Trusting the story

I have been struggling with the latest novel this week, mainly over the structure of a critical scene where a character—a good, but flawed one—is murdered.

I originally thought I knew how the scene would be structured: The character, a U.S. Marshal shielding a woman in Witness Protection, would be killed. Originally, I wanted readers to think his killer was a white supremacist the agent, an African American man, tangled with earlier in the book.

I thought I wanted the body to be dumped into a hog pen. For those of you who know anything about hogs (and murder mysteries), they are a great way to get rid of a body because they’ll eat just about anything…

The only thing left was to be a skull and a badge.

I was so intent on this idea that one evening after a meeting of my knitting group, the Ladies Fiber and Firearms Society, I cornered my friend Lori’s husband, who manages a hog farm, and harassed him into a conversation on how this could possibly occur while my own husband sighed heavily in the background.

I’m known for starting these uncomfortable conversations.

A nurse friend set me up on a phone conversation with a trauma surgeon for my last book. I asked him how much damage could be done with a small caliber handgun to the liver and spleen and how much time would be spent in the hospital.

I had to repeatedly assure the good doctor that this was fiction, not a crime I was planning.

On another occasion, I was supposed to attend a fiber group event.

“Oh, I can’t come!” I explained. “I’m meeting a blood spatter expert. I’m supposed to bring my own watermelon and baseball bat.”

Back to my struggles on killing off a character…

Constructing the scene became an obsession. I talked about it interminably: How should he die? How should the woman he’s protecting escape? Friends teased me that I was so obsessed that I would be pulled over on the highway for speeding so engrossed in this scene that it would really get me into trouble.

“Ma’am, are you aware of how fast you were driving?”

“No, I’m sorry, officer. I was thinking about how to kill off a federal agent.”

Yeah. That would end well.

Finally on Thursday, a friend and editor of mine, Mary McFarland, gave me the best advice: Just write it. Let the story take you where IT, not you, needs to go.

And so, the scene began to unfold, and by Saturday night, I had it written.

And you know what? There was nary a white supremacist in sight: The story took a sharp left turn that I think will actually make it better in the long run. I’ve gone back and done a few polishes here and there, but generally, I’m pleased with how it turned out, despite the change in direction.

The lesson I’ve learned is this: I’ve built these characters to be (largely) living, breathing people, although only on paper. I have to trust their choices sometimes and let the novel go where it needs to go.

And all I need to do is follow.

My latest book, Lethal Little Lies, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. See the free preview on Amazon.com.

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