Magical book

Magical book

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind the Book

Where do I get my ideas? That’s a frequent question from readers, and my answer is always, “From the world around me.”

That doesn’t mean I look through the newspaper, lift a situation whole and transplant it to a novel. Events in the real world provide inspiration, not blueprints. Any idea has to be tailored to my protagonists, veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Sheriff’s Deputy (now Sheriff) Tom Bridger, and my rural mountain setting in southwest Virginia. I can’t write a story that could take place anywhere else.

In the case of Poisoned Ground, I was inspired by my disappointment with a novel by a favorite writer. I thought he wasted a good concept by never taking the story beyond the surface. I didn’t steal his plot, by any means. But it reminded me of a controversy in the early 1990s in my own area,  Northern Virginia, when Disney proposed building a theme park (“Disney’s America”) and 3,000 acres of housing and commercial development in a rural community called Haymarket. A ferocious battle raged between those who wanted development and jobs and those who wanted to preserve their way of life. Disney lost, but the argument over what might have been continues even today.

What would happen, I wondered, if a developer wanted to impose enormous changes on little Mason County, my fictional community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia? No one died in the fight over Haymarket, but in Mason County the guns would come out. Never satisfied with a simple story, I began to imagine a scenario in which the violence appears to be connected with current events but actually has its roots deep in the poisoned ground of the past.

From there I developed a plot I could use.

Once I knew what Rachel and Tom would be up against, I started filling out the cast. Rachel’s friend Joanna McKendrick, who owns the horse farm that developers covet as the central section of a sprawling resort for the rich, plays an important role in this novel, as do the people whose land surrounds hers. My favorite new characters are the Jones sisters – Winter, Spring, Summer, and their deceased sister Autumn. Once these eccentric ladies moved into my imagination they began creating themselves, often surprising even me.

As the surface story plays out, the characters’ secrets are uncovered and the hidden story rises to the surface in bits and pieces to gradually form a complete picture. Rachel is in the thick of things as usual, and Tom – recently elected Sheriff and now married to Rachel – has several murders and serious acts of vandalism to deal with as the furor escalates.

So there you have the answer. A disappointing read, an old news story – in this case, at least, that’s where my ideas came from.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


We’ve barely recovered from Matthew’s death on Downton Abbey, and now Will Gardner has been gunned down in a courtroom on The Good Wife.

I doubt viewers will mourn Will as passionately as they did Matthew, but devoted fans of the show — I think it’s the best drama on network TV — are shocked. How could this happen? It feels as if a member of the family has been murdered! Did they really have to kill him?

With TV, audiences are forced back to reality by the simple fact that the characters don’t exist only in our imaginations. They are portrayed by actors, and when we see those actors explaining to interviewers that they wanted to move on, play other roles, the spell is broken. We’ll grumble about the consequences to the storylines on the program, but we’ll stop feeling as if a friend has been murdered.

When an author kills off a beloved character in a mystery series, though, the negative reaction from readers is stronger, deeper, and possibly permanent. Remember the uproar when Dana Stabnow killed Kate Shugak’s lover Jack? Many readers swore they would never read another Stabenow novel, and while most probably returned to the fold after a period of mourning, I know some who have kept their heartbroken pledge and haven’t forgiven the author.

Karin Slaughter killed her Grant County, Georgia, police chief Jeffrey Tolliver in a particularly gruesome fashion, leaving his wife, Dr. Sara Linton, and a good many readers desolate.

This kind of reaction presents a dilemma for writers. We want people to care about our characters, to see them as real people. We love them too, far more than any reader ever will. But sometimes we have to take a new direction for the sake of our own development as writers. Slaughter has said that she grieved for Jeffrey, that she cried over the decision to kill him, but she felt it was necessary. Fans disagreed. The anger some readers harbor toward Slaughter shows through even now, years later, in occasional online comments and reviews.

A certain number of readers will cling to a sense of betrayal long after it’s obvious that removing a pivotal character worked wonders. I think Jeffrey’s death, for example, liberated both Slaughter and Sara Linton. Sara has become an integral part of the Will Trent series, based in Atlanta, and everything Slaughter has written since she moved Sara away from Grant County has been richer and more complex and meaningful. Her last few novels are the best Slaughter has ever produced. I would hate to have missed them.

Downton Abbey muddled along in the season following Matthew’s death, but we can hope it will improve next year. On The Good Wife, Will’s death should shake up everything, turn some relationships upside down, and give Juliana Margulies the acting challenge of her career. The title of the series will make sense again, as the focus returns to the relationship between Alicia and Peter Florek, who have a weird political marriage that has been given little scrutiny lately. I can’t wait to see what happens, and I doubt many viewers will stop watching because Will has died.

I wish readers could be that forgiving when a popular character in a book is killed off. If we can look forward to the next episode after a TV character dies, why don’t we feel that way about the next book in a series?

Do authors have a right to do what they wish with their own creations? Should a writer feel an obligation to keep things as they are, with all the familiar characters turning up regularly forevermore?

How much of their creative decision-making should authors cede to readers?