I Am a Serial Killer Who Grieves for Each Death

Yes, I kill people. But only fictional people, characters in my mystery novels. And I don’t kill any character lightly. I actually prefer to write mysteries that don’t involve murders, because with a murder, the crime is over, there’s no hope for a happy outcome, and all that’s left to do is to prosecute the killer. As a private investigator, I worked on a death case, and it was sad and painful to interview everyone left behind. I much prefer to write about kidnapping or disappearances, because the outcome could go either way. But, as a mystery writer, I have found that now and then I simply have to kill a character, or readers would stop believing that could happen in my books.

Most of the time, I would like to kill off a despised character, the one who abuses animals or humans or takes advantage of everyone to make money. But who would grieve over those deaths? If dozens of people have motive to bump off that despicable person, then frankly, as a reader I can’t get very invested in discovering the killer because it seems like a public service, and I’m not sure that I want to see the perpetrator identified and punished.

No, to create suspense and interest, most often a mystery novelist needs to kill someone who the reader cares about. And, call me crazy (and many of us authors are), but it’s hard to create a likeable character and then kill them. It hurts. The most painful one for me was Alex Kazaki, a scuba-diving wildlife biologist that I had to bump off in the Galápagos (Undercurrents novel), long considered a magical place for all wildlife biologists. I really liked his gentle humor and kind heart, and I remember the day I concluded that I needed to kill him. His death still haunts me, as it does my series protagonist, Sam Westin. Alex left behind a wife and baby who loved him dearly.

Latina wildlife photographer Jade Silva died near the Arizona-Mexico wall (Borderland). She was gutsy. She was talented. I still feel that her death left a hole in the world, but I’m grateful for her last photo of a rare jaguar imprisoned by the border wall.

Then there are the clueless, who die doing foolish things because they are naïve or misguided. I had to kill one of those people off in The Only Clue because he didn’t understand how dangerous a silverback could be. Even a gorilla who knows sign language is still a gorilla. And I had to bump off two women in Bear Bait for two completely different reasons; neither of them deserved that. My novel Backcountry was inspired by the real-life murders of two women hikers, and as a hiker, those still-unsolved deaths are especially close to my heart.

I killed two beloved parents in my Run for Your Life trilogy, leaving my then 14-year-old protagonist an orphan. And—oh dear God—I included a dead infant in The Only Witness. Although that wasn’t murder, it still hurt me to imagine that tiny corpse buried in the field.

And now it occurs to me that recently I’ve killed even more, in a horrific avalanche, in the novel I’m currently writing. I guess it’s a blessing that they were all strangers to me. But I feel sorry for their relatives, whom my protagonist may meet in the novel. Yikes, my death tally is growing.

Being a mystery novelist can be a weird, emotional roller coaster ride of grief, fear, and—hopefully—eventual triumph. Am I alone in experiencing all these emotions while crafting my novels? Am I crazy?

Where Does Cultural Appropriation Begin and End?

If you pay attention to current discussions of literature, art, or even music, you have no doubt stumbled across accusations of “cultural appropriation.” When JK Rowling mentioned “skin walkers” on her Pottermore website, she was accused of appropriating the culture of Navajos. Justin Bieber was blasted for wearing dreadlocks, accused of appropriating a Black hair style. Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, took a tremendous amount of flak for writing about a Mexican immigrant when she’s never been one.

I remember years ago when a writer for a TV series about teenagers was discovered to be—gasp—over 30 years old! How dare she claim to be capable of writing about teenagers? Never mind that she had already written many episodes for the hit series. A prizewinning Australian artist creating Aboriginal dot paintings was revealed to be—omigod!—not an Aboriginal person, although clearly a master of the Aboriginal dot style. He’s been erased from the internet and is probably living in exile on some remote island now.

Even I, an infinitesimal speck in the universe of writers, have experienced this prejudice of “you can’t do it if you’re not it.” I was once verbally offered a contract for a prizewinning children’s book I wrote about a Kikuyu girl in Africa. Upon learning that I was not African-American, the editor immediately withdrew the offer.

Writers throughout history have written from the points of view of many others. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was neither a male scientist nor a monster. How did Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina when he was never a woman? How dare Gene Roddenberry write about a pointy-eared Vulcan named Spock? He clearly had no idea how many other planetary species he had insulted. I guess we’ll find out when they arrive to teach us how ignorant we actually are about their cultures.

Good writers are observers, researchers, and explorers. We are creative. We live in our imaginations as well as in the real world. We try to “step into another’s shoes.” We are often telling someone else’s story, and why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that? In my Neema mysteries, I tell the story from three points of view: a female scientist, a male police detective, and a gorilla. That’s at least two and half violations of “cultural appropriation,” because although I am female, I’ve never been a scientist. The protagonist of my Run for Your Life trilogy is a teenage girl of mixed race. I guess I get points for having been a teenager at one time, but I don’t have a Black father like my character. I also own a salwar kameez, the tunic-and-loose-pants-and-long-scarf ensemble worn by many Hindu and Muslim women—am I not allowed to wear that? Just shoot me now.

Can a Black or Hispanic author write from the point of view of a Caucasian character? I have no problem with that—do you? Can a Native American man wear a suit and tie, or does he need to don bark and buckskin so he won’t be accused of appropriating White culture?

Yeesh. I once read the beginning of a book that was written from the point of view of an elk. While I rolled my eyes and certainly thought that was over the top, it certainly never entered my brain to say the author couldn’t write that passage because she wasn’t an elk.

So, publishers, please publish more varied voices and authors of different backgrounds so we can read about their authentic experiences. Critics, discuss the stories and the characters all you want. We all have individual tastes and preferences; that’s what makes the world a richer place. But please, let’s share ideas and cultures. Let’s encourage imagination, not stifle good writers. Let’s not talk about “cultural appropriation.”

Why Do We Write? What Do We Write About?

Many of my fellow authors here have been sharing their thoughts about how and why they write, so I thought I’d chime in, too. Sometimes, when I speak to writing groups or classes, an individual in the group asks me how they should decide what they want to write about. Frankly, that question usually astounds me, because I often have at least a dozen ideas competing for attention in my imagination. In my opinion, it all begins with passion.

“What are you passionate about? What do you think about every day?” I ask. One man’s face lit up and he answered that his passion was music. He had been writing about his grandfather using his ham radio, memories that were pleasant, but not really connected to his passion. He was inspired to develop a story about a musician right at that meeting. Another person started musing about the pioneer history of the area.

I have three passions, and those are always the basis of my stories. First is my passion for justice. I worked as a private investigator for a decade, and nobody hires a private investigator when everything is going well. Someone is always being cheated or threatened or mistreated. And as anyone in the law enforcement or legal profession would tell you, justice does not always prevail in real life. I worked on multiple cases where a crime had obviously been committed, but there was not enough evidence to charge the perpetrator, or in some cases, not enough evidence to even find the perpetrator. The sad real-life case of two murdered hikers in my area was the inspiration for my novel Backcountry. I had to fictionalize what might have happened, but the frightening, ugly fact is that the real killer is still out there. But in my novels, I can make justice prevail, and that feels good.

My second passion is for wilderness and wild animals. I spend a lot of time hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, scuba diving in wild places, and I want to share my enthusiasm for our public lands and fellow creatures with as many readers as I can. So each novel in my Sam Westin Wilderness Series is set in a wild place, and each features wildlife. And yes, humans are nearly always the villains of my stories, because that is nearly always the case in real life. Humans kill wild animals a million times more often than any wild animal ever kills a human.

My third passion is for animals in general. I couldn’t live without animals in my life. I am constantly fascinated by their physical abilities and their intelligence. I love the fact that they are not human, I celebrate the special powers of their species. Imagine being a bird, living in a world of air where moving in any direction is possible. Imagine being able to dive to great depths in the ocean and swim through clouds of squid and fish like a whale. Imagine being able to jump to the top of a refrigerator like my cats, or find people by scent like a dog. So my passion for animals comes out not only in my wilderness novels, but my fascination with animal intelligence is the basis for my Neema Mysteries, which feature signing gorillas.

So, my advice to aspiring writers is always: Find your passion. And then share it in your stories.

Internet Trolls and Tree Frogs in Bags

I wish I could write about my next mystery because today I went hiking in the snowy north Cascades where I’m setting the story. But I’m tied up with a ghostwriting project about cyberbullies and internet trolls that is keeping my imagination all too imprisoned in the ugly present. And I’m struggling with the plot in my novel, because I want to set it in post-pandemic times, but the plague didn’t conveniently end in the spring season that I needed it to for my plot to work out. I may have to resort to true fiction to resolve that successfully. But I have to get internet trolls out of my head first. Reality can be such a pain to deal with sometimes.

So, this post is about something totally different: the happy surprises in my life that have involved animals. I have often said that I don’t expect life to always be kind, or easy, or fair, but I darn well expect it to be interesting. And so, I’m thrilled every time I get a surprise that makes my day more intriguing.

Most of my surprises involve animals, especially wildlife, so it should be no mystery why I include so much of the natural world in my writing. My cats are sometimes responsible for my surprises, like the baby opossum I discovered under the couch. Although neither of them ever admitted it, I’m pretty sure one of them kidnapped that poor baby. Of course I rescued it, using a beach towel and a cat carrier. Did you know that a baby opossum is a pretty fierce opponent? They growl and are more than ready to use those sharp teeth.

And then there was the mole that climbed into bed with my visiting sister. That was a surprise to her as well as me. Cats again, no doubt. Mine like to kidnap all sorts of interesting creatures. They rarely injure them. It took me days to find the poor little beastie crawling along my floorboards and take it back outside. It gratefully dug itself back into the earth in seconds. I discovered that moles have beautiful soft silky fur. And giant feet, or course, all the better to dig with.

The tree frog in a sandwich bag by the kitchen sink was probably one of the biggest shocks. Scared me to death. Had an intruder been in my house? Was this a warning of some kind? After I got over my hysteria, I remembered that I’d washed out a sandwich bag the night before and hung it over the faucet to dry. And I had found tree frogs in my house before. I’m not sure I can always blame the cats, because I’ve found frogs sneaking around window screens from time to time. So, tree frog + window over the sink + sandwich bag drying by the sink = tree frog squirming in sandwich bag.

These surprises don’t always happen in my home, though. One time, on a sailing trip through stormy seas, when I was thoroughly seasick and out on the bow tying down something or other in pouring rain, a dolphin emerged beside the boat, rolled over on its side, and we both stared at each other for a long moment, gifting me one magical experience in a truly miserable day.

As a kid, I was awed by a giant luna moth, praying mantises and walking sticks, horned toads, tortoises, bright green garden snakes. (I wasn’t so fond of the patterned brown serpents.)

I will get back to my creative writing soon. For now, after I hammer away at the keyboard for a few hours on my contract job, I keep venturing out into the natural world, trying to banish internet trolls from my brain to allow more space for happy surprises.

Using Weather in Writing

A few years ago, after a surprisingly heavy snowfall (for my coastal area), I decided to pull on my hiking boots and stroll the 1.5 miles to my favorite park while the scenery was coated in white.

The trail was only a bit slippery and the frosting of snow made thick woods and waterfalls completely enchanting. The winds were calm, and the temperature hovered around the freezing point, hardly life-threatening. I was deep into my beloved woods when I noticed that other aspects of my walk might be more than a little hazardous.

BellinghamSnow2014 022

Branches overhead were so burdened with wet snow that every few minutes I heard a loud CRACK! Then a branch would crash to the ground, sometimes from as high as fifty feet in the air. I spent a fair amount of time hugging big trees as I waited for plummeting snow and debris to settle around me. The situation added an unexpected element of suspense to my outing. As in: I could die here today! At least one person dies every year in my state from falling limbs.

This was a good reminder of how much weather conditions can add to any story and help set the mood. I decided that the falling tree limbs would make a great addition to one of my next novels; now I’ve got to find an appropriate place to put that scene.

Weather can set the mood and intensify the feelings an author wants to provoke in readers. Although it might be a bit cliché to set your big suspense scene during a thunderstorm, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder can add a lot of tension. Delve into your memory and sort through all the weather situations you’ve experienced in your lifetime, and you’ll think of interesting weather elements to add to scenes. Because I’m a hiker, kayaker, snowshoer, and scuba diver, I’ve had a lot of run-ins with dramatic weather over the years.

Gathering storm clouds

I included a thunderstorm in my novel Endangered, but the main threat in that Utah setting is peripheral to the storm: when it’s raining on the high plateau, a flash flood could soon be roaring through the slot canyons. An earthquake opens my romantic suspense Shaken, and my heroine Elisa is pinned to the ground by a falling tree. But again, the earthquake isn’t the real threat; it’s the cool damp weather, and because she is trapped, she soon has to battle hypothermia as well as a broken leg.

Pouring rain and driving snow lessen visibility and can add suspense when a character needs to be on the move outside, or if that character is on guard against a threat coming from outdoors. If your characters are indoors, bad weather outside can make a scene feel more “cozy” and romantic.

Tornado

Tornado conditions are always anxiety-provoking: I grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma and once had the occasion to watch as the change in air pressure caused the giant plate glass panels at the front of a store to bow inward. (Fortunately some doors flew open and equalized the pressure before the windows shattered, otherwise I might not be here to write this.)

Sunshine and gentle breezes can add to a pleasant scene. Relentless baking sun and drying winds are a different story.

You see what I mean. The snow is all gone from my neighborhood now, but I want to add those cracking limbs to a future book. And maybe I’ll find a place for those dramatic bowed windows, too, although I no longer live in tornado country. There have been a lot of avalanches in the west this year, so of course my next novel features one.

woman celebrating the sun

In real life, we all deal with the weather every day. And you don’t have to be out camping in the wilderness to deal with weather-related disasters. I often think about all the people trapped in 2012 in high-rise buildings in NYC during a blackout caused by the flood after a hurricane–remember that? Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.

So when I feel the story I’m writing is lacking in some respect, I try to think about how I could use the weather to add drama.