I arrived at the city park just as the sun was rising, the mist still hanging low over the dew-covered grass. A uniformed officer in the parking lot pointed me toward a stand of trees at the back of the park where more patrol officers were clustered. Halfway there, I saw my homicide victim, hanging from a tree with a rope around her neck. One of her legs was suspended from the tree with another length of rope in what looked like a bizarre dance pose. As I got closer, I saw the woman was naked except for a piece of charred cloth stuck to her leg, which I later learned had been soaked in gasoline and lit on fire.
All fiction writers use real life experiences in their novels. It might be as simple as how a man’s voice sounded when overheard in a restaurant or the way a lover’s face looked before a kiss. After working a career with the Oakland police department, much of it in homicide, my experiences are a bit different from those of many writers.
I think the line that separates our real life experiences—those events writers draw upon in our writing—and the creative or made-up stuff is blurred. The farther back the memories are and the more we live in our fictional make-believe worlds, the fuzzier the line that separates the two becomes.
Thrill Kill, the second novel in my Detective Matt Sinclair series, opens with a fictional rendition of the scene I described above, which was a murder I investigated in 1989. That scene is permanently imprinted in my brain. Toward the end of the scene, my fictional detective fights to control his emotions—shock, anger, disgust, compassion. Did I experience similar feelings at that homicide scene years earlier? I don’t recall. Maybe I buried them to better do my job, just as my fictional detective was struggling to do, but when I wrote that passage in my novel inside the close point of view of Matt Sinclair, the emotions felt real.
As I wrote that opening scene in my novel, I set the story aside, tapped into the creative part of my writer’s brain, and created a fictional character with a rich backstory to inhabit the dead woman hanging from the tree. Still in my fictional mode, I got back into the story with the coroner’s deputies arriving and cutting the victim from the tree. My detective sees her face for the first time and my writer’s brain flips a switch.
I’m back in homicide more than twenty years ago. I was called to a motel that catered to drug dealers and hookers on a report of a dead woman in a room. She had no ID on her so I figured it would be twenty-four hours until the coroner could roll her prints and see if she was in the system. A dozen cops were there and canvasing the area for witnesses and information. They were apologetic about being unable to ID her, knowing that would delay my investigation a day. The coroner’s deputies flipped the body and I saw the face. I recognized her as Dawn Campadona, a street hooker I had arrested years earlier when I worked Vice.
I take that memory and fictionalize it so my detective recognizes her, the woman hanging from the tree, as someone he had arrested her years ago. I refer back to my character profile and change her first name to Dawn. All of a sudden, the darkness from the opening scene in the novel has a glimmer of light. Dawn was a pretty girl who had come to Oakland with a dream, only to die a death she didn’t deserve. In the novel, my detective is wondering—just as I possibly was when I saw the real Dawn lying there dead—if he might have done something differently when he arrested her years earlier that would’ve changed her fate. Real memory or fiction? I don’t know.
That is the way my novel takes form, flowing from memories of the past to make-believe—from the real world to fiction—from the familiar to the creative. As a writer, I’m successful when readers accept my make-believe story as something that feels real enough that it could have happened. Drawing on my past experiences and fictionalizing them gives my crime novels a level of authenticity—a sense of realism—that not many other crime writers can do.