One Saturday morning while we were still living on the farm in South Dakota, my family set off on a trip to town. My folks were in the front seat with my dad at the wheel. (At that point my mother could drive a tractor like nobody’s business, but she couldn’t drive a car.) My two older sisters and I were riding in the back seat. We hadn’t made it all the way out to the county road when I let out a blood-curdling scream. My father jammed on the brakes, spilling us three girls onto the floorboard. Then he turned around and demanded, “What in the world is the matter?”
“You forgot my Lamby,” I sobbed.
Since my little Lamby was visible only to me, it made perfect sense why no one had bothered to load him into the car. And although that story is the stuff of family legends, it’s also an interesting glimpse into my future because, for the last forty years, some of my most constant companions in life have been an army of completely imaginary folks.
I realized recently that when Beaumont #25, Nothing to Lose, hits the shelves in February of next year, it will be forty years since Beau first walked into my life. I started working on the first Beau book, Until Proven Guilty, in the fall of 1982. For six months that story withered on the vine, so in March of 1983, I sent my kids to Camp Orkila for spring break, and sent myself to Portland on a train to spend a few days with a friend from my days in the insurance business.
I boarded the train with a fistful of ballpoint pens in hand along with a stack of blue lined tablets. As the train pulled out of Seattle’s King Street Station, I thought to myself, “What would happen if I wrote this book from the detective’s point out of view?” I immediately pulled out both tablet and pen. As the train gained speed, I wrote the words, “She might have been a cute kid once. That was hard to tell now. She was dead.”
And just like that, the story that wouldn’t come to life did. I was at the crime scene on the back side of Magnolia Bluff, walking around in J.P. Beaumont’s shoes, seeing what he saw, and hearing what he heard while, at the same time, hearing what was going on in his head. In that single scene he came to life for me as a living, breathing creature, and he’s stayed that way through 25 books and counting. So if I happen to mention that I met J.P. Beaumont on a train, Agatha Christieish as it may sound, it’s the also the God’s truth! By the way, during those five days in Portland I wrote 30,000 words by hand and had a solid blister on my writing finger.
Years later, when I wrote Hour of the Hunter, I used what I had learned while standing on the sidelines of a serial homicide case from the early seventies to craft the character of Brandon Walker. Physically and personality wise, Brandon resembles a fellow named Jack Lyons who was Pima County’s chief homicide investigator back in 1970.
In the late eighties, when my editor suggested I start a new series, I decided that I would use a female protagonist and put the action in a place I knew well—southeastern Arizona. Hence Joanna Brady came into being. In crafting the first scene of the first Joanna book, Desert Heat, I encountered not only Joanna, but also her mother, Eleanor Lathrop, and her daughter, Jenny. In the course of a few paragraphs, I and my readers as well, learned that Joanna and her husband of ten years had a shotgun wedding and that Joanna’s mother has been on the warpath about that ever since. Those beginning pages laid the foundation for an ongoing mother/daughter/granddaughter dynamic that has been a major component of the back story in that series ever since.
In the early 2000s, when I was tired of all my characters and searching for a new one, KVOA TV in Tucson inadvertently came to my rescue when they fired their longtime newscaster, Patty Weiss, who also happened to be my favorite newscaster. As a general rule, it’s a bad idea to make mystery writers mad, and within a matter of days I was writing a story about someone named Ali Reynolds whose career as a newscaster in LA comes to an unanticipated and very abrupt end.
So that’s the core group of my imaginary friends. A good segment of the population will most likely tell you that someone who regularly communes with people who aren’t there is someone who should be institutionalized. Maybe those folks are right and I really am completely nuts, but right now I’d better get back to Ali Reynolds because she and I have a bit of unfinished business of our own to attend to.
And speaking of unfinished business, I passed the 14,000,000 step mark on Monday morning at nine AM!
Onward and upward.