God bless National Geographic.
I have had a subscription for decades. I used to keep all the old magazines until it became an issue (stacks and stacks and stacks - all donated, finally), so I switched to the digital version. I always knew I’d find an idea in one of them that would give me the key to a really cool book.
Enter the July 2016 issue. I was reading it on a plane, and I read a story and felt that incredible tingle all over when I see something I want to incorporate into a book. It was about a new forensic technology called phenotyping. The uses are endless — with a DNA sample, forensic analysts can generate facial features of a suspect. Eye color. Hair color. Ancestry.
I got excited by the possibilities of this new technology. To start, think of the people accused of a crime who are wrongly convicted. Phenotyping will cut down on these cases, for sure. Nothing is infallible, but it’s a cool leap forward. And there’s also a program that can take the DNA and build a 3-D face out of it. Not admissible in court…yet. We’re about to enter the brave new world of criminology, for sure.
When I read the story, I knew immediately I wanted to have a character use these skills to solve a crime.
But what crime? How about DNA from the crime scene of a missing, day-old baby? Cool, but… What if that baby was now 17 years old and famous? OK, now we’re getting somewhere. You see how this works. This is my process. What if? How about…? Hmmm…..?
I took this concept, married it to the idea I’d been carrying around with me for years about a woman who makes the ultimate sacrifice—her life—for her family, and boom—I had the beginnings of a story.
In TEAR ME APART's first draft, the book was narrated by a dead woman in heaven. It was very cool, but it wasn’t right. Then I was challenged by one of those Facebook memes where you’re supposed to post the first seven lines of your work in progress (WIP). I took a look, and felt like my first seven lines weren’t shareable. I don’t like to discuss the WIP as it’s being created—you give away the magic when you do that, in my mind. So I cheated. I wrote something totally unrelated to my real opening. (Hey, don’t judge. People pay me to make things up for a living… 😉)
This is what I wrote, tossed off, really, just to satisfy the guilt of a meme:
I remember the day she arrived so clearly. What quirk of fate led her to me? I wondered about this for years. If only I had stepped right instead of left at the corner, or taken the stairs instead of the elevator at the hospital, perhaps ordered chicken instead of steak for my last meal with my father before his death, the principles of chaos—the butterfly effect—would have altered the course of my life enough that she wouldn’t have appeared. But I did step right, and I took the elevator, and I had the steak, and she did appear, and I will never recover from her.
I posted it, and walked away. When I logged in again, there were a few comments from people who really liked it and wanted to see where the story went.
And I started to think. Who is she? Where DID this story go? Maybe this WAS the real opening of the book. It was a totally new voice, an undiscovered character. I knew one thing. It was a woman speaking.
And suddenly, there it was. A new frame. A new setting. A new situation. A whole new story.
Magic. The sort of mental razzle-dazzle our creative brains do when we let them.
I love chaos theory; it’s the basis for a number of my stories. With my new frame in place, my new voice, the book… became. Without the meme challenge, would I have found my way into this story? I don’t know. But I am so grateful I did. (Thanks to fellow writers Bryon Quertermous, Allison Brennan, and Brian Tracey who all tagged me. Smooch!)
One last thing about TEAR ME APART: please read the Author’s Note. I was compelled to discuss some pretty dark, scary topics in this book, specifically depression, self-harm, and suicide. All have deeply affected my family, and I hope and pray we can have more open discussions about mental illness, remove the stigmas, and help ourselves, our family, and our friends live a better, happy, joyful, hopeful life.
I leave you with the symbol of that movement, the humble semi-colon. Look it up. You won’t be sorry.
For every book, I create a soundtrack. This one is dark and evocative. I absolutely love it and hope you do too.