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How You Met My Mother

Dialogue is crucially important for any story. In a written tale, it’s possible to go inside someone’s head to learn what he or she is thinking, but in real life, our thoughts are mostly communicated by the words we speak to one another. Dialogue can advance a plot or reveal information—sometimes clumsily, as when the forensic technicians on CSI would explain the tools to one another for the benefit of their audience. Dialogue can also illuminate character through word choice and style. If you pick your phrases right, your reader will get a vivid picture of the speaker from just a few key sentences.

Take, for example, my mother. I could tell you lots of factoids about my mother. Instead, I’ll relay the following story and let you form your own conclusions:

The summer of my seventeenth year, I drove a car into my house. I had completed the Driver’s Ed classroom course with a hundred percent score. With my freshly printed permit in hand, I was eager to try my luck behind an actual wheel. My mother said I could have the keys and we set out with my little brother in tow to visit the local library.

We lived on the corner of a fairly quiet side street and a much busier main road. I backed the car out of the driveway okay and maneuvered it to the corner. I had never even turned a car on before, so the idea that I should take it onto the open road seemed ludicrous to me. My mother, however, was game on. “Turn the wheel and give it some gas,” she instructed.

For the record, I said, “Shouldn’t I be in a parking lot?”

My mother said, “Just make a right turn. It’s easy enough.”

She did not say how far to turn the wheel or how much gas to give it, so I turned the wheel very far and gave it a heck of a lot of gas. We made a hairpin turn at high speed, wrecking the rear axel of the car as we jumped the high curb.

Now we were hurtling across my front lawn, heading for the cement steps. “Brake! Brake!” my mother hollered.

“I’m trying!” I hollered back, sure that we were going to die. Problem was, I had no idea which pedal was which. I gave it even more gas.

Just picture a red Taurus instead of witch’s feet.

My mother jerked the wheel at the last minute, and instead of hitting the cement steps head-on, we demolished a group of bushes and careened into the front porch. I knocked a support beam out from under the front of the house, and it collapsed on top of the car, which is what finally stopped it.

We all got out, miraculously unharmed. A Ford Taurus lay dead in front of us, sticking out from under the house like the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy lands on her after the tornado. Hand to God, the first thing my mother said was, “I never liked those bushes anyway.”

So there you go. Now you know my mother. This is a line only she would say, and so it encapsulates her in a way that a long list of adjectives never could. It’s the same economy of description that I aim for when I’m inventing fictional people.

Amazingly, the car lived to ride again, but there is a sad epilogue to this story. Are you ready?

Those bushes grew back.

So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?

I’m a bad writer in that I still don’t have a succinct elevator pitch for The Vanishing Season. On its face, it’s about a female police officer in Massachusetts trying to solve a set of disappearances from her small town. More broadly, though, it’s about issues surrounding identity. What makes us who we are?

Ellery Hathaway was kidnapped late at night on her fourteenth birthday by a famous serial killer. He became famous the only way serial killers can achieve real fame—by being caught—so Ellery theoretically gets to resume her normal life. However, public appetite for the sensational story lingers on more than a decade after her rescue. The killer is in jail but he still manages to follow Ellery around—on film, in books, in pop culture references ala John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. Ellery’s abductor didn’t succeed in snuffing her out but he did take her life, the one she would have had if he’d never kidnapped her. So Ellery’s journey is largely about whether she can reclaim her own narrative from under the weight of this infamous case.

Meanwhile, Ellery’s savior, Agent Reed Markham, is facing his own identity crisis. He’d played a hunch as a junior FBI agent and saved Ellery from certain death. In doing so, he’d also solved one of the FBI’s most infamous cases and his career rocketed to stardom as a result. He wrote a bestselling book about the case and Ellery’s rescue, telling himself through the years that he is the hero of this story. (Here we already see some conflict in their viewpoints, as Reed has helped further the fame of the case and feed public fervor, which hurts the very woman he waxes on about rescuing.) But Reed’s blown a recent investigation and his marriage is falling apart—maybe he’s not the rock star he’s always imagined himself to be. He’s on stress leave from the FBI when his greatest triumph emerges from the past, asking him for help in her missing persons cases.

What’s interesting to me about putting Reed and Ellery together is that they are bonded by the events of the night he rescued her, but they experienced that time in starkly different ways. The best time in his life is the worst time of hers. They’ve each told themselves stories about how the rescue went down and built up myths about the other one in their own minds. This book is about what happens when those myths meet reality. If Ellery remains damaged by what happened to her in the killer’s closet, does that lessen Reed’s heroics? Who is he without that label? Who is she apart from a famous victim? If public perception locks them into these roles, does it even matter what the truth is?

So, yeah. That’s what it’s about. Murder. Identity. Betrayal. The past coming back to bite you in the butt. All that, plus an extremely friendly basset hound.