While The Fibonacci Murders began with a vague idea (see The Making of the Fibonacci Murders), True Death‘s origin was even more nebulous. I started with the title. Don’t ask where that came from. I have no clue. But it’s a neat title, no?
A title without a story, though, that’s rather a problem. Most titles reflect some key aspect of a story, such as the characters (MacBeth), the locale (The Martian Chronicles), primary events (The Fibonacci Murders), or key themes (Sense and Sensibility). Without a story, how can one devise a suitable title?
No matter. I had a neat title, obviously one that bespoke a theme. But what is true death? An author might choose from several interpretations, but at the time I had in mind a particular sense: death of the soul. As a Baha’i, I view a person’s physical death not as their destruction but merely as passage from one form of existence to another. Spiritual death, while not obliteration, distances us from our Creator. It harms us in a way physical death cannot.
But a theme isn’t a story. Most often, I discover themes as I write, so here I approached it exactly backwards. The opening scene, with a broken man in a rocker on the porch of a run-down cabin, was in essence a statement of the theme, made while searching for the story:
The run cut into the base of the mountain, twisting and turning with the land, bubbling past old farms, past pine and spruce and deciduous trees waking from winter slumber, gurgling beneath small bridges on gravel roads, down past a mansion built by some retired executive looking to get away from it all, down through the gap between the mountain and its neighbor, down to join with the river just south of Centerville. A paved road kept the water company, winding through the mountains alongside it. Where the run entered the gap, splashing over a series of rock steps, an unpaved track slipped southward into the trees, climbed the slope, and ended at a small, run-down shack.
On the porch, a man in a scarred old bentwood rocker creaked back and forth, back and forth, his blue eyes directed at the treetops yet not focused on them. Few ever saw those eyes, but those who did frequently remarked how old they seemed compared to the body that hosted them. Vietnam veterans said he must have seen serious action in Afghanistan or Iraq; his eyes were that kind. Others speculated he had lost a wife or a child, or both. Not that anyone knew. He rarely came to Centerville, and then only to buy food. He arrived like a shadow, conducted his business, spoke to no one, and left like a faint breeze falling still. Whatever tragedy had befallen him, it seemed to have drained most of the life from him.
Had he talked to anyone, had anyone uttered such speculation, he would have shook his head. He was, in fact, already dead.
Now I had a character with no story, only a slight improvement. Fortunately, at about the same time a story presented itself. With True Death, I wanted to delve into the backgrounds of detectives Rick Peller, Corina Montufar, and Eric Dumas. In The Fibonacci Murders, I’d mentioned that Peller’s wife had died in an automobile accident four years previously. I realized I could build upon that by turning it into an unsolved hit-and-run. With that and the broken man from the first scene, I had sufficient material to spin a tale.
That’s how True Death began. Where all the twists and turns came from, well, that’s another story.