by Carrie Smith
I published my first (literary) novel when I was twenty-three. Thirty-three years later, I published my second (crime) novel, SILENT CITY. The novelist SJ Rozan said of this book, “Smith’s New York is a real place and her story’s a good one, but her true superpower is her ability to unravel the messy intricacies of people’s interior lives.”
I’m fond of that observation because it explains the thirty-year gap between my first and second books. Compelling, complex characters are conceived at the intersection of a writer’s imagination and his or her own messy interior life. It took me thirty years to figure out how to tap my own “messy intricacies” and transform them into fictional characters that people would care about (call me a slow learner). I remember the precise moment when I accomplished what I hadn’t been able to do in those thirty years. The character I developed in that moment was NYPD Detective Claire Codella, and here’s what I learned in the process of bringing her to life.
My editor, Matt Martz, has said, “Readers connect with a writer’s truths through the essential or elemental—the experiences, emotions, bonds that nearly everyone has over the course of their lives.” Readers are drawn to Claire Codella as a strong woman who has battled cancer and fought her way back into her male-dominated NYPD homicide squad. What readers don’t know (or need to know) is that she began her existence as a fictional transformation of my partner Cynthia’s actual battle with an aggressive lymphoma seven years ago.
I learned a great deal about cancer back them. For example, lymphomas can be cured, but the chemo regimen is particularly brutal. Every three weeks, patients are admitted to the hospital for three to four days to receive a continuous infusion of drugs. When they go home, their platelet count plummets and their immunity to infections is virtually nonexistent. They usually end up in the emergency room a week or two later.
Codella came to me at a low point in Cynthia’s treatment, when hopeless voices were invading my head: She was going to die. Our children would lose a parent. I would be alone. One evening I left the hospital to find Cynthia some raspberry sorbet (it was the one thing she could still taste after four rounds of chemo, and it was one of the only things I could do for her). I was crying as I walked up York Avenue. People were staring at me. I took out my iPhone (an excuse to look down), opened my notes app, and started to write. What came out was the close third-person narration of a cancer survivor. Between the hospital and the deli that sold raspberry sorbet, this narrator turned into an NYPD detective who had successfully completed her final round of chemotherapy. Clearly I needed to project myself and Cynthia into the future.
Once Codella’s voice was in my head, I went home from the hospital every night and turned my messy thoughts into hers. Thankfully, Cynthia recovered. And slowly, I surgically detached Codella from my own experiences so that she could become a character with her own compelling interior life.
I share this story not to suggest that writers need to experience a personal crisis in order to create authentic characters. What I am suggesting, however, is that writers shouldn’t avoid drawing on the messy intricacies of their own lives. Personal experience can be the spark that ignites an authentic fictional character.
Start with what you know, and trust your imagination to help you transform your experience into something that far exceeds it.
Have messy intricacies of your own to discuss? Conversation here.
Carrie Smith is the author of Unholy City, the latest Detective Claire Codella mystery (Crooked Lane Books). Her previous books are Silent City, Forgotten City, and the literary novel Forget Harry. She is the recipient of three Hopwood Awards from the University of Michigan, a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Killer Nashville’s Readers’ Choice Award. Carrie is also senior vice president and publisher of Benchmark Education Company, a literacy publisher. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can find her online at www.carriesmith.nyc and @carriesmithnyc.