Life and Death in Fiction: The Ultimate Stakes, by Alane Ferguson
When I speak at conferences, people often ask me why I write about dark topics like murder, forensics, ghosts and…death. One of my biggest reasons as an author is that I believe there is no alteration more profound than moving from life to death – both for the victim and for the loved ones they leave behind. To me, stories that revolve around such a dynamic issue are just more interesting to write, because the characters are playing for the ultimate stakes. It’s another painful moment of clarity I learned first-hand.
Years ago, when my daughter moved into her first apartment, my telephone rang just as rays of dawn were breaking through my window. I remember stumbling to get to the phone, wondering who on earth could be calling when it was barely past five in the morning. “Hello,” I said, my voice ragged. On the other end of the phone was a man I didn’t know. He said he’d been out jogging and that he had found my daughter’s wallet, hairbrush, and lipgloss scattered in a downtown alleyway, an area I knew was home to Utah’s most unsavory element. Did I know if she was okay, he asked? At that moment, my heart stopped while my mind whipped into overdrive as I imagined the unthinkable, that my daughter had been kidnapped or worse. Immediately, I hung up, telling the man I would call my daughter. I can never describe the fear I felt as I punched in her number, my fingers shaking so hard I could barely hit the telephone keys. Panic is far too small word to describe my emotion as I waited for her to pick up, pick up, pick up! And pick up she did, groggy but alive. The sweet relief at hearing her voice literally sent me to my knees as I burst into tears from sheer joy. My daughter was safe! Kristin had left her purse in her car, and someone had busted out her window, stolen the purse, and then dumped the remains (after helping himself to her cash and credit cards) miles away in that dark, seedy place. Her expensive flute had also been stolen, but did I care? Not at all. Because my Kristin was safe. That lesson drilled into my very marrow; things are things, but people are irreplaceable.
Life and death are the ultimate stakes in a novel, and so I am drawn to them. It’s an easy mental line to follow in my work. My Forensic Series allows my protagonist, Cameryn Mahoney, to give a voice to the dead. My paranormal series, Dragonfly Eyes (still being written) tells the story of a life lived from the ‘other side’. I write of death, yes, but more importantly, I write of hope for the living, of love triumphing over the most radical transition any of us will ever face. The ultimate question flows into the stream of my plot lines that laps onto the shore of my pages. No, I don’t think I write about death. Rather, I write about what it means to live.