YOU BELONG TO ME – my latest book – is the story of revenge served 21 years late. It’s based on a real event that occurred on the West Coast of the US about a year ago. A teenage girl was assaulted by a group after a Homecoming dance. Several teens and adults took part in the attack, which left the victim in critical condition. As horrific as the attack was, it was made even worse by the group of up to twenty onlookers who watched. Some cheered. Not one tried to stop the attack or even called for help. Reading the newspaper articles about this event left me shaken. I wondered how human beings could stand and watch and do nothing. In this day when everyone carries a cell phone, a 911 call could have been made in secret – nobody had to know who reported it. Some of the attackers were caught, but it was doubtful at the time that the onlookers could be prosecuted.
And I thought, “If I were the girl’s parent, I’d want to know who those people who watched were. I’d want them prosecuted. I’d want justice. I’d want them to pay.”
The crime in YOU BELONG TO ME is a similar one, an assault that took place 21 years in the past. The killer is angry and has a long list of people that need to pay. Unfortunately, heroine Lucy Trask, Baltimore medical examiner, is on that list. She and homicide detective JD Fitzpatrick have to find the killer and determine why Lucy’s a target before all the names on the list are crossed off.
Setting a book in Baltimore was a lot of fun. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up between Baltimore and Washington, DC. All the scenes set on the Chesapeake Bay were like returning home.
I’ve been asked who has inspired me to write. I don’t remember being inspired to write, really. I’m not one of those authors who always knew they wanted to write for a career. At first my writing was merely a hobby, a way to pass the time in airports and hotels all over the world as I travelled internationally for my engineering job. I would finish the books I’d packed in my luggage before I arrived at my destination, so I’d make up my own stories. Soon writing became my guilty pleasure. Any time I’d get a few free minutes, I’d go back to the characters in my story to see what they’d do next. When it occurred to me that I might actually have written something publishable, I looked to the authors I enjoyed reading more for instruction than inspiration. I was surprised by the endings in suspense books written by Tami Hoag, for example, so I’d read them again, paying special attention to how Hoag dropped clues and how she camouflaged the killer in plain sight. I liked the pacing of John Grisham’s legal thrillers, so I’d note the scenes that read especially fast and left me breathless and take them apart. I paid attention to the way Nora Roberts built her characters. I’ll still read a book and think, “I loved that scene. Why?” or “That character is unforgettable. Why?” It’s a rare book that totally sucks me in and makes me forget to analyze. And when I’m done with that book, I say, “I was totally sucked in. Why?”
I will say I am very awed by authors who world-build. The authors I love, like Nalini Singh and C.L. Wilson, have built alternate worlds that make me wish I lived there.
I don’t read a lot of thrillers. Once I’m done writing a book, I find I need a change of scenery, as it were. I do enjoy the work of Michael Connelly – specifically his character LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. I like that Bosch is a flawed man with a mission – to catch the bad guy. When he falls in love you know it won’t end well. You want to yell, “Don’t fall in love with Bosch!” And sometimes Bosch doesn’t act so admirably when it comes to catching the bad guy. He does what he needs to do. I like that.
Most of the time I am an unabashed fan of vampire books. I never thought I’d see the draw, but I love the darkness and power and the sense of a secret species of lethal beings that walk around among us.
We are overwhelmed with images of true-life violence on television, whether it be the real-life news or cop dramas or forensic documentaries. And it is, of course, a major component of crime thrillers. Some say that repeated exposure to violence desensitizes us to its effects and that may be true to some extent. Certainly it takes more to horrify us now than it did twenty years ago.
Unless we think about each crime at the personal level and not as a statistic. That murder that occurred in your city today stole a person from this world – a husband, a father, a brother. Someone will wake up tomorrow grieving the loss of a crucial person in his or her life. And if no one grieves the dead? That’s a tragedy, too, but of a different kind.
A key to striking balance in the use of violence in fiction is to humanize the victim. Every victim is a person someone will miss and mourn. If the victims are no more than kindling, then the violence can quickly become exploitative – and numbing.
Sexuality in books, on the other hand, is more a matter of individual taste. I like to read sexy books, frankly written. The “behind the closed door” sexuality may appeal to some, but not to me. I write the level of sex that I like to read. Not everyone is comfortable with this, and that’s okay. For example, my sister can’t read the sex scenes in my books. She just feels uncomfortable, because all she can think is that her big sister knows about “stuff like that.” It’s kind of a standing joke between us that when I sign a book for her, I’ll inscribe, “Do not read page 256, 293, and don’t even approach pages 310-320” – (or whatever the pages are that house anything more than a kiss.)
I think one reason that people read crime fiction is to regain a sense of control, even if it’s perceived. So often we hear about true-life horrible crimes, vicious assaults, crimes against children … We know deep down that not all perpetrators are caught, probably not even most are caught. And if they are caught, the punishment can never truly pay for the crime. A murder victim will not be brought back to life. A victim of sexual assault will never be the same.
This makes us angry, especially when we think of each victim as a person and not a statistic. We want someone to pay, to face judgment. We want the good guys to win. When you read one of my books, the good guys will win. There will be a happy ending. There will be victims along the way, but they are treated as individuals and not kindling.
Between the covers of the book is a sense of control, that despite the violence, all will be right in someone’s world.
When I’m writing, I don’t really think about my reader or myself. I think about the characters and what they’ll do or say in a particular situation. Many of my plot twists occur when I see a little plot hole and think, “Why would they do that? What possibly could have happened to make that situation realistic?” I’m in the characters’ heads and they act it all out – I’m just happy to type fast enough to keep up!
YOU BELONG TO ME is published by Headline.