Looking back over the years, I can see a pattern emerge in my fiction. In the past forty-plus years that I have been a novelist, relationship transition has been a recurring theme in my stories.
Early in life we relate to our parents and our siblings. As we grow we develop relationships with childhood friends and peers, with teachers, with animals, and eventually with employers. Then we graduate to lovers.
Many of our relationships go through transitions in real life. But they are the substance of fiction in a big way. After all, it is through relationships that we as writers develop conflict and resolution.
I decided to take a closer look at this and try to understand why this has been such a significant element in my writing.
Even in my earliest writings there was relationship transition. I wrote the first drafts of my Annette Vetter teen mystery series in the ’60s. My main character, Annette, lost her father when she was 4 years old. Death is part of the theme in The Secret of the Green Paint, when the supporting character, Chris, experiences the sudden death of her mother and Annette knows how to comfort her.
In my 20s I wrote Night of the November Moon, a romantic suspense novel set in Michigan, where I lived at the time. It revolves around the life of a young widow, Winnie, whose husband was killed in a car accident and she discovers love months later with an old high school flame.
Sonata Summer, my novel about Aspen, focuses on the trouble my heroine has in coming to terms with the tragic death of her fiancé, who she believes must be her soul mate. Finding love again is in Rhea’s destiny, yet she resists it with all her might in her attempt to cling to morbid grief.
We see relationship transition once again in Rainbow Majesty, my latest novel about a young woman who has lost her fiancé to the war in Iraq. Added to that tragedy, Juniper has just experienced the slow, agonizing death of her mother to Alzheimers, and she is about to tackle the mystery of her father’s death that occurred 22 years ago.
Although it is not the focus of the story, the main character in my Space Trilogy, Johanna Dobbs, was orphaned as a child and raised by a caring older brother. In Intimate Abduction, Johanna’s brother, Manley, is told his sister died in a van going over a cliff into the river.
It seems that grief is a major element in many of my fiction works. I wonder sometimes if – when I was young and began writing these stories – my subconscious knew that one day in the future I would experience what I put many of my characters through. Sort of a literary karma?
November Moon has probably the eeriest twist because, at age 20, I had no idea that, like my main character, I would work for newspapers and become an avid birder. Like Winnie, I even had a “best friend” named JoAnn… at least for a while.
Intimate Abduction, in which I introduced the theme of a “Special One” or soul mate, was actually the novel that brought my soul mate to me. Ethan Miller just happened to see an article in a newspaper talking about my book as he was traveling between Colorado and Ohio, and he ordered it -- then came 2,000 miles to meet me the following year.
When I wrote Sonata Summer in 1982, I had never experienced the death of a close friend or family member before. Yet it was so profound in its effect on me that I now feel I was preparing myself then – in the detailed writing of Rhea’s suffering – what I have had to go through in the last year after losing my soul mate. Literary karma again? I really have to wonder.
I remember living through the agony of what my character went through in Sonata Summer when Parker died in the forest fire just one week before they were to be married. I may have been subconsciously preparing myself for a fate that would come into my own life many years later.
It may not have lessened the pain I felt when my soul mate passed, but it at least helped me understand those feelings and process them a little easier, simply because I had created them for myself in the writing of Sonata Summer.
It’s strange, I know -- and you’re probably thinking, boy, this woman is weird – but maybe it’s possible for us to process our grief and our pain when we face relationship transitions by preparing ourselves in advance through subconscious means.
One thing my works have not included is the death of one’s child. I cannot bear to conjure up that amount of pain and anguish. It must be the worst thing any human parent can experience. I feel for those people – some of whom I know personally – who have been through that kind of hell. All I can say is that I hold a deep respect for them, for their strength and their fortitude.
As we face the different relationship transitions in our lives, we can turn to the vast experiences that are in literary works for comfort and solace. It helps to know that someone else has gone through it, that you are not alone in your grieving or your pain at separating from someone you love.
Time does heal the hurt. It may not seem like it ever will, at first, but eventually somewhere down the road you stop and realize… “I’m actually moving on with my life… and things seem a bit easier now.”
My suggestion would be to go ahead and write something. If you are not a writer, then journal. No one has to ever see what you’ve written. Jot down your feelings, your fantasies, your fears… play them out on paper and process them. You never know, but the day may come when you’ll be glad you sorted it out ahead of time.