In summer of 2018, I started writing what I thought would be another novella in the L.A. Stories series. It rapidly outgrew the novella format, and eventually became the full-length novel FACE THE MUSIC.
Along the way I had some discussions with my beta reader. Now, this particular person is not, historically speaking, a romance reader. She reads - a lot - but not in that genre. She had other reasons to read my stuff. :-) Anyway, one of the comments she gave me as this no-longer-a-novella project expanded was ‘needs more conflict.’
Now for conflict in a full-length novel in which the primary story arc is a romance (or, to be more accurate, a love story; because FACE THE MUSIC is not built on the conventional ‘boy meets girl, they hit it off, they have some central conflict that could derail the relationship, they resolve it and live happily ever after’ romance arc) you have to create some precipitating event. In a lot of romances, this will be what writers and reviewers call the ‘Big Mis’ - a big misunderstanding, that could typically be resolved by one decent conversation, but can often quite realistically persist because people are, in reality, apt to not use their words when their emotions are involved.
My protagonists in FACE THE MUSIC can only get together at all because they use their words. They’ve both got so much baggage, and they feel the stakes are so high, that their baseline is ‘tell the truth or say nothing.’ Once they get past saying nothing, there is very little conflict between them.
So it had to come from somewhere else. Given the community these characters inhabit - a community of professional and semi-pro dancers and other performers - and the types of risk that would be most realistic in this community’s environment - densely urban, and famed worldwide for its godawful traffic - the single most likely event, the thing most likely to knock these protagonists off their balance and cause them some potentially-relationship-changing damage, was a traffic accident.
But I didn’t want to hurt either of them, not physically. So I had to come up with a character already present in the community, someone they knew, someone I could ‘afford’ to lose in the L.A. Stories universe, and do something horrible to him or her. Once I chose the character, I wrote the scene. I killed him. It was AWFUL.
Because all my characters are very real to me. They have to be; I have to be able to create their conversations, their workplaces, their creative endeavors. I have to know who they are.
And then everything I’ve written since had to account for that horrible event. There are a few of the L.A. Stories with protagonists who did not know that character personally. But between his work friends, his dance friends, his girlfriend/wife and her ex-husband and their daughter (and, later, her own boyfriend/husband) there were a whole lot of people affected by this event. Just as they would be in real life.
So, quite unintentionally, like dropping a big rock in a lake, I created these ripples throughout the community of the stories. I can’t recall reading anything quite like this situation in another writer’s romance series, though I’m sure it exists. I have read it in the romantic-suspense subgenre, but that’s not what this is. There’s no crime here, aside from the fool of a driver flouting the hands-free phone law.
You do often find people getting killed in romance-adjacent mysteries, and of course most of the mystery genre is about people getting killed. But in a murder mystery, the whole point is that you have to have a pool of suspects, which means a lot of people had to have a reason (however lame) for killing the murder victim, which means he or she was probably not a well-liked person. The reader, in short, is not meant to identify with and grieve over the dead person; she is meant to identify (usually) with the investigator and/or with a suspect who turns out to not be the killer.
In real life murder cases, the killer is sometimes so infuriatingly obvious that there is no mystery. According to the FBI there were 17,200 murders in the U.S. in 2017. Sixty percent were solved. Forty percent unsolved is kind of scary. But traffic accidents killed more than 40,000 people in 2017. Forty thousand, and in many - if not most - cases, there was probably no one to ‘blame.’ (Hence ‘accident.’) There is no solution; there is no closure. Every one of those deaths reverberated through a whole community. Every one of those people had family, friends, co-workers who will miss him or her, in various ways, forever. Every one of those losses ripped a hole in other peoples’ lives.
Even someone whose contribution to a community did not go beyond ‘bought groceries here’ is still a person. In the L.A. Stories universe, where characters are intentionally intertwined, losing a person hurt a lot of other people. Those consequences are still being played out in the new fiction I’m writing. It’s been a challenge to me, because this stuff is stressful to write, and I still have to find a way to focus on the love stories because that’s what I’m doing here.
Fortunately, love is just about the best possible way to heal.