Monday, September 22, 2014

The Pursuit of Truth in Writing

It’s a pleasure to introduce Criminal Minds readers to a friend and fellow author who has a new book out. Holly West is the author of the Mistress of Fortune series, set in 17th century London and featuring amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. Harlequin’s Carina Press will publish the latest book in the series, Mistress of Lies, on September 29. She lives, reads, and writes in Los Angeles with her husband, Mick, and dog, Stella.

I can’t remember where I first met Holly West, but, knowing her, it was wherever the fun was at the time. I can remember where I first met Stella. She was curled up next to Holly, staring at me with big, round eyes, a worry line above her cute little nose. Holly’s saga of hard work before her first two Mistress books were published pales next to Stella’s recent trauma, when she had most of her little teeth extracted to treat an infected jaw. Okay, maybe I’m getting too involved with Holly’s and Mick’s dog. Onward, Holly:

By Holly West

As a guest to this blog, Susan Shea assured me that I wasn’t required to answer the Question of the Week. But when she told me the topic—“Is there a novel that you’re afraid to write?”—I decided it was something I wanted to address since my current work-in-progress is just this type of book.

It’s no secret that writers use experiences in their own lives as a basis for some of their stories. My Mistress of Fortune series is set in 17th century London—seemingly a million miles away from my life in present-day Los Angeles—and I still found inspiration for the books in my everyday experiences. For instance, the plot of Mistress of Lies, which will be published on September 29, involves the goldsmith profession, a craft I studied for many years. My amateur sleuth, Isabel Wilde, lives in a house at the intersection of Drury Lane and Aldwych, very near to where the Waldorf Hilton now stands and where my husband and I have stayed many times. And Madame Laverne, a seamstress who appears in Mistress of Fortune, is named after a dear friend who passed away a few years ago.

All that said, the experiences I used in the Mistress of Fortune series are but small references to my real life. My new work-in-progress (as yet unnamed) is a whole other matter. It’s set in both Los Angeles and a fictional town called Gold Valley that’s based on the community I grew up in and some aspects of it autobiographical (albeit loosely).

It’s the story of an alcoholic actress who, after hitting rock bottom, checks herself into rehab and a counseling session triggers a repressed memory about her mother’s unsolved murder that occurred twenty-five years earlier. Convinced she actually witnessed the killing, she returns to her hometown—a haven of secrets, lies, and corruption—to learn the truth about her mother’s death.

Thankfully, I have no personal experience with murder. But I do have plenty of experience with dysfunction—in my case, it’s the severe depression of a close family member that’s never been properly treated. At its core, this is a novel about a deeply troubled family that can’t face its own demons and the tragic consequences of their denial of the truth. It is multi-generational and seeks to answer a key question: Is it ever possible for younger generations to heal past wounds by looking truth in the eye and facing it, head on?

When you’re writing about something that’s important to you, it feels like there’s a lot at stake. I want to be true to my story without hurting anyone who might recognize themselves within its pages. It is, after all, fiction, and while it might have some basis in truth, it is a highly dramatized version of people, relationships and events. Furthermore, the issues I want to tackle are complicated and sometimes difficult to articulate. Not only do I fear that telling the story might be hurtful, I feel doubt about my own ability to tell it properly. Am I really ready, as a writer, to do such a story justice?

I try not to spend much time worrying about it, however. If I’d given into the doubt that sometimes overwhelmed me as I wrote the Mistress of Fortune novels, they wouldn’t exist. I powered through, even when I had no idea what I was doing. And that’s just how I intend to proceed with this current project.


Paul D. Marks said...

Holly, I think most writers can relate to what you say about wanting to tackle complicated issues that are based on personal experience and people we know, but also don’t want to be hurtful. It’s a razor’s edge we tread when doing that.

And I’m sure writing about a trouble family that can’t face its demons isn’t easy. But your book sounds really interesting and it’s definitely going on TBR list.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for being our guest today, Holly! It's exciting to hear about writers taking risks and "upping the stakes." It can feel risky, but I'm sure it will be worth it. I look forward to reading your book!

Robin Spano said...

Wow, I'm excited to read your work in progress whenever it sees the light of day. Demons are hard to write, but when they work themselves out on the page it can make for some wonderfully deep and dark content. Thanks for visiting our blog.

Susan C Shea said...

I have taken a related topic - the dysfunctions of some friends, which has made them endearing eccentrics - and turned it into a comic novel. To my relief, they are delighted with my versions of them and the book will be off to my agent next week. (Whew.)

Holly West said...

Congratulations, Susan! Is this the book set in France that we talked about at dinner awhile back?