Probably the two most well-known stories I’ve told about my books relate to Leaving Annalise (Eric and the potential Annaly burglars when he had a bunch of cash from a liquidation/estate sale, which you can read in Voodoo Spirits and Jumbie Houses) and Going for Kona (that I was mad at Eric one day and had written three chapters in which I killed a triathlete husband in the second chapter by that night, which you can read in How Do You Like Your Kona).
So I’m not going to repeat that old Going for Kona story. Instead, I’m going to share with you the quantum change that occurred on my umpteenth rewrite, five years after I first wrote the book. The story starts with an agent who loved Going for Kona except that she didn’t like the protagonist, Charlotte. It continues past my decision to go indie and even past the publication of Saving Grace and Leaving Annalise. Over the years, I’d done several rewrites of G4K (as we call Going for Kona at my house), but I wasn’t happy with the results. When I picked the manuscript up again in April 2013, it was do or die time. I’d done the 60-cities-in-60-days book tour. My novels were selling well. I had great reviews, including from Kirkus. Finding Harmony was nearly done and ready to queue up. I needed to act like a professional author and get my next book finished and in production.
Except I was terrified of it. I didn’t know how to fix it, just that I’d been told it wasn’t right, and knew in my core that the agent was on target with her opinion. Those closest to me loved the novel, though, and were just as scared of me changing it and possibly ruining it. What to do???
The book was intensely personal, very emotionally different from the first three in the series, and featured my first foray into a “Friend of Katie” protagonist. The intensely personal aspect was the problem. The protagonist was far too much like me, and the relationship with the husband was stymied by the fact that I identified him with Eric and with us. I needed distance. Writing what you know about protagonists “who could almost be you” is one thing, but writing with accuracy about your own relationship is another!
So I planted my butt out in the Quacker trailer at Nowheresville (this was before we built a home and moved there) for three weeks. I shut out the input of others and trusted my gut. The weather was gorgeous and cool. I spent a lot of time in a chair in a field of wildflowers with butterflies all around me. My then-editor, Meghan joined me for a week (working independently but enjoying Nowheresville together), and Eric was there as much as he could be, but I mostly tuned them out as I immersed myself into a power rewrite.
The first piece that fell into place was channeling my cousin Michele into the protagonist role, to break it away from being a reflection of me. Michele’s father Arturo is Mexican and her mother Patrice is a Caucasian Texas native. Michele was, at the time, a single mom with a great son, and dating a very athletic guy she has since married (and with whom she has an adorable daughter). I realized that at least at the surface level I could make Charlotte into Michele.
What a relief that was! Immediately, it freed me up to realize Michele’s differences from me. Hallelujah. I realized she had a hyper active imagination, and my favorite scenes with her became the ones where her imagination ran wild, like when she discovers Scarlet has betrayed her, and marches away from Scarlet and the ESPN producer, convinced she’s morphed into a knife winged butterfly who takes off and bursts into flames. It rivals the Katie-mewling-like-a-kitten-in-the-courtroom scene from Saving Grace as one of my favorites of all time to write.
Since Charlotte was no longer me and Michele was now Michele, Adrian, the husband, was no longer married to me, and thus no longer my husband Eric. He was still a good guy, but I could talk about his flaws in writing without betraying my husband/talking bad about him in public. I could prepare Michele for a three-book romantic mystery story arc that would move her on from Adrian. This was much harder for Eric than me, especially when I wrote the next Michele novel, Fighting for Anna, but it worked for Michele, and that was all that mattered for the novel. (Eric and I could hug it out when it came to the rest, and we did ;-))
I put Michele in the occupation of attorney-turned-editor-turned author. I allowed myself to build on that to create what others perceive as the author life, instead of sticking with accuracy—Michele’s experience as an author is far more glamorous than the real thing for most authors.
Finally, as I wrote the Katie books, it had become increasingly clear to me that magical realism, or day-to-day practical magic, was part of the way I viewed the world and thus woven into what I wrote. Since Michele now had a Mexican Papa, she had a Mexican grandmother, and in came Aztec mythology. Oh how excited I was, sitting there in a wildflower field surrounded by butterflies, to discover Itzpapalotl, the fearsomely beautiful knife-winged butterfly goddess. Itzpa, oh Itzpa. The rub between Papa’s heritage/Michele’s desire to honor it, and her mother’s practical Methodist upbringing. Itzpa, as Michele’s alter ego, brought the magic to the book.
I wish I could say Michele no longer was anything like me, but she still retains my strengths/challenges. A nail-biting perfectionist who is more about getting it done than having fun, she’s a woman I can relate to. I wrote my worst fear in G4K: what would I do if I lost my own husband and had no one to turn to but myself to solve the mystery of his death and protect my family. I wrote it down to my secretly held belief that in my grief I’d be no good to anyone, even our beloved kids, and that hurt. In fact, it hurt so much that when I read this novel aloud to my teenage son (yep, Sam is based on him) and got to the horrible confrontation between Michele and Sam, my son started crying and told me to shut it and never make him read it again. Ouch. But I could understand. It cut to the bone with its unfortunate ring of possible truth for me, too.
In the end, my goal with the book was that it still have humor and move quickly even as it wrung emotions out of readers. Michele is a more serious protagonist than my others, to date anyway, and you’ll see more of her in Fighting for Anna (aka F4A). Don’t worry: I don’t kill any more family members. Not in F4A anyway .