Why I Wrote Blessed are the Dead – Part II

To truly explain why I chose to write about kidnapped children and serial killers, I must go back a few years to my first job as a newspaper reporter.

I worked at a small weekly newspaper in a Minnesota suburb writing about everything from the school board meetings to craft fairs to city ordinances on keeping chickens in the backyard.

One day a big story landed on my beat: A 19-year-old local girl who had joined the military had been abducted from a Texas military base. Traci had been talking on a pay phone on base when someone grabbed her and ran.

The story was astonishing and beyond disturbing.

I met with her father over coffee at a local café. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he told me about his shining star daughter, who was every parent’s dream child. Now missing.

I was struck to the core by this story. I thought about this teenage girl constantly. I even dreamed about her. A few weeks later, when they found her killer and he led police to her body, I cried.

My job was to write about Traci and I poured my heart and soul into it like I had never done on any story before.

I sat in the back at her funeral and wept. It was my all-consuming goal to write stories that did justice to this girl.

Later, I moved back to California for a newspaper job in Monterey. This time, it was a 13-year-old girl named Christina. She had been walking the family dog on the Fort Ord military base when she was abducted. Her father opened his doors to the media. I remember sitting alone in her girly pink bedroom, trying to find a way to do justice to her in my story and struck numb by the realization that she might never come home.

They found her body seven months later in a rural area on the base. Nobody was ever arrested.

As a reporter, I interviewed people like Jerry Seinfeld, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Clint Eastwood. But I also met people like Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was snatched out of her own bedroom during a slumber party by a man with a knife. Her killer was arrested and is on death row.

I also met Kim Swartz, whose daughter, Amber, was taken from their front yard. No trace of her has ever been found. (I’m going to come back to Amber’s case later in part three of this story.)

I began writing a series on cold cases – unsolved crimes. For one, I wrote about Nikki Campbell, who was taken while riding her bike to a friend’s house.

Even though I never met these girls, their faces and stories are permanently engraved on my heart.

The family I grew closest with was the aunt and grandmother of a little Vallejo girl, Xiana, who disappeared on her way to the bus stop.

In fact, I keep in touch with Xiana’s aunt to this day. We share a special bond. There is nobody else in this world that knows like she does what it was like to sit down face-to-face and talk to a monster that preyed on children. We both know the psychological impact that has had on us over the years and how it has affected us as people, and especially, as mothers.

This story — Xiana’s story — hit me the hardest. I had a hard time maintaining my reporter’s objectivity while I covered this story. I became friends with this family and spent countless hours with them, sometimes for a story, but more often just to be there with them in their efforts to find Xiana. I became consumed with her story and her kidnapping. Before they found her remains, something else happened: another little girl in her city was kidnapped. And escaped.

Her kidnapper, Curtis Dean Anderson, was caught and jailed. In jail, he began to give interviews to the press, including me.

Then, he told me he had been kidnapping and killing girls for 20 years …

Part Three to come next month..

If you missed it, you can catch Part One here.



What makes you feel lucky? Not in the Clint Eastwood, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” kind of way, but in the make-you-feel-good and put-a smile-on-your-face kind of way. For me, it can be many things: attracting a fabulously flashy new bird to my feeders, an unexpected hug from my child, finding money in the pocket of the coat I just pulled out of storage. 

This weekend, I had one of those moments. You see, I have this HUGE pile of books beside my bed. It’s so large, it’s moved from the nightstand to the floor. It’s so large, in fact, that I forget what’s in it. On Saturday, I happened to knock the pile over–yes, this is the lucky part–I realized that I had Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest book, in hard cover, hiding in the pile. (Signed, too!) Joy! Giddy, dance around my bedroom joy at this find. 

Yep, books definitely make me feel lucky. I love finding new authors to read, new series to try, new characters to fall in love with, and so on. I had a different lucky book moment a week ago. I discovered one of my favorite cozy authors (Janet Bolin) had a new Threadville Mystery available, and I had missed it! The lucky part was finding it by accident (and having time to read that particular day). Oh, and my favorite modern-day author, J.D. Robb, just released her latest. I have had the most book-lucky week! I think those might be my favorite kinds.

I love moments like these. What makes you feel lucky?

Interview: James M. Jackson

Please welcome James M. Jackson, author of the Seamus McCree mysteries and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My perfect day would occur at our “camp” in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. [Note: “camp” in the U.P. can mean anything from CabinFever-Cover (200x300a rude fishing shack, standing only because it doesn’t have enough ambition to fall down, to a Rockefeller-type hunting lodge with a gazillion rooms. Ours is a nice house with all the amenities.] I awake after a good night’s sleep to the call of a loon on the lake. I write in the morning, taking a break to watch the sun rise over the hill behind me, and then turn around to observe how it paints the opposite shore with its light. I breakfast on the deck, my editing frequently interrupted as I watch birds flit in the woods and gather the sunflower and thistle seeds I have provided for their sustenance and my entertainment. I gently scold the hummingbirds to “play nice” when they perform their aerial duels around their feeders.

Later in the day I take a leisurely stroll through our woods with camera in hand to capture butterfly pictures, or interesting mushrooms, or moss, or shadows, or nothing at all. I go for a run or bicycle ride and cool off in the lake. After dinner I sit on the screened-in porch and read, frequently interrupting myself to watch light play on the water and later to marvel at the sky as it turns pink, orange, red, and purple.

And I fall asleep to the yip of coyotes and howl of the resident wolf pack.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Oh gosh, I wish this question had been later in the interview, because I always get strange looks when I fess up that I am particularly fond of applesauce on pizza. The best is my partner Jan’s homemade applesauce on her homemade pizza.

I do not yet have any signature accessory. I will be wearing a boa to celebrate the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime at the SinC annual Malice breakfast, so who knows…?

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Sara Paretsky for three reasons: (1) Because she had the courage to break with “tradition” and write a strong female character succeeding in roles previously restricted to men; (2) for founding Sisters in Crime; (3) for pulling me aside after a masters class and telling me that my writing had an “interesting voice” I should keep.

Early Robert B. Parker for his tight writing.

My son’s 9th grade English teacher who I overheard say that no work is ever finished; the author finally chooses to abandon it.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I often write in silence—the better to hear character voices. Early in the morning before the rest of the world has risen is my preferred time to write because I am a morning person and it’s quiet. However, if others in the house are making noises that intrude, I’ll stick on headphones and play either classical or new age.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Cabin Fever would be a box of mixed chocolates with the identifying sheet removed. The outside of each piece (character) suggests what might be inside, but the consumer (reader) can’t always tell what the filling is, so there will be surprises.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Jan and I overwintered at our camp in 2006-7 and loved it even though we were isolated deep in the woods, fifteen miles from the nearest place you can buy anything. I wanted to use the isolation of the remote U.P. during the winter to reflect Seamus McCree’s internal state. To that character and landscape setting I added the mystery elements necessary for a good story.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Fundamentally it is all about relationships. I also reflect on the problem of seeing a grey world as only black or white. Thirdly, I’m interested in exploring when ends do or do not justify the means.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
At a young age, Seamus McCree lost his father, a Boston cop. It made him angry. He’s sublimated that anger: first into joining a gang, then into becoming a pro soccer player, and finally into being a successful hard-charging businessman. He is principled and impulsive. He quit a lucrative job on Wall Street on the day he found out a boss had changed one of his reports to please a client, giving up a six-figure bonus he could have earned if he had waited a short while before quitting. Because he’s bottled his feelings inside, he has difficulty forming close relationships—although so far he has succeeded with his son, Paddy.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Robert B. Parker’s Spenser + John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport + A.A. Milne’s Winne-The-Pooh

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Nevada Barr, Barry Eisler, Graham Greene, Laura Lippman, Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker

What’s next for you?
Cabin Fever’s official launch is April 8th. I’m currently working on the third Seamus McCree novel with a working title of Doubtful Relations. This year I will also return to writing a few short stories. My previous short stories have been both mysteries and literary.


James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mysteries, Bad Policy (March 2013) and Cabin Fever (coming April 2014), published by Barking Rain Press. Bad Policy won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods and Georgia’s low country. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge (Master Point Press 2012).

Website: http://jamesmjackson.com
Facebook: (http://on.fb.me/17NSLhC)
Twitter (@JMJAuthor)

He regularly blogs at Writers Who Kill (http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/)

Interview: Michael Marshall

Please welcome Michael Marshall, author of We Are Here and other novels.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Waking up with my wife and son in a nice, urban hotel room on the first day of a trip to some big, vibrant city, in autumn… having an early coffee at a sidewalk café watching the world go by and plotting how to spend the morning, though probaMarshall_WeAreHereMyste#3ACbly ending up just walking the streets… then being magically transported to some rugged miles-from-anywhere wilderness for the afternoon, for more walking and talking, with drinks and dinner — and maybe a few games of pool — in some wood-paneled local dive before retiring to sleep in a cozy log cabin in a snowy forest. With a couple of cats on the bed. And a nice cup of tea.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m seldom seen without my iPhone, doubtless smell of cigarettes, and possibly say “Interesting…” a little too often. Doesn’t make me sound like a captivating combination, I know. But I have cash on me.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Nicholas Royle, whose work and encouragement first got me sending short stories out; Stephen King, who made me realize the kind of engagement with the reader that I aspire to; and Kingsley Amis, who showed that everything in human life — however grim or annoying or frankly tedious — can be food for amusement, and that every single word is worth choosing carefully.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Very seldom. I find music picks at my ears, making it impossible to do anything except sit and listen to it. Once in a while I do find it helpful, however — usually when fighting through some particularly knotty section — and will put some Bach on, or perhaps a Hans Zimmer movie soundtrack, or one song with exactly the right atmosphere, on endless repeat.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
An After Eight. This is a distinctively English chocolate, and I guess the nearest functional US equivalent would be a Junior Mint, though they’re different both in form and how they’re perceived. After Eights are very flat and thin and square and are seen as something of a treat. They have a rippled dark chocolate outside (the noir and suspense elements), with a bitterness that is in strong contrast to the velvety mint fondant interior (the all-important threads of human emotion, and warmth). There are more boutique and expensive versions of this combination — but I don’t want to write exclusive, highbrow fiction: I like books that are accessible to everyone.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
A lot of songs and books are written about love. That’s understandable. It’s a big thing, and often sculpts people’s lives. But friendship may be even more important, and the way in which it threads through our lives — and the impact of its loss upon how we feel about the world and our selves — is just as critical. The conceits in We Are Here seemed to give me a new way of looking at these ideas, of concretizing the role of friendship in our lives.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The importance of love, and friendship, and family, and our pasts — and what happens to us, sometimes years later, when darkness arrives in these areas, and how we may hope to recover and rebuild our worlds when that has happened.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
We Are Here is an ensemble piece — there are a few ‘main’ characters, their stories interweaving — but I suppose the protagonist is a man called John Henderson. He’s now living in a tiny apartment in New York, working as a waiter, and in a new relationship with a tough young woman called Kristina. Though We Are Here is a standalone novel, John previously featured in a book of mine called Bad Things, in which his past as both a lawyer and special forces agent are covered, along with the break-up of his marriage after the death of his young son in very mysterious circumstances. John is a strong, forceful man, with a sense of humor. He’s made some pretty big mistakes in his life, however, and knows all about the darkness threaded through the world, and through human nature.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and actually find it impossible. I spent nine months writing his story and he seems very real to me, as a character in his own right rather than amalgam of other people.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, P. G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Kingsley Amis, and Stephen Jones. I don’t want to even think about the hangover that would ensue, but it’d be fun getting there.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m in the middle of a new novel, set around the town where we now live — Santa Cruz, in Northern California — and co-writing a movie adaptation of a previous novel of mine, Killer Move. I’m also assisting BBC America with the television series adaption of my novel The Intruders.


Michael Marshall was born in England but spent his early years in the United States, South Africa, and Australia. After spending twenty-five years in London, he recently moved to Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son. His previous novel, The Intruders, is about to go into production as a BBC America series.

Website: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com

Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Dissing Mysteries

No, this is not a blog about people who think mysteries are trash and not worth reading because they’re nothing more than “escape reading.”  The latter charge has always amused me, because I’m not alone in thinking that all reading is a form of escape, whether it’s Murder at the Vicarage or Madame Bovary.

This blog is about people who don’t respect the genre they’re ostensibly working in.  Years ago when my Nick Hoffman amateur sleuth series was just getting started, Woody Allen did a profoundly misguided film called Manhattan Murder Mystery.  It was slapdash and sloppy, and missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Yes, there were some funny lines along the way, but the movie was hollow at its core because it didn’t make sense.  It’s one thing for cops, PIs and other professionals to investigate a murder, but the motive for someone untrained has to be believable; leaving that key element out as if it doesn’t matter shows a lack of respect for the genre–and its fans.  To me, the film was tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

I just tried watching a film called Columbus Circle about a wealthy, mysterious agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building whose neighbor is murdered.  The new, classy-looking neighbors who take over the dead woman’s apartment suddenly have a trailer trash brawl out in the hallway and as soon as it happened, I thought 1) they’re faking it 2) they’re doing this to lure the shut-in out of her privacy 3) they’re somehow after her money.  All of that proved to be true within minutes.  Worse still, the new woman neighbor badgered the wealthy agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was absolutely no reason why her intended victim should have succumbed to the pressure. So not only was the psychology bogus, the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make it remotely believable or suspenseful, and I see this on film and on TV way too often.

A more recent case in point is the hugely popular Benedict Cumberpatch love fest, aka Sherlock.  It’s gained viewers each season as it’s become less coherent and extravagantly devoted to special effects demonstrating the processes of Sherlock’s thinking.

The show started out as fiendishly clever in the first season, everything you’d hope for in a brand new take on Watson and Holmes.  The show even wittily played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance, not just as seen by outsiders like their landlady and a restaurant owner.  The leads themselves discussed it, Sherlock with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

But the special effects that were entertaining in Season One seem to have run amok and at times they not only upstage the story–such as it is–but the inimitable Cumberpatch himself. One fan told me that he enjoyed the FX because they were a fine demonstration of the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  This strikes me as a basic misunderstanding of Holmes’s character: his mind is anything but chaotic.  It’s brilliantly organized and makes connections we ordinary mortals can’t.  Between the effects and the frantic editing, I’ve had to replay some scenes to follow them.  It’s one thing when there’s explosively fast editing in a Jason Bourne movie, but that’s out of place in Sherlock because his internal processes should be a marvel, not stupefying.

There’s also much less actual story in the show than there used to, and that’s been very puzzling to me.  The answer came when I happened to see the show’s writers happily confide in an interview that for them, Sherlock was not going to be about him “solving a crime ever week.”  Seriously?  What’s the point, then?  Why try breathing new life into a character with so many lives in books and in film and then totally subvert his genius?  Holmes is a brilliant detective.  With a level of insight that’s uncanny, he observes, deduces, and detects, either in the field or just sitting in his armchair.  But the writers are apparently bored by all that, and prefer playing with toys instead.  Their attitude shows contempt for the genre they’re in.  Why not make him a plumber or an astronaut?

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is a true mystery, even as it offers viewers  an even bolder take on Holmes.  That’s not immediately obvious because it’s not as flashy.  Elementary doesn’t just make Holmes a recovering addict, it turns Watson into a woman and his “sober companion”–at least when the show debuted.  There’s no show-offy camera work or FX here, but plenty of substance, and crimes are consistently solved, not ignored.  Sometimes the motive in a crime might seem weak, or the suspect obvious, but perfection on a weekly basis isn’t really achievable.  Nonetheless, the show is a real mystery that respects the source material but gives it plenty of smart contemporary twists.  Elementary never loses sight of who Sherlock is and why he’s held our imagination for over a century.  Best of all, by making Watson a woman, it’s opened up the Sherlock story in a whole new way–just as Laurie L. King’s wonderful series breathed its own new life into the Sherlock legend.

Lucy Liu’s Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.  Part of the joy of this show has been watching her develop from a sober companion into an amateur detective and Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving,  Just as enjoyable is the fact that her relationship with Sherlock does not feel stereotypical.  You don’t sense the writers taking the clichéd tack of pushing a male and female lead together because what else can happen between them?  I’m actually surprised at how many mystery fans I know who haven’t ever given Elementary a try, even the ones who are tired of Sherlock for many of the same reasons I am.

Do I love crime fiction, mystery films and TV?  Absolutely.  That’s one reason I was thrilled years ago when the Detroit Free Press expanded my brief and made me their crime fiction reviewer, a spot I held for about a decade. And I admire writers who value the genre, so I’m sorry when people cash in on it–or try–without really understanding its essence.


Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.

For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:http://www.levraphael.com.

Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LevRaphael

Read his book blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/

Interview: Shannon Baker

Please welcome Shannon Baker, author of the Nora Abbott Mystery Series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I can think of lots of perfect day scenarios but if I had to pick just one, it would be hiking in the Grand Canyon with my best guy. We’d wake to the sunrise over the Colorado River and spend the day in the sunshine, exploring the trails. Right now, as I write this, I’m stuck in rural Nebraska and it’s not even going to hit above freezing today. So thank you for bringingbrokentrust home the point of just how far from my perfect day I actually have strayed!

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I am so generic! I have no signature anything. Apparently, I have an anti-signature color, though. A few weeks ago when I visited my daughter she nearly didn’t recognize me as I walked down the concourse. I was wearing a pink sweater. My ex (her father) hooked up with a woman whose signature color is pink. My daughter didn’t think I’d ever be caught in that color. Huh. No bimbo can tell me what I can or can’t wear!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Helen Hooven Santmyer. She wrote And Ladies of the Club, which I read in the 80’s. I loved the book and thought that someday I’d like to write a sweeping story like that. Then I figured if I was ever going to get to the point that I could, I’d better start working on it. I probably won’t ever write something that ambitious, but it did make me start writing.

Mari Sandoz. She came from the same area where I lived for 20 years, the Nebraska Sandhills. She overcame such obstacles and failure to achieve such success with her writing.

An Economics professor at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Petr. I got married and moved to the Nebraska Sandhills before I graduated in business. As I was filing papers to complete my classes via independent study and correspondence (this was way before online classes) he stopped me in the hall. He gave me a mini-lecture about making sure I finished school and not giving up on finding something meaningful to do with my education that it made me feel guilty if I even thought about not getting my degree. I didn’t use my degree for nearly 20 years but it made the difference in me getting a job when I really needed one and that completely changed the direction of my life for the better.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Again, I’m super boring here. No music. I can write in coffee shops and cafes, I can write outside, I can write in libraries and airports. But I get distracted by music. I want to sing and dance.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Probably 60% cocoa, because it’s not terribly dark but not sweet, either. It’s medium boil, according to my publisher. I’d add a few chopped almonds, because Nora’s mother is nutty, and I’d throw in some toffee, because her love interest, Cole, is sweet but they clash a little. There would be a mystery ingredient that you couldn’t identify to include the whole mystical Hopi element.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I first moved to Flagstaff several years ago, the community was in an uproar over making snow on the sacred peaks outside of town. Good for business, bad for Native religion. Since I accidently got a job at The Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental non-profit, I added that strange experience. I mashed it all together and came up with Nora Abbott, who owns a ski resort in Flagstaff in book one, Tainted Mountain, and in book two, Broken Trust, moves to Boulder, CO and accidently hires on with a corrupt non-profit.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
It seems that no matter what my books are about, there is usually some kind of mother issue going on. And there’s usually some character arc dealing with strengthening independence and learning to know yourself. Why do you ask?

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Nora is an overachiever. She grew up in Boulder and while her mother married rich men and cruised through the whole affluent scene, Nora developed a more serious view of the world and became an environmentalist. She’s always taken care of her mother and everyone around her. In Broken Trust, Nora is trying to learn how to take care of herself. But she’s connected to the Hopi tribe in an unexpected way and they aren’t willing to leave her alone.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
There’s an Ally McBeal element to Nora, where she’s dramatic and prone to wild bursts of imagination. She’s got a little bit of Hillary Clinton, where she can compartmentalize trauma and get the job done. And she’s got just a touch of Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring and started a whole environmental movement.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I came to the mystery world pretty late. I thought I’d written a stand-alone thriller and when my editor offered me a contract for a mystery she asked, “Is this a series?” I only hesitated a second before saying, “Yes?” So I started reading mysteries. So my guest list is slanted to contemporary writers.  Jessica Lourey, Catriona McPherson, Craig Johnson. Not only are they terrific writers, they are so fun and funny they’d keep the table lively. William Kent Krueger, because he’s, hands-down, the nicest writer in the world. (And he’s a terrific author.) Harlan Coben, because he’s so unbelievably good and he’s also generous and kind. Hank Phillipi Ryan, because she’s so fabulous it would add a real shine to the gathering.

What’s next for you?
Broken Trust will hit the shelves in March 2014 and in March 2015, Tattered Legacy will follow. Tainted Mountain is set in Flagstaff, Broken Trust takes place in Boulder, CO, and Tattered Legacy takes Nora to Moab, UT. All books deal with Hopi mysticism, environmental issues, relationships and, of course, murder. I am working on a new series set in rural Nebraska with a reluctant woman sheriff.

Thanks, gang, for hosting me. Your questions were certainly not ordinary and made me think. Ouch.


Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, due March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. A lover of western landscapes, Baker can often be found backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, or just playing lizard in the desert.  She is on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

On “Almost” and Completion

One of my favorite books of the past two years (and many other people’s favorite as well) is THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I’m assuming most everyone reading this has read it or is familiar with John Green’s tail of two lovestruck teens who meet at a cancer support group.

More than anything else, there’s an overwhelming sense when reading the book not only of love but of what happens when someone is staring down the possibility of an unfinished life.

Which is terrifying.

It’s terrifying watching two teens struggle with the idea that they could go before they get to do everything. And it’s a point that’s driven home even more by protagonist Hazel’s favorite (fake) book that’s left completely unfinished. The words just stop in the middle of a sentence. It’s isn’t almost finished. It’s incomplete.

Hazel and her beloved Gus travel to The Netherlands to track down the author of the novel to find the elusive author and find out what happens.

But the author—and the characters—know that this isn’t how life works. If something is left unfinished, almost done, you may never get answers.

When talking about books, the idea of a story/manuscript/series having an “unfinished life” isn’t obviously as terrifying as when this happens in real life (or in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). But it’s still disappointing.

As discussed in my last post, I have a complicated relationship with “almost.” I’ve spent my whole life doing things rather than almost doing things. But when it comes to books, there is some lack of control over completion.

Sure, as you may have ascertained, I’m one to finish the manuscripts I start. I don’t have any abandoned almost-book half-naked in a drawer.

However, the idea of the unfinished is different all together when it comes to publishing. For awhile, trilogies reigned, buffered by their popularity in YA. But recently, there’s been a pull back.

I know a few under-contract authors with big, six-figure deals, who have been told the three books they had planned will actually only be two. Or maybe only one book sells at a time when the author has been hoping for a series since birthing the characters from his/her brain.

This is a different feeling of almost.

I write my books as standalones that could continue to a series—something I’d love to do and have planned, but it won’t kill me to “finish” the tale because I don’t set it up like that. At this point in my career, I just want those characters to live, whether it be in one book or three. I think most writers understand this feeling, no matter the stage.

But as a reader, what can be done by a canceled series or unfinished plotline? It’s not the same (truly or metaphorically) of an unfinished life, but really now, what would our literary world have been like if J.K. Rowling had never been allowed to write all seven HARRY POTTER books?

Or if THE HUNGER GAMES was stopped on book two?

Or (more plausibly) if George R.R. Martin is never able to complete the GAME OF THRONES series, leaving us to wonder about the fate of our favorite characters and Westeros? I’ve read that the producers of the TV show related to the books know how the story ends, but what if we never get the book version of the end?

Yes, almost is a scary place in the literary world. As a reader, what would you do if you found out your favorite series just cut off, left unfinished, for one reason or another?