(This post is from my public Facebook page The Monster's Daughter and Company. You can read the first chapter of Maternal Instincts here.)
Stories come to me. Characters knock on my imagination and tell me their tales. Sometimes the stories are sad and horrific as well as beautiful. Sometimes I don’t want to write the stories, so I pass on them, and they disappear into the ether. But sometimes, the characters and the stories refuse to go away. This is the case with my in progress novels Maternal Instincts and Killing Beauty. These novels have at their genesis two horrific crimes perpetrated in our rural county in Washington. They are crimes I didn’t (and don’t) want to think about, and I certainly didn’t want to write about them—I most certainly didn’t want to exploit these terrible tragedies for entertainment purposes.
And yet, these crimes not only affected the families, they affected our entire community. The violence, the horror of these crimes, reverberated through our collected lives, like a kind of family secret that no one will talk about. I didn’t want to write the true life stories of these crimes. I believe fiction is often better at unraveling the real truth of an event, at finding the heart or heartlessness of the matter. It’s better at meaning and context than any true life tale.
Still, how could I write these stories? I don’t like true life crime stories. I don’t watch true life murder shows or read books about true crime. When I was a girl, a girl I knew in my high school was brutally murdered. The crime was shocking and unbelievable. I lived in a small town in Michigan where things like that did not happen. It rocked me off my foundations and changed me forever. I didn’t think that murder was “entertaining” and certainly didn’t want to write about any murders in my novels—at least not in a Murder, She Wrote kind of way.
And yet two crimes happened in the small town where I live now, and the stories were linked in my imagination as the seeds for two novels. The books wouldn’t go away no matter how much time passed or how much I didn’t want to write them.
In 1991, a young man who went to school here raped and killed a young girl who also lived here. The details were chilling, horrific, and stunning. He had an urge to rape her, seemingly out of the blue, he said, and then he decided to murder her. In 2004, a mentally ill woman took her babies into the woods near here and killed them. I remember that particular day as though it were yesterday. I can see the clear blue summer sky in my mind’s eye, can hear the news helicopters overhead. Not long after this second horror happened, I started a novel with this particular crime as part of it. It begins like this:
On Sunday the woman took her two little girls into the forest. She drove a long way from her home, heading north, toward the mountain she had only seen once, in a dream. She stopped the car at a place which reminded her of a gravel pit, only different. It was like a hole in the forest that would soon disappear. She spread a peach-colored baby blanket over the wet gravel. Then she went back to the car for her daughters. She carried her two year old and held the hand of the four year old and led them to the blanket. They were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls sat dutifully as she whispered for them to stay put. Clouds covered the summer sky. A crow flew overhead, calling out, and the girls looked up to watch the bird as their mother raised the rifle to her shoulder and took aim.
Fog sank from the clouds, shrouding the dead children until the mother led the police to them.
But I couldn’t go very far with it. I cried every time I read it or thought about it. I had to put it away. This year, the characters again came knocking. This time they came with a plot that was more fictionalized—and the characters themselves were completely fictionalized. Tougher. The main character is Katie Kelly, a retired Portland police officer who spent summers in Beauty Falls, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge where she now lives. The novel begins when a young girl runs up to Katie on a trailhead and tells her she’s been kidnapped. The next book will be Killing Beauty (or Beauty Falls) and Katie will be involved in trying to save a child who ran into the forest to escape her mother after the mother killed her other daughter. The mother was a friend of Katie’s when they were teens and they both were out as a group with Amanda and Andy (and two other boys) the night Andy raped and killed Amanda.
I hope with these novels that I can give context to these kinds of crimes, give them some kind of meaning or reason (not justification). Such events can become mythic in a community—either to horrify or to inform. I still have difficulty even writing the scenes where Katie remembers just hearing about Amanda’s death (she was not a witness to the murder). Yet I write to better understand my world. I will try to do justice to these stories and therefore to the lives that were lost.