"What's in the news is a fascinating story unto itself simply because it is true," said a grad school writing professor of mine. He was right. True stories make for interesting reading and writers have found that combining raw truth in a fictional tale enhances a good book.
For over two years, my new novel For I Have Sinned was a work in progress, a story inside my head that wanted to be told. I wanted to take the ongoing publicly told scandal of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church coupled with the fictitious cold case of a boy gone missing ten years ago, to weave a story that would become a thriller with several twists and unexpected turns.There was truth and fiction, neatly combined.
The fiction part was easy; a missing person cold case concerning a boy who simply disappeared years ago without a trace. A private detective digging into the missing boy's past unexpectedly finds a bizarre connection between her own case and the recent grisly murder of a priest in New York City. The murder details are eerily similar to an unsolved murder investigation she worked on less than a year ago.So far so good.
I had already created the main character, a savvy and determined private detective named Cate Harlow who goes by a strong gut instinct when confronting obstacles. She's smart, relentless, and tough when it comes to solving her cases. But I also wanted to make her a very human and compassionate person; one who, without vanity, reassuringly tells her clients, "I'm very good at what I do. Trust me."
There was the creation of her particular likes such as good Italian food, a nice Merlot, and top-of-the-line sneakers. I added her strong distaste for injustice and cruelty. Finally, I created her one weakness; a passion for sexy, expensive lingerie which she wears under her everyday work outfit of jeans and a hoodie. I made this fictional character into a "real" person, someone people would like to have as a friend and to whom they could turn to in times of crisis.
I fleshed out her character, as well as those characters who make up her personal life; ex-husband Will Benigni,a NYPD homicide detective, current lover Giles Barrett, the city's medical examiner, her level-headed secretary, Myrtle, and her best friend, Melissa, who makes a living through well-heeled male "clients". Fiction is easy for me to write because, believe me, I live my life in a bubble of active, vivid imagination. These fictional people became very real to me.
The truth part of the novel was harder to write because it concerned the harsh reality of the crime of pedophilia, most specifically, the sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a story that has been much in the news over the past several years, a story unto itself. It is so prominently newsworthy that HBO made a documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, about the years of sexual abuse endured by boys in a Church-run school for the deaf. That documentary detailed only some of the true stories of abuse; there are myriad others.
"Pedophilia," Cate Harlow tells her ex-husband, the seen-it-all NYPD homicide detective, "is a curious word. It comes from the joining of two Greek words; paîs, meaning child, and philía meaning friendly love or friendship. Yet the one word they form together is linked forever in modern infamy as an act so atrocious that simply saying it makes you want to vomit."
The most horrible of sins; childhood innocence lost, lives forever altered.
Many true instances in writers' personal lives find their way into our fictional work. Small or big, an incident remembered can makes its way into a book. The truth in my novel came about because of a neighborhood story I had heard as a child and never forgot. It has stayed in my mind for decades and has occasionally haunted me over the years.
I was perhaps 9 years old when a 12-year-old boy died very suddenly. The wake for the boy was quickly and quietly held, he was buried in a non-sectarian cemetery, and, as if a secret pact had been made, no one, not even his own family, spoke about the circumstances surrounding his death. It wasn't until years later, during my first year in high school, that I learned from his sister why there was so much secrecy concerning his death.
We were walking home from school and passed the church where her family used to worship. She paused and looked at the church steps with absolute anger, then walked quickly on.
"My brother committed suicide. Nobody is supposed to know that, but he did," she told me as we continued on our way. In response to my startled expression, she told me why he had chosen to take his own life; her brother had been sexually abused by their parish priest, a jovial man whom everyone seemed to like. "Our parents refused to believe what he told them. No one but me believed my brother. He just couldn't stand the horror of it happening anymore. He figured dying was his way out. Well, that's that, right? He killed himself to escape."
Neither she nor I ever mentioned it again but the story lingered in my mind. It needed to be told. Rather than write a magazine article about the pain and horror of what the sexual abuse did to the boy and his family, I chose to put the true story in a fictional setting.
For I Have Sinned seemed to write itself at times as I became more involved in the truth part of the story. I researched, then contacted, the organization called SNAP, Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. Their ongoing fight for justice for the survivors of pedophilia is an amazing feat. They took on one of the most powerful organizations in the world, the Roman Catholic Church and made their collective voices be fully heard in the Halls of Justice.
Combining a solid fictional story with a raw and painful social injustice is a painstaking task. That's as it should be.The details have to be on-target and above all, absolutely truthfully documented. I had to make sure that I was completely objective in what I wrote and that this issue was handled with delicacy and dignity. I wanted my readers to know that not all clergy molest children; that there are also good and kind men in the priesthood, not just monsters.
Despite the seriousness of the issues in the book there are moments of humor, joy, and a few scenes of normal sexual encounters between Cate's and her ex-husband. She's human after all and life is made up of tragedy, joy, and the simple experiences of life.
There will be more books in the "A Cate Harlow Private Investigation" series. My character is strong and passionate about helping those who need a good PI. Her strength, her wry humor, and her commitment are what I admire. I like to think I created a good role model for women.
Cate Harlow does have her flaws, the same as the rest of us, one of which is doing things slightly illegally if it helps to solve a case or save a life. She has a healthy fear of danger but she doesn't let anyone know it. There's a quote in the book which I think sums up my character perfectly. While discussing the possibility of an unpleasant afterlife, she turns to her friend Melissa and says with a smile, "When you get to Hell, I'll be sitting in the hot tub waiting."
You'll like Cate Harlow.
Read the new thriller For I Have Sinned: A Cate Harlow Private Investigation