Life Imitates Art

When I open my e-mail in the mornings, there’s usually some good news and some bad news. Someone has a problem with my word usage, for example, and since what my characters say and do don’t measure up to the reader’s idea of political correctness, she’s out of here. Or someone sends me a note letting me know that a long time reader has passed away so I can remove them from my mailing list. Or someone has stayed up way too late because they couldn’t go to sleep without finishing the book. I answer them all—good ones and bad ones. Then, occasionally, I receive one that gives me goosebumps. This is the story of one of those.

If you read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, what you must understand from the beginning is that “Marley was dead: to begin with.” And in order to get this story, what you need to understand is that I write fiction. I make things up. I do not use real cases in my murder mysteries because I’m well aware that real murders affect real people and the families and friends who are left behind never “get over it.”

You also need to understand that I DO NOT OUTLINE! That goes for my individual books and for my series as well. Unlike J.K. Rowling who laid out the whole seven book plan for Harry Potter before she ever put pen to paper, I start with someone dead or dying and spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it and why. As for my main characters? I meet them when I meet them. Beau was in his mid-forties in Until Proven Guilty. Joanna was in her late twenties in Desert Heat. Ali in her early fifties in Edge of Evil. They all had lives before I came along, and I’ve learned about their various histories and foibles right along with my readers, book by book and word by word.

Joanna’s journey begins innocuously enough. She’s waiting for Andy to come home so they can go out and celebrate their tenth anniversary. He’s late. Joanna’s nine-year old daughter, Jenny, is on the scene as is Joanna’s mother, Eleanor, who is there to babysit. In the course of the conversation Jenny drops a bombshell. She’s just had a bit of Sex-Ed in her Health class at Greenway School. She’s a bright little penny so, after counting up the months between her birthday and her parents’ wedding anniversary and realizing that there aren’t enough months, she innocently asks the question, “Was I a preemie?”

Of course, she was not a preemie. She was right on time. It was her parents’ wedding that was … well … slightly delayed, and the fact that Joanna and Andy had a shotgun wedding is something Eleanor has held over her daughter’s head every day since. Happy Anniversary indeed! And that scene is indicative of the problematic relationship that exists between mother and daughter, before the first book started and through all the subsequent books.

But then the third book came along. In Shoot/Don’t Shoot, Joanna is in Peoria, Arizona, attending police academy training. She’s sitting in a hotel lobby when a man who looks to be the ghost of her long dead father comes sauntering into the room. Except the man isn’t a ghost at all, and there’s a good reason the newcomer, Bob Brundage, resembles D.H. Lathrop because he is in fact Joanna’s brother—the baby her parents, D.H. and Eleanor, were forced to give up for adoption. Since Eleanor was under age, they threatened to send D.H. to jail unless surrendered the baby. Eleanor knuckled under to their threat, but as soon as she was old enough, she left home, came back to Bisbee, and married the man. By the time Shoot/Don’t Shoot comes around more than forty years have passed, and that scene in the hotel lobby is the first inkling that Joanna has about her mother’s own story, and it’s not a happy realization. She spends several books fuming about Eleanor’s blatant hypocrisy, and it’s only in the most recent book that she finally comes to understand her parents’ full story. I think that ’s the way it is with kids. We never fully understand what made our parents tick or what made them be the people they were and are.

So now we go back to this week’s e-mail. It came from an 86 year-old woman named Betty living in southeastern Arizona. In 1960, when she became pregnant out of wedlock, the boyfriend cut off all contact, and her parents forced her to give the baby, a boy, up for adoption. The rules of the Catholic Charities Home at the time were that there would be no further contact—ever. Years passed. Frank, the son she had been forced to relinquish, grew up to become first a fireman and later an arson investigator. And a few years ago, he reached out to her through Catholic Charities, to see if she would be interested in meeting him.

After apprising her husband of almost fifty years of the situation and telling her two sons from that marriage, they met, and it’s been a happy coming together. Frank told me that last year, the three sons arranged to be together for the first time ever on their mother’s birthday. I would imagine for someone celebrating her 86th birthday, that was quite the celebration!

Because of the Arizona connection, Betty has read my books for years. Recently she passed some of her books along to Frank to read and this week he encountered Shoot/Don’t Shoot. As you can imagine, that scene in the lobby really hit home! He said, he felt as though “someone had been looking over my shoulder.” Who knows? Maybe I was.

I write murder mysteries. My books aren’t “serious” enough to appeal to the literary snobs who wouldn’t stoop to reading “genre” fiction on a bet. And there’s not enough sex, “blowie-uppie” stuff, and Tom Cruise-worthy action to attract the attention of Hollywood, but you know what? Sometimes magic happens. My books are about relatable characters living relatively ordinary lives. Sometimes, purely by luck, my stories intersect with the stories of real people. And when that happens, and they let me know about it, as Betty and Frank so generously did this past weekend, that interaction leaves me with a profound sense of gratitude.

As Tiny Tim would say at this time of year, “God bless us everyone!”