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Author of the young-adult thriller Shock Point, as well as five other mysteries and thrillers.
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My mom died around midnight September 30. But she had been having heart problems for years. I remember coming home from college in 1981 and she was wearing a Holter monitor because of an irregular heart beat. She had her first heart attack in 1997. When I heard the news, I was peeling apples for an apple pie. I fell to my knees and sobbed, still clutching the peeler. She described it all as an adventure, and told me that she had always wanted to be pushed down a hospital corridor at full speed on a gurney, watching the lights in the ceiling slide by.
Her health slowly declined. She had a second heart attack in 2011. Her world got smaller, but her attitude never did. She made art of all kinds.
She visited her "shut ins" even though she herself was older than some of them. She loved meeting new people, and still took walks in the historic cemetery in our neighborhood. She knew everyone who walked, ran, or smoked pot there. I remember when I was there in June. She was so weak - her heart was working at about 25% capacity - that she had to sit on the nearest tombstone and didn't think she could go any farther than 20 yards from the entrance. But then a woman with a dog came walking by. Mom had never seen her before, so of course she greeted her and asked all about her life. Meanwhile the dog had gotten down on its belly and was whining, looking right at mom. Finally the woman said, "This is so strange. My dog never does this, but she really wants to come to you." The dog crawled over to mom and rolled over while mom petted her.
By the time she had found out all about the young woman's life, she had gotten her energy back, so we walked al little further. When we stated down a hill, we saw some creepy homeless-looking guys riding kid's bikes. One blew his nose in the dirt. I was disgusted, and worried yet ready to defend my mom from these guys.
While I was thinking all this, Mom was calling out, "Kenny!!" They hugged and grinned at each other. And Kenny was introducing her to the other guy as his friend Nora. He looked like a meth addict or an ex-addict, with missing front teeth and a bad sunburn. It was clear he loved my mom and my mom loved him.
For years, my mom has been dying on the installment plan. She was ready to die. We were ready for her to die. There was nothing unsettled, nothing unsaid. She thought it was funny when her fortune said, "You will soon change your present line of work" and kept it. When I took care of her while she was on hospice, she told the nurse, "Last night my heart was chattering like a magpie, and I thought 'Whee!'" She was disappointed that it hadn't happened. And then it did.
My dad died in 2003, but he had Alzheimers, and by the time he wasn't himself. In 2011 I lost three good friends to cancer. I've never lost a husband or a child.
This has hurt way more than I ever thought it would. I am so glad I had her in my life. I tell myself that you can't expect to have your mom forever. And I didn't! But it still hurts.
Driving to dinner. Hand on my husband's knee. Smiling. Talking about something. Talking about nothing.
Past his far shoulder suddenly a dog.
The dog is just outside his window. Appearing so out of nowhere it's like magic. Black lab. Running flat out toward us. Pink tongue streaming behind. Black leash streaming behind.
It looks totally happy. Happy and clueless.
No time to scream. No time to brake. No time to react.
A second after we first see it, the dog and car meet just past the driver's side front bumper. A horrible heavy thump that rocks the car, the sound and feel of something caught, the sound and feel of something let go.
And then we are screaming.
We pull over in the gravel, still screaming. It has to be dead. It has to be. Oh my god. It seems like we are a long ways away, blocks and blocks, but yesterday I saw it was not even half a block.
I get out. It's worse than I thought.
Not one dog, but two.
Two dogs lying on their backs, paws in the air.
I've never seen dogs lying like that. Both in the middle of the other lane. Cars are already stacking up. I try to think of what to do. I remember an awful five-fatality car crash we came upon several years ago before the ambulances showed up. People had gotten out of their cars and were directing traffic. Should we do that? i don't know what to do.
I do not want to see what our car has done to these poor animals. A young man kneels by one, a young woman by the other. Screaming, crying, begging. What will these people think of us? We killed their dogs.
As I get closer, I can see they are street kids. The girl with red-gold dreads and pants made of patches. The guy with red-gold hair and a black Tshirt. They pick up their dogs, cradling them in their arms, and carry them to the side of the road.
I keep thinking I should know what to do, but I don't. I don't know anything.
A woman has pulled over and is on the phone with 9-1-1. A yellow carpet cleaning van is parked behind her. Another woman who lives across the street runs over.
The guy is begging. "Aldo! Aldo!" The black lab is moving a little. He puts his hand near its mouth, and the dog nips at his fingers. And then it stops being alive.
The little dog is still alive and whining.
The two women are both yelling at the guy sitting in his van, watching everything and grinning. "What are you smiling about! You hit these two poor dogs! Get over here, you coward!"
Then I say "We hit the dogs." I say it quietly. I feel so guilty. How did we hit two dogs?
I try to look up Dove Lewis, the emergency animal shelter, on my phone. I keep typing the wrong letters, and the harder I try the worse I get. I tell the lady on the phone with 9-1-1 what I'm doing, because I'm pretty sure no one comes when you hit a dog.
The lady at Dove Lewis says to bring the dogs in. I tell my husband to get the Subaru.
These two kids are still just wailing and wailing. Stumbling from one dog to the other, shaking, weeping so hard snot runs down their faces.
The guy lifts the lab into the back - even though we all know it must be dead - and then climbs in beside it. The girl sits in the back with the little dog and I pick up their two huge packs (they were setting down their packs when they lost control of the dogs) and bag of groceries and somehow manage to shove them all in the car.
And then we drive. Too fast. I keep telling my husband to be careful, that the guy is just loose back there.
Otherwise, the car is mostly quiet. The guy is curled over the dog, weeping soundlessly. The girl is trying to reassure the little black and white dog, named Karate Kid. Neither of these kids are that much older than our daughter. But somehow they've gone from being someone's precious babies to two kids living on the street with their dogs.
At the vet hospital, a tech in blue scrubs comes out to the parking lot, puts her hand to the lab's neck and shakes her head. She's a tall girl, broad-shouldered, and she manages to carry his body in by herself.
Three hours later, we are looking at X-rays of the smaller dog. (It turns out the guy in the yellow van hit him). The ball on one hip joint has been turned into paste. Everything has been pushed to one side.
And after they say goodbye to both dogs, both kids stagger back out into the waiting room. Eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping.
And that was our Sunday nightmare.
One of the first times I ever rode in a taxi was in New York City. In my home town, there might have been one taxi. Maybe. My town was so small that even an escalator was something exotic. Anyway, that time in New York, I was in my 20s, I wasn't a kid, but still I got in the front seat with the driver.
This must have been a pretty big novelty, because he ended up proposing to me. He offered to drive us to a nearby state with no waiting period so we could be married immediately. (I totally stole this scene for my first book, Circles of Confusion.)
It might also have been on this same trip that I was exposed to headphones that connected under your chin. I was only familiar the kind that went over the top of your head in a band, but I figured the headphones they handed me in the plane were the same. I ended up looking liking I had an antennae. I still remember how red my face went when I noticed my seatmate giving me weird looks.
It has surprised me that as I have gotten older, things still scare me and I still do things wrong. I'm an adult. I'm verging on old. Shouldn't I just know how to do things? For example, it still makes me nervous to drive a rental car. Even with GPS in the car and on my phone, I can easily get lost.
This week I'm going to North Carolina and then New York. I still get a little anxious about the subway. About getting lost and panhandlers and rushing people. In the city, I tend to walk everywhere and tell myself it's exercise, but it also feels more like I'm in control.
As soon as I get back, I have to do something that is going to require me to be a grownup. I'm going to be with someone who is dying. Be there until the end.
When my dad was dying, he said, "You learn how to do it just by doing it." I don't think he was referring to death - he had Alzheimers and was not particularly oriented (to the point he no longer remembered my name). Still, what he said was true. You learn how to do anything just by doing it. And maybe it comes easy and maybe it comes hard, but you still learn.
And I will learn how to do this.
The only way out is through.
Yesterday at lunch, I walked over to the Lloyd Center Mall, which has an ice rink in the middle of it. As usual, one of the ice skaters, a nicely dressed man of about 30, stood out. Not because he was particularly talented (although he's not half bad, and he's certainly waaaay better than I will ever be). It's because he skates with a huge smile on his face. And whenever he lands a jump or sometimes just for skating backward he'll raise his hands for imaginary applause and nod, grinning. Sometimes he pumps his fists. You can practically hear the waves of clapping.
If you haven't seen him before, it's kind of startling. How often do we see such naked joy and pride? You'll see shoppers stare at him with their heads tilted to one side, trying to figure him out. They might look around the edges of the rink for the audience he is surely playing to. But it's not there.
And then you get it. If he ever did compete, it would be in Special Olympics.
But yesterday when I saw him, I thought, that's what I need to be like. My writing has been going really well lately. And the writing is the only thing I can control (and sometimes I can't even control that, especially if my life is too full). How editors react to it and whether someone will buy it is out of my control. Even how my agent will react isn't a given, although I know she will work with me on a rewrite if she doesn't like it. I can't control reviews, sales, award nominations (or the lack of them), events, etc. etc. Etc.
But I need to give myself permission to take joy and pride in what I do. It starts by writing what I want to spend months and months with, not what I think the market will buy. It continues with telling myself a story that is going to involve all my emotions. One that when I get up from the keyboard will make me grin. And then I'll bow my head and hear the imaginary applause.
I do not own a gun. I would never own a gun. I also don't know a lot about guns. But sometimes I write about characters for whom the reverse of all these things is true. That's where research comes in.
I have fired weapons on an FBI gun range. I have done firearms simulation training (FATS) at the FBI, at the Writers Police Academy, and at Tualatin's excellent Threat Dynamics (one of the few places like it open to civilians).
If you don't know about something, do as much reading as you can. Start with the Internet, then maybe progress to textbooks for professionals. (Although there are a few photos in Practical Homicide Investigation I wish I could unsee.) See if you can have a real-life experience.
After that try to have someone who is an expert in the field vet what you write.
For The Night She Disappeared, one of the experts I interviewed was a person who worked on a sheriff's dive team.
For The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, I had an expert in bioweapons read what I had written about hanta virus and bioweapons. I had done as much research on my own as I could, but we all know that can only take you so far.
I am sure I still make errors. But I try really hard not to.
Everyone who writes books or for movies or TV loves the idea of a safety on a gun. Taking it off ratchets up the suspense. You know you're one step closer to someone dying. But if you write that a character is switching off the safety, do yourself a favor and make sure the gun you are writing about actually has one. This is what I've seen in just the last week. Neither of these guns has a safety.
1. In just a few weeks, I'll be leaving for The Writer's Police Academy. There is always so much to do there. Should I suit up and learn how to do a building search? Listen to a Secret Service Agent explain how to identify mass shooters - in advance? Solve a sexual assault case? If you are a mystery writer, this is the only conference of its kind, and it is fascinating and intense.
2. From North Carolina, I'll fly into New York City where I will spend a few days seeing the city, as well as hanging out with my agent and talking with my team at Henry Holt. I have been to the city probably eight or nine times, but I have never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge or taken the Staten Island Ferry. What else should I do there?
3. For the moment, my mom is doing better. I've heard this time called "bonus time." Of course, for all of us, it could be bonus time.
4. I finished edits on two books. Yay! One book, which was written in a horrific blur, ended up having the fewest edits of anything I have written ever.
5. I'm not sure how this happened, but for the second year in a row, I find myself beginning two books at the same time. Or maybe not beginning two books at the same time. I'm finding it hard to concentrate, but I really need to be producing lots and lots of words.
I feel like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was such a big seller that using such a similar title is confusing. I'm sure the powers-that-be said one is YA the other Adult, so it doesn't matter. Still it's like calling a book Gone with the Windmills.
The nurse who follows up from the hospital just called. My mom was in the bathroom and so I answered and started talking for her. Figuring they would want to follow up with her directly, I handed her the phone when she came out.
The first thing she said was "Help! Help! They've got me tied up in a closet and they're not feeding me."
I'm down in the little house where I grew up. So strange to think I have lived in the house I share with my husband for more years than I lived here. But this is what feels like home in a deep, to-the-bone way.
My mom was in the hospital for three days and then discharged on oxygen. What will happen next is kind of an open question. Us three kids are all rallying around her to take care of her. I will spend nearly two weeks here, and after that my sister plans to spend a week. My brother lives around the corner.
A hospice nurse in Australia complied a list of the top five regrets of the dying. I asked my mom about each one.
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
My mom has always been an outlier - a little louder, a little livelier, a little more colorfully dressed. She makes friends with everyone.
I was here about a month ago, and we were walking through the historic cemetery that we both love. I saw some creepy homeless guys riding bikes and mentally braced myself to deal with them. Only it turns out they were not creepy homeless guys to my mom. She was hugging them and introducing me to her "friend" - a sunburned tweaker (or maybe ex-tweaker) with missing teeth. And you could tell he loved her right back.
It's wonderful to hang out with someone who is nearly 80. Two percent milk is sadly deficient and what's wrong with strawberry shortcake - more whipped cream, please! - for dinner?
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
My mom got a job as a florist when I was about 12, and did work more than she wanted to, but she was able to take it easier in her later years. The nurse said this was a comment she heard much more from men.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
You always know where you stand with my mom. Usually it's that she loves you.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Mom and her "flower girls" - ladies who worked together at the flower shop years ago.
For some reason, this just cracked me up. It's like we've exhausted every possible forbidden love combo: humans/vampires, secretary/boss, student/teacher, etc. So now it's Vikings.
In high school, I was the klutziest girl imaginable. I bruised my knee on the pommel horse. In softball, I managed to swing the bat so that the softball ricocheted back into my own face. When we played round-robin tennis, I was beaten by everyone. Including a girl who had juvenile arthritis and could not even use one of her hands. Including Nancy I., a mainstreamed developmentally disabled girl who had never before beaten anyone in anything. She crowed about it in the halls for weeks afterward. "I beat April Henry! I beat April Henry."
In college, I kept spraining my ankle, one time so bad they casted it. (The cab driver who took me home valiantly offered to carry me up to my second floor apartment, a gesture I think he regretted by the landing.)
Once I started working full time I did exercise most every day, but since I had a job and a kid, it was mostly stuff like 30 minutes on an exercycle. I used to get depressed every fall as the days got shorter, because I knew I wouldn't be able to run before work for months and months.
Now that I work at home, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I run five miles four times a week. I lift weights. I somehow accidentally got into kung fu and have fallen in love with it. Nothing lasts forever, which is why I take five to seven classes a week, including aspects I thought I would never participate in, like sparring and grappling (really never thought I would do that last one, which, when you're a woman, feels kind of rape-y). It turns out I bruise like a banana. I have fingerprint shaped marks all up and down my arms, and sometimes have to reassure people that yes, "I am safe at home." I pretty much always look bad, but this week, when I tripped on a rock and fell while running and I also had someone roll their knee over my elbow while grappling, I look particularly banged up.
I will never be coordinated. I will probably always flinch when someone tosses me a set of keys. But I'm pretty damn proud of myself for doing things I would never have dreamed of doing.
1. Last night I turned in the revisions for my 2014 YA thriller, which has the working title of The Body in the Woods. (You'll never guess what they find in the woods!) It's the first in a new YA series called the Point Last Seen Series.
2. I got the idea in April 2012 when a friend told us her teen was a volunteer with Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue. Not only do they look for people lost in the woods, but they also recover bodies AND they do crime scene evidence searches AND they are a teen-led organization. When I heard that, I knew I had the idea I had long sought: a realistic hook for a teen mystery series.
3. I pitched the idea in the summer and sold it in late September. Then the publisher wanted the first book January 1. I had sold it based on seven short chapters. Those were the only chapters I had written - and I had an adult book due in March. I managed to get the date pushed back to January 31.
4. Those two deadlines explain why I don't remember much of October-March.
5. I'm thinking I might dedicate the book to a very helpful volunteer, an adult who has been with the group since he was 14 or 15. Like the other volunteers, he spends hours and hours - without any pay - helping people who have ended up in a very bad space.
Last weekend, I took a five-hour class on fighting back in enclosed spaces. I did this solely for my writing. I do not ever plan to use it in real life. It was based on a Russian martial art called Systema. The core principles of Systema are: breathe, relax, maintain your posture and never stop moving. It was amazing to me how movements that didn't look like much - to an observer, a move might just look like a shoulder shrug for example - packed such a powerful wallop. The class was a great supplement to what I've already learned in kajukenbo and kung fu.
It was taught by Dean Foster, who has black belt rankings in several styles. He is also a police officer, a SWAT team member, and has trained Navy SEALs.
I learned how to fight back against guns, knives, garrotes, and even having a plastic bag yanked over your head. Plus it's just plain fun to listen to precepts such as, "Look at the knife, you'll get the knife" or "If you're going to die anyway, what does it matter if you get cut or shot?" (Fun for me, anyway, but many of the people in the class were professionals who actually have to worry about that kind of thing in real life.)
I probably spoiled the effect by smiling so much.
The plastic bag looks the scariest but isn't. Working quickly, you suck it in hard, chew on it with your front teeth, and stick out your tongue. Voila! Instant air hole. Will a character need to do this at some point? Of course!Thanks to Ben Read for the photos.
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For the past few years, I’ve been writing books inspired by real events. I’ll hear something on the news and I’ll think - hm, what if...? That’s where Girl, Stolen and The Night She Disappeared came from.
But my new book, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die was actually inspired by the lyrics to a song called Scared at Night by Kathleen Edwards:
As a young man you were shooting rats
By accident you hit the farmyard cat
He ran for the fields and came back the next day
You'd blown out his eye and you could see his brain
That's it boy, there is some things in life
You don't wanna do, but you know is right
So take him out back and finish him off
Got your gun off the shelf, it only took one shot
One day when I was running, I was listening to this on my iPod shuffle, and I thought, ooh - What if there was a girl? And she wakes up on the floor of a ransacked cabin with two men standing over her. And one of them says, “Take her out back and finish her off.”
And the more I ran, the more I thought about it, and the more I knew she had been tortured and the two men were mad because she wouldn’t - couldn’t - tell them something they really wanted to know.
For years, I’ve been collecting stories of people who experience fugue state amnesia. In 1985, a Tacoma reporter disappeared. A lot of people thought she had been murdered in connection with a story. She turned up 12 years later in Sitka, Alaska, with no memory of her past life. In 2009, a school teacher disappeared for three weeks in Manhattan. When authorities went back and looked at security cam footage, they would see her going into a store, for example, and looking confused, and then eventually leaving. When she was found, she had no memory of who she was.
People suffering from fugue state cannot recall their past. They don’t lose their memory of how to function in the world - they just lose their personal memories.
There’s a fascinating British documentary about a guy who walked into a hospital and said he had no idea who he was. In one amazing scene he goes to the beach. He’s standing on a rock next to the water and he says, “I don’t know if I know how to swim. I guess I’ll find out!” And then he jumps.
One thing people with fugue state seem to have in common is that have been under immense stress. One theory is that some brains, when subjected to a lot of stress, simply hit the reboot key. It’s a way for the person to run away from a bad situation.
And when my fictional girl wakes up in this trashed cabin she realizes someone has pulled out two of her fingernails. She figures that’s what caused her to lose her memory - but it’s actually something worse. Much worse.
Figuring out what came next
So now I had an idea I loved, but there was a lot more work I had to do.
Like say you were this girl waking up with no memory and two men are discussing killing you. What would you do next? Well, what I did was have my kajukenbo instructor drag me around the floor with his hands under my armpits and we figured out some ways the girl could fight back.
I’m now taking kung fu and both martial arts have really helped me construct fight scenes and understand the sheer physicality of violence. The only downside is that doctors often look at the fingerprint shaped bruises on my arms and ask if I’m safe at home.
Another thing I had to do was to figure out WHY the bad guys wanted to kill her. I had to figure out if she might possibly be crazy - and I definitely wanted her to look crazy.
And what were the answers? I used a mind-mapping program at bubbl.us to brainstorm. Where was her family? Were they dead? Being held captive? Had they fled to another country? And who was behind it? Was it the military? The government? And if it was the government, was it US or foreign? Was it a drug company? A chemical company?
I spent a lot of time researching bioweapons. It’s illegal to manufacture them - but it’s not illegal to research how to defend against one - which is a pretty big loop hole. I spent a lot of time stocking an imaginary lab, looking at online catalogs, debating the merits of special cages that can hold a thousand mice, figuring out how to grow a virus and make a vaccine. I spent so much time researching bioweapons it’s a wonder the FBI didn’t come knocking at my door. My fictional world was reviewed by a scientist who has a top-security clearance and has done bioweapons research. She said the idea was “very plausible - and evil.”