate. Clean break.
Heartbreaking, though. And very hard for me. I’d grown attached to the characters, was living vicariously through Sam’s mothering of her children. I have none of my own, despite years of trying, and it was fun to have a set of twins on the page to play with. And Simon, her husband, had been a fixture in the series since the first unpublished manuscript, earnest and supportive and smart.
I’ve learned that sacrifices must be made to be true to your art. They do say to murder your darlings. In this case, with a spin-off, set in Washington, D.C. instead of Nashville, that sacrifice had to be Sam’s family.
The loss changes her. Instead of the strong woman from the Jackson novels, this Samantha Owens is delicate. Almost as if she were burned over 80% of her body, and the flesh has grown back a translucent pink; no longer her armor, but simply a sheet covering her pain, one that can be ripped off at a moment’s notice. Her scars may be internal, but she must overcome them daily just to function.
This decision also gave me a chance to have a clear reference to the huge losses Nashville experienced during the 2010 floods. It is a fortuitous sign that the book releases on the second anniversary weekend. We’ve rebuilt, but so many lost so much, and I wanted to have a tribute, a shout out, to my city.
I hope you enjoy the kinder, gentler version of Samantha. She’s still a tough cookie, but now she’s every woman, every man, who’s experienced a loss. Someone to identify with, and to root for. Someone who shows us that hope springs eternal, and you can survive even the worst of experiences.