Monday, September 8, 2014

Grasping at Grief While Researching Death for My Mystery Novel

I'm not proud of the fact that it's taken me 13 years to write a novel. I wish I could say that it was an epic James Michener piece of sprawling historical landscape, or a Tolkien world of other civilizations that would justify a length of time usually reserved to writing a tome. My novel, "Severed," is no tome.  It's what is called a "cozy," with no significant amount of sex or violence to assault the senses, and it will likely be well under 350 printed pages, and/or whatever its eBook page equivalent turns out to be.
drawing source unknown

So what took me so long to write it?

The idea of my protagonist was born after I moved to New Hampshire (and where I have stayed ever since) in 2001 to tend to my mother after she lost her second husband of four years.  My birth parents had been divorced at least seven years by the time my father died in 1988, and I was an adult of 30 years at the time my father's body was found in his apartment, after family members had been trying to reach him.  Had he given any of his children a key to his apartment, there's a chance he would still be alive.  Anyway, on or about the time of my father's death, my youngest sister had visited him, knocking on the door, turning around after no one answered, and I, three thousand miles away, had called him out of the blue, I believe, at about the time he was dying--alone, of a heart attack.

I know enough about death to understand that when it comes, it comes.  End of story.  And as aggrieved as I am about my father's death, I understand that it is a part of life.  We are born.  And then we die. But, perhaps, subconsciously, in researching my novel, I wanted to know a bit more about what happens to the body when someone expires alone and exposed to the elements around him or her.  In my case, I wrote about what I learned what happens to our bodies when we die. Literally. I was not concerned with cosmos, parallel universes, airy-fairy hocus-pocus musings about the after-life.  I was focused upon what happens to our bodies' remains when we are no longer physically able to inhabit this corporeal world. Only years later did I realize that the universe was playing a role in teaching me what happens after death so that I could come to grips with my own father's untimely demise.

It also took me 13 years to write my novel because I had no idea how difficult it is to write. I had no idea that just because words are on paper doesn't mean that they belonged in print. +Marie Brown, a celebrated agent in New York, a close friend of a friend of mine (because, generally, being a friend of a friend is  the only way someone can get an agent's attention), was kind enough to read my manuscript and politely exposed my novel's shortcomings, suggesting that I do more work on my characters' back story, then focus on the plot logistics, which was the nuts and bolts of my novel.

Originally, I had three separate locations for my novel: Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire.  A logistical nightmare.  I chose Baton Rouge because I didn't want to have to conjure the stereotypes of Louisiana to give the readers what they are used to reading about the often-storied colorful people in that state.  My novel was not about perpetuating stereotypes, but breaking them.  However, after Marie Brown's wise counsel, it had become apparent that it was also not logistically feasible for Lula to live in Baton Rouge, but work in Cane River country.  I was also concerned that a state-by-state manhunt for a serial killer, although feasible (see my blog post of last week), didn't make sense in mine.  My characters needed to be in one place so their back story, and therefore, place in the mystery novel, could unfold.

Marie Brown critiqued my novel in 2006 or 2007 (I'll have to dig through mounds of research to find her letter to me), and it's taken me this long to re-write it. I dare not burden her with reading it again, as I'm ready for the baby to be born, now, however good or bad it might be.  Truly, I have written the equivalent of three novels, when it is all said and done. Writing is easy for a lawyer.  I can write an emergency motion or a brief within hours.

Writing well? That's another story.

Just because the words are on paper does not mean they are ready. I would have finished years earlier if I hadn't made that ego-driven faux pas of believing that because I could typewrite.

Another reason my novel took so long to write was because, as I explained above, I was writing about alien topics about which I had no knowledge, and I wanted there to be some semblance of authenticity, which required research.  I harangued different forensic anthropologists, relying mostly on Dr. Midori Albert, a professor at the University of North Carolina, in Wilmington, who let me tour her office, and who graciously gave me a book that could answer most of my questions when I became too big a pest. Another consult was +Dr. Jeffrey K. Tomberlin, a forensic entomologist, who divined the clue to my mystery's resolution.  We have never met, although I owe him a debt of thanks. I am certain that my blanket email inquiry to all of the members of the +American Board of Forensic Anthropology, so far back, inspired those with better knowledge of the field to beat me to the chase, as I had promised to hire any consultant in the event that any television series might germinate from my novel. Within 2 years of my inquiry, "Bones," was on television, characters not inspired by me, that's for sure, but I'm sure I was a catalyst to jump starting the idea.  I didn't care. I was still doing my research.

I'm okay with the pace it has taken to write my novel. It's been a learning experience; I understand what happened to my father, which is more important than meeting any self-imposed deadline.  I guess I have held on to my father's tragedy for some time, and now that I understand what happened to him, I feel I can let go.

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