Stories Behind The Novels

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 Readers often ask where the idea for a particular book comes from. What was the inspiration? For me, that's often the hardest question to answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere at all. A character pops into my head and shouts, "Hey, I have something to say!" And I write it. The voices in my head typically have more control than I do.

Some of my books have a more obvious, easily explained inspiration. Others come from a convoluted process that brings a sliver of an idea to life. This can be difficult to describe, even when I’m sure of the path. Well, as sure as I can be when characters rule my mind.

Here are the back stories for four of my novels, my three Michael Sykora novels No JusticeBeyond Salvation, and Killing Instinct, and my ghost, suspense, inspirational, humorous novel Into The Light. (Obviously, I have trouble defining the genre for the latter!)

The story behind the novel No Justice:

Some time ago, I served on a jury for the murder trial of a man accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend. While I had known that our justice system had flaws, this was a close-up view of those injustices behind our justice system. We, the jury, were not allowed to hear anything about the plaintiff's past. His life was a locked box. The victim, however, had no such privacy. The defense attorney gleefully flaunted the victim's past, including her sexual history from as far back as her teen years. I will never forget the look of anguish on her parents' faces.

The defense did a great job of spinning the tale and making the victim out to be less than virtuous. After a week of this, when we were sent to deliberate, only two of the twelve jurors initially voted for murder one. I was one of them. The other ten wanted involuntary manslaughter, citing her behavior and his cocaine use as "excuses". I should mention here that the man had left his dead girlfriend in his bed, while he went out and partied with friends all night. Also, according to witnesses, he was quite sober at the time of the murder.

The other juror and I fought for, and eventually won, a murder one conviction. Before we left the courthouse, the judge spoke to us privately. She congratulated and thanked us for the conviction. At that time, she was able to tell us what had been carefully kept from us throughout the trial; the man we'd just convicted had a long history of abusing women. He'd already been convicted of several assaults and one rape. An involuntary manslaughter charge would have been little more than a slap on the wrist. He'd have been out in no time, free to rape and murder yet another woman.

My husband and I were discussing this one day; that case specifically and the justice system in general. That's when the character Michael Sykora was born. In many ways, Sykora is my husband's alter ego. (But, to be clear, my husband does not moonlight as a hit man!)

As for the specific plot, that developed from a combination of the characters' voices and the conversation with my husband. I don’t write from an outline. I start with a character and a vague idea. Then I listen and follow where that leads me. About midway through writing No Justice, I realized that I had way too many plots and subplots going on. At that point, I knew that Michael Sykora had too much to say. He wasn’t happy with one book. I stripped down that initial manuscript and told the story of where I thought the series needed to begin.

The story behind the novel Beyond Salvation:

Homelessness is a huge problem in the U.S. Every age range, from children to the very old, exist in a separate and hidden world on our streets. In No Justice, the first book in my Michael Sykora series, two homeless teens made a brief appearance when they helped Nicki out of a difficult jam. I wanted to bring them back and let them tell their story. That's when Sara popped into my head and led the way.

Sara is a teenage runaway, friends with the two boys, and missing. The problem with runaways is, when they disappear from the streets, no one but their few friends on those same streets notices. Often there is nowhere to turn for help. Michael Sykora works within that lost world and sets out to find Sara.

To be honest, when I began writing this book, I had no idea what had happened to Sara. I began with only that vague premise. As I explored the reasons behind Sara and her friends winding up on the streets, I was led to the few options they might have to reach out for help. Sadly, there will always be people who prey on those who are desperate. Cults are one of the biggest offenders, often masking themselves as Churches and various sanctuaries of hope. Sara stumbled upon one of these.

As I was writing this book, I wasn't looking to give a lesson in morality or write a societal thesis. I simply wanted to give these lost people, the characters in my head, a voice. I hope that I achieved that and managed to entertain at the same time.

The Truth Behind Killing Instinct

When I say the word Tor, what comes to mind? For me, it sparked the image of a comic book hero. I saw a cartoon character with big muscles and an intense expression. Maybe he’s wearing animal skin and holding a club, like a caveman. I could also place him in the future, holding a laser gun and wearing a fancy suit of thin armor with hidden weapons. Either way, the real Tor was not at all what I expected.

I stumbled upon the word several years ago while reading an article in The Atlantic. Or was it Rolling Stone? Whichever. That’s not the important detail here.

Tor is an open network you can download for your computer, which you then use as your web browser. It’s free. It’s confidential. It’s hidden. And it’s completely anonymous. In fact, the tag line Tor uses on their site is “Anonymity Online”.

These are some of the benefits listed on Tor’s website:

Tor's hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site.

Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.

Nobody would be able to determine who was offering the site, and nobody who offered the site would know who was posting to it.

What Tor doesn’t advertise is the sordid side of this anonymity. Rape abuse survivors might use Tor to communicate, but so do rapists. So do drug dealers. And killers. You get the idea, right? Keeping websites off the grid means no one knows who or where these people are. It means sociopaths can connect and trade stories online, and the cops have no way to find them.

I’d had a vague sense of an Internet underground, but reading about Tor really flipped on the switch for me. My mind being a dark, twisted place means that switch didn’t shine light, it prompted ideas. That’s when the story line for Killing Instinct was born.

Further exploration taught me about bitcoins. This isn’t change we carry around in our pockets; nor are they coins we use in a gambling casino. Bitcoins are digital currency. When used correctly, the transactions are completely untraceable. Anonymous. Want to buy designer drugs or hire a hit man? Log onto the Internet with Tor and pay with bitcoins. No one will know who you are.

This all led me to a place called Silk Road Marketplace, a website on Tor that sells everything you won’t find on Amazon. Silk Road was known for their designer drugs; a kind of candy store for drug addicts. Dig deeper and you’d find college acceptance papers forged so well they’ll fool the college. You’d also find prostitutes and hired killers. 

All this gave me the ideal setting for some seriously disturbed characters.

Just a few weeks ago, I read that Silk Road Marketplace was shut down. No, the cops didn’t manage that. The site’s administrators shut the site down because they were being blackmailed by some unknown person looking for easy money. Silk Road’s administrators offered a $5,000 reward to anyone with information on their extortionist’s identity. Kind of funny, in a way. It’s like the Old West has moved over to the Internet.

Given what I’ve learned, I doubt Silk Road has completely shut down. They’ve just changed their name and moved to a different dark corner of the Internet. I guess, in that way, they’re a bit like the drug dealers hanging out on city corners.

While Killing Instinct is fiction, the story could easily be playing out somewhere at this very moment. And that, for me, is the scariest part of it all.

The story behind the novel Into The Light:

My novel Into The Light followed a crooked paths from vague idea to finished product. This one began with a dream my father had. He was telling me how real the dream seemed and that he thought it would make a great plot for a book or movie. In his dream, a homicide detective could see and hear ghosts and they helped him to solve murders. I filed the information in the back of my brain (which is a crowded place) but didn’t have an immediate sense of what to do with it. For me, writing has to start with a character and that character has to speak to me. No homicide detective popped into my head asking for the lead part in this story.

At the time, I was working on a different book. Those characters, however, had stalled. They weren’t happy with the direction of the plot or the box I was attempting to fit them in. Consequently, I did a lot of sitting and thinking. Now, to the nonwriters of the world, this looks a lot like I’m staring into space, doing nothing at all. On the contrary, this is the most important stage of creation. While I appear to be basking in silent oblivion, the characters are speaking to me. Usually these are the characters whose story I’m working on. They tell me who they are and show me where they need to go.

Occasionally, a new character pops into my head with an entirely new story to tell. This is the tricky part. I don’t know where these new characters come from. I would like to take the credit for creating them. But I don’t. They come to me, fully formed, with personalities of their own. Early in my writing career, I’d try to shape them to suit my needs. They rebel. They squirm and stamp their feet. Under no circumstances will they bend to my will. I’ve learned. Now I’m a silent partner in their journey.

This is what happened with Max Paddington and my novel Into The Light. While I was sitting in the quiet, trying to work out why the characters in my work-in-progress were stumbling, Max popped into my head and introduced himself. The first paragraph of what is now the book came to me. I quickly learned that Max was a ghost and the story belonged to him.

I typed that first paragraph along with a few notes, and filed that with my other random thoughts, ideas, and unfinished projects. Then I tried to get back to my work-in-progress.

Max would have none of that. He simply would not leave me alone. He crowded the other characters out and they stopped speaking. His story needed to come first, whether I wanted it to or not. So I put away the book I’d been writing and began Max’s story.

When I write, I don’t outline. I start with an idea, rarely anything more. I sit and type. I’m often as surprised by what happens as readers are. With Into The Light, I quickly wrote the first few pages. I knew that Max would die right away and that his ghost would be looking for his killer. Since Max was a ghost, I thought it would be best to give the role of main character to Joe Cavelli, the private investigator and only person who could hear Max. I spent a couple of days trying to make that work. Remember what I said about characters refusing to bend to my will? That was Max all the way. In fact, I’ve never had such a stubborn character!

Max insisted on the lead role in this book. He had a lot to say. His character lived only in my head but felt as real as most people I know. I didn’t create him. Not consciously, at least. I didn’t decide what he looked like or what had happened in his life. He told me all of that. He came to me with a name and a purpose. My job was to step out of the way and follow him.

And that brings me back to the question readers ask me: Where did this story idea come from? The easy answer is a dream that my father had. That would be true, in the most basic sense. That dream sparked a cascade of thoughts that somehow created Max. Then again, those thoughts, wherever they were and however they played out, were not on a conscious level. I didn’t set out to write a book about a ghost. At the time, I was writing about a hit man. I was stumped, no more happy with those characters than they were with me. That gave Max room to flourish.

Into The Light is not about a homicide detective. It’s not really even about solving a murder.While those things do live in Max’s story, they are not where his story begins or ends. His story comes from a place I can’t describe. I can go there and visit, though I can’t tell you how to get there.

The best answer I can give as to where any story idea comes from is - everywhere.