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Month: March 2017

First Kill

Sean Riley is a character in my Michael Sykora Novels. This story belongs to Sean.

*

The first kill was the hardest. His father staring with those dark narrow eyes that had incited fear for so many years. Even as the life seeped out of him, those eyes were full of scorn.

“You killed my mother,” Sean had said.

His father spat a mouthful of blood. A front tooth dangled, barely hanging on. “She was a whore.”

No remorse as death closed in on him.

A lifetime of pain. Hours of revenge. And it came to this. Nothing. Sean felt nothing.

A lot of years had passed since then. Sean McCarthy became Sean Riley. He reinvented himself. Went to college. But the past wouldn’t leave him.

Now he looked at the man across from him. Not his father’s eyes but enough like them to cause his stomach to tighten. Life bled from the man slowly, because that had been the request. Make him suffer.

Dave Billings, the dying man, appeared ordinary to those who knew him. Middle aged, thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Unmarried, quiet, respectful. Billings worked as an accountant, volunteered his time as a soccer coach for young beginners. That’s when it all started to go horribly wrong.

“How many?” Sean asked.

Billings shook his head. “Please…”

“We’re beyond begging. How many?”

“I’ll do anything.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? You’ll do anything. No territory too creepy for you to wander into.”

“I…”

Billings yanked at the restraints. His wrists chafed against the zip ties, the effort futile. Thirty minutes ago, Sean had crept into the house where Billings lived alone. Sean had dragged Billings from his bed and had his wrists and ankles secured before the man had managed to blink the sleep from his eyes.

“How many kids?” Sean asked. “Don’t make me ask you again.”

“You don’t understand.”

Sean stuffed the rag in Billings’ mouth. “You’re right. I don’t.”

Fingers broke easily. One. Two. Three. They hung at odd angles, while Billings screamed against the gag. Sean sighed. He sat on the kitchen chair opposite Billings and waited for the thrashing to stop.

Hit man. Assassin. Hired gun. Those words had all been used to describe him. He was a killer, plain and simple. That didn’t bother him, the killing part, anyway. His father had taught him how to kill and how to detach. He’d seen his first snuff film when he was three.

Billings finally slumped back against the chair. Sean reached forward and pulled the gag from Billings’ mouth. “You’ll answer my questions now. You see, I don’t care how much I have to hurt you to get the answers. Understand?”

Billings nodded. Tears and snot ran down his face. Sean said, “How many?”

“Can I explain? Please?”

The gag filled Billings’ mouth before he could flinch. Another finger snapped. “Next time,” Sean said. “I’ll cut it off.”

He crossed the room and picked up the small backpack he’d brought. Back in the chair, he opened it and gave Billings a glimpse of the contents. Pliers, knives, a small torch. Billings’ eyes bulged.

Sean took the rag from Billings’ mouth, said, “How many?”

“Five.” Billings’ voice trembled. “But it’s not like you think! Let me explain!”

“You molested five boys. Five. Innocent. Children.”

“I didn’t molest them! I just… it was just touching. That’s all!”

Sean stuffed the rag back in Billing’s mouth. When he’d started out in this career, he hadn’t cared about the why. He never asked. He was hired to kill someone, so he did it. He was damn good at killing and even better at not caring. Watching his father murder his mother had done that to him.

Then he’d met Michael Sykora. A client who wanted his fiancée’s murderer found. Tortured. Destroyed. Michael had been looking for justice in a world that rarely gave any. And he wanted to see it happen. That was a request Sean never granted. No one ever watched him work. Nor did he take photos. Killing wasn’t a spectator sport. But something about Michael Sykora had made him say yes.

Sean had found the scum who’d murdered Michael’s fiancé. Then Michael had taken one look at the man and something snapped. Ten minutes later, Roger Dossing’s bloody body lay in a heap on the concrete floor of his garage. Michael had beaten him to death, while Sean looked on.

Turned out, Michael Sykora was damn good at killing, as well. Only he cared. He had to know why. Losing his fiancée to a repeat rapist-turned-murderer changed the person Sykora had been. He got a taste for justice, vigilante justice some would call it, but justice nevertheless. He set out on his own crusade to right the wrongs, rid the world of the bottom-dwelling scum. And somewhere along the way, Sean had joined him.

He turned his attention back to Billings. The man was squirming in his chair. Five children had their worlds turned upside down by this man. Five children whose lives would never be the same.

“Just touching?” Sean said softly. “That’s how you justify what you do when you look in the mirror every day?”

Billings shook his head furiously. Desperate to speak, his muffled pleas got lost in the gag. Sean removed the pliers from his backpack. “Do you know how sensitive that spot beneath your nails is? Have you ever had one tear too far down?”

Billings’ eyes nearly popped from his head. His body shook violently and he toppled over, chair and all. Sean reached down and righted both the chair and Billings. Five minutes and five fingernails later, Billings lay in a heap on the floor. His body convulsed, as tears streamed down his face. His nose drained snot and he fought for breath around the gag.

Sean searched through the kitchen cabinets, found a glass and filled it with cold water. He drank it slowly, watching Billings struggle for air. When he’d finished his water, he carefully washed the glass and put it back. Then he yanked Billings up and sat him back on the chair. He pulled the wet rag from Billing’s mouth and the pedophile gulped at the air.

“That was a fingernail for each child you molested,” Sean said. “We have a problem, though. Your fingernails will grow back. But the kids are damaged forever. You think that’s fair?”

“I’ll give you anything you want,” Billings stammered. “Please. Anything. You want money? I’ve got ten grand saved. You can have it! Please, just stop!”

“Tell me about Bobby Lawrence.”

Billings sucked in a breath. His eyes darted around the room, seeking escape. “Tell you what? Bobby is a good kid. I coached him on this year’s team.”

“Coached him or molested him?”

“I…”

“Do not lie to me.”

“I touched him! Okay! Is that what you want to hear?”

“How many times?”

“What?”

“How. Many. Times.”

“I… I don’t know!”

Bobby Lawrence’s father had hired Sean to take care of Billings. How Lawrence knew for sure that Billings had been the one to molest his son was something Sean didn’t know. He didn’t need those kinds of details. He did, however, look into Billings before agreeing to do the job. Last week, he’d broken into Billings’ house while the guy had been at soccer practice with a group of four-year-olds.

He’d emptied Billings’ hard drive onto a small flash and given it to Michael Sykora. His client was now his partner and the guy was a genius with computers.

Sean hated the machines but pedophiles consistently loved them. They hid and encrypted their files, thinking that would somehow save them. Michael took no time in finding the hidden photos. Hundreds of them. Imagines that Sean would never get out of his head.

“You don’t know how many times you molested Bobby Lawrence?” Sean asked.

“I only touched him!”

“And took photos.”

Billings gulped air. “I…”

“Don’t.” Sean glanced at the digital clock over the stove. Almost four a.m. He needed to end this soon, get out before the neighborhood woke up. “I don’t want to hear your excuses, Billings. I don’t think Bobby or his father want to hear them, either. However, Mr. Lawrence would like to know a few things. His main concern is whether you put his son’s naked photos on the Internet.”

“The Internet?”

“Spare me the innocent act. I have no patience for that. You share photos with other twisted men who get off on little boys. We both know that. You post them on a website where you all go to get off. Did you do that with Bobby’s photos?”

Billings slumped, defeated. “No.”

“If you lie to me, it will be much worse than a few missing fingernails.”

“I didn’t!”

“Why not?”

“I… I hadn’t wanted to share him, yet.”

“I see.”

Sean got up, paced across the room. His skin crawled. Being around Billings made him feel dirty and he desperately wanted a shower.

“I love Bobby!” Billings blurted.

Sean groaned. “No. Don’t do that.” He walked back to his chair, sat down. “Mr. Lawrence would also like to know if you made Bobby do anything to you.”

Billings’ Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. Sweat seeped through his t-shirt, dripped down from his scalp.

“I asked you a question,” Sean said. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“He wanted to. I didn’t make him do anything!”

“Bobby wanted to touch you?”

“Yes! He wanted to please me.”

Sean’s stomach lurched. That was it. The things Lawrence needed to know for his own sanity. Sean could erase Billings from the world and end both of their suffering.

He had the knife in his hand. A five-inch blade, brand new, serrated for extra pain. Before Billings saw it coming, Sean buried the blade deep into his flabby gut. Billings sucked in a ragged breath, gasped, begged with his eyes.

Blood seeped from the wound. Sean stuffed the gag in Billings’ mouth, then twisted the handle. The blade shredded organs. Billings whimpered into the gag.

Lawrence had wanted the death to be slow. The man would be happy if this went on for hours. Days, even. But the suffering wouldn’t change what Bobby Lawrence had gone through. Nothing erased that.

Sean sat in his chair and watched the life seep from Billings’ eyes. He flashed back all those years ago to his first kill. His father’s eyes, so much like Billings’. Both scum who preyed on children, shaping the adults they would later become.

 

 

Psychological Effects of Keeping Secrets

Are secrets toxic to our health? Research says yes.

Or is it no?

Apparently, the answer is maybe. How – and if – a secret affects our health depends on what that secret is and who we’re keeping it from.

One theory on this issue is that people who keep secrets due to shame or embarrassment start to feel like impostors in their own lives. They lose their sense of self. Over time, the stress of keeping up the pretense negatively affects their mental and physical health.

This theory caught my interest, because this is what happens to Samantha in my novel Secrets. Eventually, she begins to unravel from the stress of her secret.

But is it always emotionally unhealthy to keep a secret? And, if so, does that mean sharing your secret with someone is good for you?

In 1984, James Pennebaker began a series of studies on the psychological and physical effects of revealing personal secrets. In one such study, 50 college students were divided into three groups. One group shared their secrets in writing, along with their feelings about those secrets. Another wrote only their secret, while the third wrote about a specified topic unrelated to secrets. Over the following six months, those students who revealed their secrets along with the emotional impact visited the health center significantly less often than those students who either did not reveal a secret or who revealed only the secret without sharing the emotional impact.

Does this mean sharing your secrets is good for you?

Pennebaker believed so. His studies led to a variety of research papers showing evidence that sharing your secret, even if you simply write it down but never show the paper to anyone, correlates with physical and psychological health benefits. People hiding traumatic secrets were more likely to have hypertension, flu, or even cancer. On the contrary, those who wrote about their secrets experienced boosts in their immune systems.

The interesting thing here is that these cited studies involved only writing a secret down. No one publicly shared their secret or even confided in a friend or family member. For me, there’s a gaping chasm between writing something embarrassing or humiliating about yourself on a piece of paper, and saying it aloud to a person you care about. And it’s a big leap to surmise that, because writing a secret down makes people feel better, then revealing your secrets is always good for your health.

In the 1990s, Anita Kelly, a professor at the University of Florida, decided to look more closely at this issue of both revealing and concealing secrets. While research clearly shows benefits in revealing secrets, she also found that secrets can be kept without negative health impacts.

Quite the conundrum.

Through her research, Kelly found that, in some cases, revealing a secret can make things worse. She believed psychologists were not paying enough attention to the situations in which the secrets were told. Their only focus was whether or not secrets were revealed, but not how. According to Kelly, “The essence of the problem with revealing personal information is that revealers may come to see themselves in undesirable ways if others know their stigmatizing secrets.”

In 2005, John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published a paper in Personal Relationships, suggesting that people, in general, are not good at predicting how they will feel after revealing a secret, or how another person will respond. He states, “People are so accustomed to saying an open relationship is a good one, that if they have secrets it can make them feel that something’s wrong.”

All this research seems to only further confuse matters. To help make sense of it all, Anita Kelly has focused her recent research on the role of confidants in the process of disclosing secrets. This is what she has come up with: If the secret does not cause mental or physical stress, that secret should be kept in order to provide a sense of personal boundary and to avoid unnecessary social conflict. If keeping a particular secret is causing anguish, the person needs to decide whether he or she has a trustworthy friend with whom to share the secret and feelings about that secret. In situations where a trustworthy friend or family member is not available, the person with the secret should write it all down, either on paper then disposed of or in an ongoing journal.

“The world changes when you tell someone who knows all your friends,” said Kelly, who experienced this change firsthand 15 years earlier, when she told a colleague something “very personal and embarrassing,” as she called it, and later found her secret was floating among her colleagues. She said, “You have to think, what are the implications with my reputation? It’s more complicated once you have to reveal to someone.”

There you have it. Share your secret. Or don’t. Or write it down, but remember to burn or shred the paper afterward.

Secrets are as unique as the people keeping them. In the end, we each have to decide what is best for ourselves. A little mystery is good, providing it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else.

 

Secrets and Obsessions

I have a secret.

We all keep secrets, even from – or especially from – the people we love. Maybe you chose not to tell your husband that his best friend hit on you while drunk at a party. Or you don’t want anyone in your family to know what you really did on spring break. In our minds, we’re not hurting anyone with our secrets. Maybe we feel we’re protecting the people we love. What we don’t like to acknowledge is that choosing to keep secrets is almost always about protecting ourselves.

One of the main reasons people keep secrets is to avoid judgment. According to some experts, people fear humiliation and judgment more than they fear death, suffering, and even the dreaded public speaking (my own personal obstacle).

But keeping secrets is hard work. The thing we don’t want to say aloud is often the thing we think about most. The very act of trying to suppress a thought makes us think about it more. How do we stop from obsessing about our secret?

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. ~ George Orwell

One way our subconscious handles secrets is it buries them under layers of other thoughts. Perhaps we tell ourselves a new story, then tell that new story to our friends. The more we tell this new story, the more we fill in the details. These details pile up on top of our secret, burying it deep so that we no longer think of it at all.

This is what Samantha did in my novel Secrets. She has a profound secret that she keeps hidden. The layers she built on top became like insulation, so even she couldn’t reach what was underneath.

But even our deepest secrets can’t be erased. When all the layers unravel, as they usually do, the secret can easily become an obsession we can’t stop thinking about.

In 1987, Daniel Wegner tackled this very topic in what is known as the White Bear Study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this study, the subjects were put alone in a room with a tape recorder, and were asked to record everything that came to mind during a five-minute span. Before being placed in the rooms, Wegner split the group. He told half of the subjects to think of anything other than a white bear, and the other half to try to think of a white bear. While in the room, any time a subject thought of a white bear, he or she had to ring a bell inside that room.

The result, you might have guessed, was that those asked to suppress the thought were also those who rang the bell most often. Beyond this, Wegner found what he called the ‘rebound effect’. When a person was told he/she could now express the thought of the white bear, it occurred with greater frequency than with those who never had to suppress the thought at all. It was like all the energy of suppressing the thought came pouring out, and now that thought was all the person could think or talk about.

Another interesting discovery Wegner made was something he called ‘negative cuing’. A person trying to forget a specific thought will look around for something to displace it. For instance, if you’re trying to forget the white bear, maybe you’ll focus on the bowl of candy or the ceiling fan. Or you might mentally recite the alphabet or a poem or some other repetitive thought. Before long, your mind will create a bond between the thought you’re trying to forget and whatever you’re trying to replace it with. If you’ve used the bowl of candy to forget the white bear, soon each time you see a bowl of candy you will be reminded of the white bear.

Wegner says something I find profound about this phenomenon: “We don’t realize that in keeping it secret, we’ve created an obsession in a jar.”

This led Wegner to a later experiment, published in the same journal in 1994. He put four people who’d never met around a table, split them in two male-female teams, and had them play cards. Beforehand, one team was instructed to secretly play ‘footsie’. At the end of this experiment, the two footsie players felt such intense attraction toward one another that the researchers, for ethical reasons, made them leave separately. Of this, Wegner said, “”We can end up being in a relationship we don’t want, or interested in things that aren’t at all important, because we had to keep them quiet, and it ends up growing.”

This fascinates me. The simple act of keeping an activity secret led to a strong and instant connection between strangers. I wonder how many bonds are formed almost solely on the necessity of keeping a secret. Coworkers keeping a secret from a boss and criminals keeping a secret from the rest of society could and probably do form unique bonds. And what about affairs? Sure, there was an initial attraction that led to the affair in the first place. But how much of that continued attraction is due to the secrecy? This could explain why, in many cases, when one finally leaves the spouse to openly commit to the person he/she is having an affair with, that formerly passionate relationship quickly falls apart.

Secrets have their place. But they can also be devastating. Samantha learns this in her journey. Her secrets unravel. Is she happier once they’re out in the open and she’s free of the obsession she’s created in her own mind? You’ll have to take the journey with her and find out.

 

Why I Write Suspense

When I was five or six, my mother enrolled me in the Disney Book of the Month Club. Each month, our mailman would deliver a new book. I remember the excitement of seeing that package and the anticipation of which book would be inside. I know, Disney books are not exactly suspense. Yet, those books are likely responsible for planting the early seeds of suspense in my mind. Would Pinocchio continue to lie? Would Snow White ever wake up? That bit of the unknown always thrilled me.

As I grew older, and most of my friends went for romance stories, I went for suspense. I didn’t want to read about princesses and fairy tale weddings. I wanted the edgy stuff. The books that let me glimpse the dark side. The ones that made me work for the happy ending, if it came at all. The first book I remember making a huge impact on me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. This book was written in the sixties and encompassed the turmoil of that period, as well as the general turmoil of growing up. I was instantly hooked.

I didn’t fantasize about being swept away by the man on the cover of the most recent Harlequin romance. Escaping to new planets and meeting aliens held no interest for me. I wanted to know what drove madness.

In high school and into college, psychology and English were my favorite classes. If I’d been exposed to sociology courses back then, no doubt I would have found where I belonged. I watched people, listened, tried to anticipate behavior. Various ‘what if’ scenarios would keep me up late into the night.

Suspense writing has never been a conscious choice. Human nature fascinates me. Why do people behave as they do? What makes one person commit murder, while another walks away? The characters and plot that became my first book haunted me relentlessly until I finally sat down and gave them life. None of my books have been planned and writing has never been about the genre. For me, writing is about the exploration into the dark side.

Writing Is Like…

I was asked to answer and elaborate on the following prompt: Writing is like…
Writing is like giving birth to and raising a child.

During my pregnancies with both of my sons, I spent endless hours wondering what they would look and sound like. What would their personalities be? Would they love reading or race cars? What would they do with their lives and what kind of people would they turn out to be?

The spark of an idea is like that for me. Stories need characters. Who will they be? What will they look like? Where will they go and what will they do?

When my sons were born, they looked and sounded the way they were meant to. I couldn’t change that, even if I’d wanted to. My characters are like that. People think I invent my characters and make them who I want them to be. I don’t. They just happen. They pop into my head and say, “Hello, there. I’m Max (or Michael, Corinne, Nick, etc.). Let me tell you about myself.”

Then we go through that toddler stage together. With my kids, I had this ridiculous notion that I could help shape them into the adults they’d become. Ha! Anthony, my oldest, carried full conversations before the age of two and got angry with anyone who dared use “baby talk” with him. He was and still is impatient with life. Joe has always been the one to sit back and watch. He often seems as if he’s in his own world, oblivious to things, but the amount of information he absorbs is astounding. I’d love to take credit for their best qualities and blame their father for their worst. The truth is, I had little to do with the men they turned out to be. They came into this world with a purpose and are busy finding that direction for themselves.

I go through the toddler stage with my characters, as well. I try to force them into a direction that I think is best for them. They dig their feet in, as I drag them along. I stick one in a suit behind a desk and he balks at me. He belongs in jeans with a hammer in his hand. Another is supposed to be secondary to the story, goofy, a sort of comic relief. He grabs his leading man outfit and stomps out to center stage. No way is he comic relief in anyone’s story.

Next we go through that initial stage of letting go. With my sons, that came with kindergarten. To that first day each of them climbed on the big yellow bus by himself. I wanted to go with them, hold their hands, explain who they were to the teacher, help them make friends and protect them from the bullies. I couldn’t do that and, ultimately, they didn’t need me to.

With each book, the kindergarten stage is that first time I send a manuscript out to a beta reader or two. I want to hold on to those pages, be right there during the reading experience. I want to explain the characters to the reader, tell her all the things she doesn’t know and might not learn in that story. I want to protect my characters from the reader who might not like or understand them.

Like my children, the beta reader doesn’t need me. The reader and my book need to find their own way, just as my children did with their teachers and new friends.

The manuscript comes back to me, as my children did after school each day. I take the critique from the beta reader, I make a few changes, perform the edits. The characters fit into their story and the guidance needed from me is minimal.

Finally, we come to that point when I must set my creations free. With my children, that was both heartbreaking and exhilarating. I want them to be safe, happy, successful. I miss the babies they were but love the men they’ve become.

This is how I feel about my characters. Once their stories are complete, I need to set them free in the world and hope they will do well. As with my children, not everyone will like them. Not everyone will care who they are or take the time to get to know them. The best I can hope for, with my children and my characters, is that they make an impact on the people they interact with. That they know they matter, they are important. That the very fact they exist makes life a little better, a little different, for someone out there.

Murder As Entertainment

Seeing a murder on television can help work off one’s antagonisms. And if you haven’t any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some. ~ Alfred Hitchcock

I write about murder – gruesome murder, bizarre murder, murder for hire, and murder as revenge. What I write is fiction. Mine is a make-believe world of murder as entertainment.

I’d like to take a noble stance and say that I don’t enjoy writing the murder scenes. But I do. That’s creepy to admit out loud, I know. I kill people on paper and I like it. How did this happen?

The truly odd thing is that I am a total pacifist. I even feel bad when I kill a mosquito. Those things are evil here in Florida, and I’m super sensitive to their bites, swelling up and itching for days. Yet I feel immediate guilt when I kill them. So why is it that I enjoying writing murder scenes?

I am fascinated by human behavior. And let’s be honest. People at their best are not as interesting as people at their worst. I want to know what pushes one person to the edge of civility, to a place I can’t imagine myself ever going. What is the catalyst behind the pull of the trigger or the thrust of the blade? No one lives in a vacuum and no behavior is born in a single moment. Someone who murders has to be inherently different from someone who does not. Or so we tell ourselves.

The woman who kills her abuser is different from the woman who is killed by a similar abuser. Is one action borne of rage and the other of fear? Why did the tenth black eye trigger a different reaction than the first or the third or the ninth?

Anybody who’s been through a divorce will tell you that at one point they’ve thought murder. The line between thinking murder and doing murder isn’t that major. ~ Oliver Stone

When a person hits that raw spot, the low point he or she never expected to be in, that treacherous climb back up can be as intense as the fall. Bloody fingers scrape against jagged rocks in the struggle to rise from the rubble. Some will make it, others will not.

The ability to explore the dark side without physically walking that line is one reason why I write suspense. Still, this does not explain why I enjoy writing the murder scenes. They are not a means to an end. I don’t write them in haste, so that I can then explore the outcome. I’m not emotionally removed from the scene. In fact, the only way I can write is to step into the character’s mind. I need to feel it the way he or she would. I need to be in that moment, with that person, pulling the trigger.

In a sense, writing for me is a lot like acting. I step into a role in the same way, at least psychologically. Perhaps that’s the allure. Writers, like actors, can become someone else. We step out of our comfort zone, embrace the anger and the absurd. We are no longer bound by our own moral compass. Those emotions, not ours but real just the same, allow us to walk in another’s shoes. When we’re done, we shed that skin and, if we’re lucky, we’re left with a better understanding of the world we live in.

It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.
~ Albert Einstein

Pieces of Me

Most writers sprinkle pieces of themselves throughout their work. Often, during the writing process, we aren’t aware of it. The bits we leave, a kind of bread trail, are unintentional and unavoidable.

The best fiction allows me to lose the line between the author and the story. They’re tangled together, inseparable. Does the author love cheese fondue or is it just the character? Has the author been skydiving and felt that rush of adrenaline, ran a marathon, rescued feral cats? Does the author hate oatmeal, love cherry pie?

A well-written book will often make the author and the narrator feel like one and the same. Authors need to be aware of this, because it can sometimes backfire.

I recently read a book I won’t name because I hated everything about it. This book was filled with the most unlikable characters I’ve ever come across. The pages overflowed with vitriol. The characters spewed bigoted statements at every turn, as if their insight into their city and its people was fact rather than opinion. All the characters shared these intolerant, prejudicial views. Because of this, the characters and the author easily became tangled in my mind. I not only disliked the book, I disliked the author.

I don’t know whether the author shared his characters’ opinions, though I find it unlikely that he’d be able to – or want to – give every character this same mindset if he did not agree. Had the author given only one character this trait, preferably not the narrator, he and his characters would not have fused together as they did.

Books like this make me wonder how much of myself I spill onto my own pages. Hopefully, I don’t leave readers spitting nails, as I was while reading the unnamed book. For those who have read my books and wondered if it’s me or the character, I thought I’d share a couple secrets today.

Some of my readers know I have late-stage Lyme disease, with neurological complications. A few of the symptoms I contend with show up in two of my characters.

Corinne, from Hit List, suddenly lost her mind. She can’t hold onto a thought, is easily distracted, and has forgotten much of her past.

Corinne sucked in her bottom lip. The wallpaper behind Dr. Endicott’s head had little pastel flowers scattered about. She’d had flowers in her garden once. Now just weeds grew there. She’d been telling Ian that they needed to pull out those weeds and buy new plants. Hadn’t she told him that?

My symptoms are nowhere near as extensive as Corinne’s. I’m not quite that crazy – yet. 

Corinne shuddered. An image flickered like a dying light bulb in the recess of her mind. Too elusive to grasp. Too intrusive to ignore. Words attached to strange voices skittered just out of reach.

Corinne’s character came to me easily. My own frustration with my brain’s malfunctions showed up in her character. This caught me by surprise and was completely unintentional. Corinne popped into my head one day with a story and, somewhere along the way, the two of us intertwined. This is not to say that she and I are the same. Her life and personality is absolutely not autobiographical in any way. But bits of me are sprinkled in there.

The other character with flashes of my Lyme symptoms is Nicki from my Michael Sykora Novels. When Nicki talks to Michael, she often jumps from one topic to another so fast that Michael has a hard time keeping up. The following scene is from Beyond Salvation:

Michael had gone to Sal’s and rented a Toyota Camry for the night. He didn’t plan on doing anything illegal but he also figured that it wasn’t wise to be driving around Dover Street in a flashy Porsche.

Nicki sat in the passenger seat, making him crazy with her erotic perfume and never-ending legs. His attention was divided between thoughts of sweaty sex and navigating the constant flow of traffic. Consequently, he didn’t have much concentration left to devote to following Nicki’s train of thought.

“Derek and Jay are really good kids,” she was saying. “They deserve so much better than what they’ve gotten in life.”

“I agree,” Michael said.

“Not that our government sees it that way. They’d prefer kids like them to disappear. Easier that way. Are Isaac and Nadine having a band or a DJ at their party?”

“A DJ.”

“I’m really looking forward to that. I haven’t been out dancing in a long time. Can you believe Charlie has never even seen a computer? He’s been on the street since before cordless phones were popular. Now everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear.”

“Yeah…”

“Mary Ellen, the woman who does the billing where I work, bought her daughter a cell phone last week for her eighth birthday. Isn’t that insane? What does an eight-year-old need with a cell phone? And she had a huge party. Catered by some fancy chef. Don’t kids usually prefer chicken nuggets and french fries?”

“Nicki,” Michael said. “Do me a favor.”

“Sure,” Nicki said.

“Pick a topic and stick to it for five minutes. You’re making me dizzy.”

This, I will confess, is a trait I intentionally gave Nicki. I do this exact thing to my husband all the time. I can be mid-sentence and suddenly shift to something else. Sometimes I do it because my brain loses the original thought. Other times I’m not even aware I’ve done it. Nicki, of course, isn’t dealing with Lyme brain. But she is a high energy character, whose mind works quickly. A more coherent version of my flightiness became a good fit for her character.

And now you know. Bit and pieces of me are scattered throughout my books. Pick them all out, fit them together, and I’ll be fully exposed.

Questionable Sanity

I was recently asked…

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

It’s not possible to remain sane, particularly if you are an indie author. Here’s why:

You have to write in your “spare” time. This means you stop watching television, spending time with family, and sleeping. (Incidentally, the psychotic episodes caused by sleep deprivation are excellent inspiration for writing suspense and thrillers.)

In your other spare time (otherwise used for eating, showering, doing laundry and, in some cases, breathing), you have to learn how to promote your books without offending and/or irritating everyone around you. During this process, you will scour the Internet for ideas, waste money on ads that don’t work, and be told you cannot market your books in certain places because you are “indie” and therefore not a “real” author. Readers will ridicule and often harass you for promoting your work, even while you’re giving it away free. Yet, at the same time, these readers will happily download and read the free book they have just berated you for promoting.

You must possess an ego capable of enduring constant beatings. People who hate you will inevitably yell louder than those who love you.You have to be Internet savvy, able to understand and implement the various formatting requirements for print and ebooks. Be aware that each ereader has its own unique formatting requirements, meaning you will need to format every book multiple times. A law degree is helpful for deciphering the endless pages of contracts for each endeavor. An accounting degree is necessary in the event you actually make money and need to claim income and expenses on your taxes.

Let’s not forget that, throughout all this, you are walking around with a batch of characters competing for attention in your head. They will insist you get out of bed at 2 a.m. to write a scene. They will refuse to bend to your will, causing you to rewrite the first six chapters to better fit their motives. Inspiration will strike in the midst of a conversation and your friends might not understand your sudden need for paper and pen. You will have more ideas than time, a drawer full of unfinished projects, a desk lined with sticky notes, and a stupid smile on your face because you love what you do.

This all proves that indie authors must be insane.

Learning From Fiction

In an interview after I’d published Into The Light, I was asked, What would you like readers to take away from your book?

This is a difficult question for me to answer. I could list a dozen things I’d love readers to take away from any one of my books. Each has underlying themes, sometimes intentional, sometimes not. While important aspects of the various plots, I hope these issues never come across as preachy or overpowering. The best themes are always subtle.

The reason this is a difficult question for me is because fiction is a personal venture. Each reader approaches a book from a different vantage point. Their own experiences in life give different shades of color to all they see, hear, and read. Telling someone what I’d like him/her to get from a book takes away their crayons. I want them to color the pictures along with me.

People who know me won’t be surprised to learn I’m interested in social justice – or the lack thereof. These issues pop up in much of my writing. For instance, with Beyond Salvation a reader might rethink the homeless situation here in the U.S. With Enemies and Playmates, a reader might get a different perspective on domestic abuse.

Into The Light is less subtle in its themes because they are woven into Max’s character and his journey. To follow Max’s story means taking in and examining the things he learns about himself. In part, this book is about loss, regret, and what happens when we allow other people to shape our opinions of ourselves. I would love for readers to learn from Max and maybe shed a bit of the baggage we all carry with us.

That being said, the primary goal of fiction should always be entertainment. Ultimately, my answer is simple: I hope my readers take away a feeling of time well spent.

The Question of Violence In Fiction

I write suspense. Topics I’ve covered include domestic abuse, religious cults, and hired killers. The nature of my chosen genre requires a certain level of detail to the violent scenes. But how much is too much?

No doubt, if I asked ten people this question, I’d get at least five different answers. Each of us has our own limit, and tolerance varies widely. Maybe a better question would be, how much is enough?

For me, as a reader, the answer is I need enough detail to make me feel the emotion but not so much that I’m overwhelmed by it. On the surface, I know that’s kind of vague. I need to dissect it in order to give a clearer answer.

If I’m reading a thriller about a killer who cuts his victims into pieces, I do not need five pages of detail on how he does it. (And I’ve read books that offer excruciating, endless pages of graphic detail.) For me, the experience becomes like those slice-and-dice B-rated movies – nothing left to the imagination. I want enough detail about the killer and his behavior so that I can understand both his motivation and the victim’s fear. I do not need so much detail that the entire book becomes page after page of bloody madness. At that point, I’ve lost the story. The victims become nothing more than a prop to support the violence.

On the opposite spectrum, if I’m reading a book about a man suffering post traumatic stress after being attacked by a gang, I don’t want to simply be told in a sentence or two that five gang members jumped the man and beat him up. In order to understand the PTSD, I need to feel some of that same terror felt by the man in the story. And that requires details.

When I write, I try hard to provide enough detail for readers to understand the emotions of the characters, while also not becoming unnecessarily graphic. I know I overstep the boundaries for some readers, while not going far enough for others. In fact, I’ve received emails and reviews to verify this.

My novel Enemies and Playmates is about domestic abuse and a young woman’s struggle to escape. This is a difficult topic to write and read about. The realism needs to be there, and I had an inside view to offer. My first draft was, admittedly, way over the line. Too much detail made it a painful read. Yes, readers needed to understand the abuse; see it, feel it. I wanted readers to be horrified, to empathize, to understand how a woman and an entire family can become victims. The characters demanded that realism. I also wanted the story to show hope, resilience, and love. I didn’t want the details in the abuse scenes to overpower the story. Several revisions later, I had scaled it down to what is now the finished product.

Not long ago, a reader argued that the abuse scenes were completely unnecessary. His opinion was that I could have stated the husband abused his wife and children and left it at that. No details whatsoever. In essence, he thought I should write about abuse without writing the abuse. I couldn’t disagree more. Reading is about stepping into another world, another person’s life. Without the details, most people are not able to take that leap. If I tell you that Alex is a bad man and beats his wife, you’ll know that on an intellectual level but you won’t feel it. If I show you Alex slamming his wife’s head into a wall, you will feel it. And you won’t forget.

So, yes, I show detail. I let my characters lead the way. I want you to know them. My hope is that I hold enough middle ground to please most readers.