Writing With Malice Aforethought revealed a treasury of surprises for me. Authors like to believe they create their worlds but truthfully, characters sometimes hijack their own stories. While planning the third novel in the Meredith Ryan series, I knew I wanted to have a bit of romantic interest between the two lead characters, Meredith and her partner Nick Reyes. While I’m an inveterate outliner, I always leave enough room for detours. They changed direction on me a few times in the previous novel and felt I had to let them do the same again. They did. And boy, did they surprise me. Especially the ending.
The plot revolves around a murder in the beautiful rural countryside of Sonoma County (California). The homicide takes the deputies into the remote hills where they discover an active militia planning an insidious attack on the local population. Even though I wrote this in 2017, the story could be “ripped from today’s headlines.” Using the Southern Poverty Law Center, a periodical that tracks hate crimes and anti-government movements, it was easy to dream up the fictitious domestic terrorists. Seeing parts of the story come true has been shocking.
Another eerie component which the author had little control over was the climax. Let me explain: It was October 2017. Using my retired firefighter husband as the best resource, I steered my hero into a chase scene taking place during a huge wildfire in the Sonoma County hills. I recall asking him about wildland fires-how they start and grow, what they feel like, the heat, the smoke, and flying embers...
While taking notes, I looked out a window and saw smoke. Not just smoke but a wall of it. A fire had started at Sears Point Raceway mere miles from our Petaluma home. My husband, who is not an alarmist, said to me, “If the wind is right, this fire can come right up to our back door.”
Thankfully, the local firefighters put that fire out fast. But the smoke didn’t dissipate. It grew thicker. Overnight, the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, seventeen miles north of our home had erupted and caused catastrophic loss of life and property damage. This was the atmosphere in which I wrote the climax. I followed my outline, but drafting the story haunted me along with the smoke outside and my husband’s recollections. It was creepy.
I often use natural disasters in my books. They are compelling plot twists that go beyond character. By Force or Fear had a flood, a mudslide from torrential rains appears in Intent to Hold, and this wildfire in With Malice Aforethought. All these incidents have an impact on the characters in the story.
But by far, the wildfire in With Malice Aforethought is the eeriest.