Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Characters of Lost Witness

Lost Witness is not just about murder and who did it. It’s about family dynamics. Five-year-old Estefan's mother was murdered in front of his eyes after they had crossed the Mexican border. The motive appears to be about the drugs she was transporting. But why take the child? And when the child disappears, more questions arise. Who does the child really belong to? In what country does he belong?

I got the idea for Lost Witness when I visited the street church while researching Less Dead. They hold evening church services outside in a parking lot across from Covenant House in Montrose. While I was there, someone mentioned that the FBI was watching them, maybe someone pretending to be homeless. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he was right. I never found out, but this started my mind going in all directions. Why would they be watching homeless teens? Then, we had a representative from the FBI speak to us at a Mystery Writers lunch meeting and I got my answer. Of course, they would look at homeless teens. Who else would be more vulnerable to being initiated in a terrorist camp against a country who couldn’t provide shelter or healthcare for them.

I find characters everywhere. Some I can’t resist putting them in a story. Most of the time, I change their names. Funny thing, when I do, the real life person become that name. Next time I see them, I’ll want to call them by my character’s name. Why? I can’t remember their real name. Any writers out there have the same experience?

One of my daughter’s oldest friends is a woman named Tara Barlow and I asked her permission to be in Lost Witness. Throughout the fifteen years we’ve known her, she’s been either homeless lived with someone or she shared a place with her boy friend. To pay her way, she’s cleaned houses, babysat, cleaned apartments and houses, and she even painted the rooms and tiled the floors when I bought my house. Because she’s been so close to my family, she’d never forgive me if I called her a fictional name. I asked her permission to use her real name and she agreed. I reminded her several times and she would smile back at me. I used her boy friend’s name, too, and said he would be a gangster. He just shrugged when I told him. Maybe because he used to be a gangster or at least used to be in a gang until the police dumped his unconscious body on a railroad track and the train rain over his foot and now he has only half a foot. He loves telling that story whenever he gets drunk.

Tara knows the street. Her oldest daughter was homeless and that’s one of the reasons she brought me with her to the street church so she could say goodbye to the granddaughter who had been in foster care because Tara’s daughter was an addict and lived on the street. She was there to say goodbye to her daughter. I did change her name, and of course, I can’t remember her real name.

Several things happened at the street church. Tara introduced me to several of her friends. She also introduced me to the minister, who has been there for the teens on the street. She told him about my books and he got on the mic and told the group who I was and that I wanted to talk with however many kids who wanted to talk to me. I was surrounded from at the time on to the time I left. They were open and eager to tell their stories. Several were in their late teens and early twenties, Iraq vets, struggling to survive, physically as well as mentally. Many of these kids were surviving by taking odd jobs or making something with their hands to sell on the street. They were young and most of them were eager to work. They told me where they slept at night, mostly in Hermann Park or under the bridge.

There’s another character in the book who was a long-standing friend of Tara’s. His real name is Rick. For the book I dropped the “k” in Rick. Like Ric, my character, he’s in a wheelchair as a result of a shooting over a woman and I don’t know how he makes his money and I don’t ask.

How do I find these people? My kids, believe it or not. These are people they met when they were teenagers and their friendship remained over the years. Tara comparison shops for my daughter to get the best deal as she does for Niki in the book. There isn’t much she wouldn’t do for my daughter has helped her out in many ways.

My protagonist, Niki Alexander, is not always sure of herself, but she believes in taking care of the kids who don’t have anyone else to care for them. While she was a police officer, she was forced to kill a teenager, high on PCP and who was trying to kill her. This so devastated her that she quit and went to work with troubled and runaway teens.

In my first book, Less Dead, we first meet Nelson Spalonetti, the homicide investigator who took her place with her ex-partner, and toward the end saw an attraction building between him and Niki. Nelson gets a bigger role in Lost Witness because he is a hunk and Niki has been a widow for a long time and pretty much devoted to her work.

The first time Niki saw Estefan and brought him home with her and kept him over night, Niki knew she would go to the ends of the earth to see no harm came to him. When he disappears despite her good intentions, she becomes a mama bear, tenacious in her search. She is not happy at first to be working with Nelson and he’s not happy working with a civilian, but their relationship slowly revolves. While they both search for a missing child who hasn’t spoken since he witnessed his mother’s murder, they are brought together in more ways than one.

There is a story I heard recently that I’d like to finish with.

A man walking along the beach saw a boy covered with starfish. He was throwing them back into the ocean.

The man told him, “You die they are just going to end up back on the sand and die. You’re wasting your time. There are too many of them and you can’t save them all.”

The boy pulled another starfish off him and tossed it in the water and watched it float out on the waves. He turned to the man and said, “I saved that one.”

And one at a time, Niki will strive to save another one.

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