While I Danced (Write Words), EPIC Finalist
It Should Have Been You (Page Street), Silver Falchion Finalist
Deadly Setup (forthcoming, Fire and Ice/Melange Books, 2022)
When folks ask me what my newly released novel, DEADLY SETUP, is about, I usually say something like, “A teenager’s life implodes when she gets arrested and goes on trial for the murder of her mother’s fiancé.”
Is that what my book is really about? Yes and no. Yes, that really is what happens to seventeen-year-old Samantha (Sam), the daughter of a widowed New England heiress. As the title indicates, she’s been set up and fights to prove her innocence with the help of her boyfriend’s dad, an ex-homicide cop.
Those are the basics of the external plot. But digging deeper, what the novel is really about is a troubled mother-daughter relationship, the dangers of parentification of a child, the power of the arts to heal and comfort, and the need to build an intentional family when your own family is unwilling or unable to be emotionally available.
Let me explain. Sam was very close to her father who died of brain cancer when she was twelve. On his death bed, he told Sam to “take care of your mother for me.” His intentions may have been good, but this was a terrible thing to do to a twelve-year-old girl who was in desperate need of parenting herself and was not equipped to take on a parenting role toward her mother.
Furthermore, Sam’s mother resents her daughter’s efforts to weigh in on her impulsive choices. A self-absorbed romance novelist, she has a habit of looking for her own “happily ever after” with wildly inappropriate men. As the novel opens, she announces her intention to marry one of them, a financial advisor who’s eager to take control of her money and whose first heiress wife died under suspicious circumstances. She’s not interested in Sam’s pleas to exercise caution. In fact, listening to Sam about anything doesn’t even register on her priority list.
Sam finds solace and comfort in playing the piano and her father left her with a great appreciation for the American Songbook. She loves playing standards and accompanying her high school’s choirs and musical rehearsals.
She also realizes that the people who really care about her may lie outside her family. This is driven home to her when she’s accused of murder and her family’s longtime housekeeper, her boyfriend, his family, her close friends, and her favorite teacher don’t doubt her innocence for a moment, despite the mountain of circumstantial evidence. They rally behind her and their emotional support buoys her at a time when her own mother refuses to believe her protestations of innocence.
Sometimes, I think I’m writing about the same issues over and over: the damage dysfunctional families do to young people and the healing power of involvement in the arts. In LEISHA’S SONG, Leisha is an aspiring classical singer whose grandfather, the only parent she’s ever known, has an entire script laid out for her life—never mind what her passions and interests are. And in IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU, Clara has always been more or less the forgotten child in a family where her piano prodigy twin has sucked up her parents’ attention. As for WHILE I DANCED, Cass, an aspiring ballet dancer, not only must deal with her single parent father’s lack of enthusiasm about her dancing, but with the fallout from the revelation of a terrible secret he’s kept from her about her mother.
Yet, if you asked me what these novels were about, I’d most likely respond with details about the external plot:
- Leisha’s beloved vocal coach at boarding school disappears, and she puts her own life in danger trying to find her.
- Five months after her twin’s murder, Clara starts receiving threatening messages sent to the inbox of the advice column she ghostwrites for her high school’s newspaper.
- Cass is betrayed by her best friend and boyfriend and then, in the midst of a challenging summer dance workshop and a new romance, makes a startling discovery that leaves her wondering if she even wants to continue dancing.
So, the next time you ask a writer what her novel is about, my advice is to ask a follow-up question: What’s it really about? Chances are you’ll get a different, and in many ways more significant, answer.