The Real Truth about Murder

I like to read mysteries with compelling plots and fully developed, believable characters. But in my experience, few mystery writers are willing, or perhaps able, to convey, in the fictional worlds they create, the real truth of murder.

More than twenty years ago my mother, Ruth Fergus, a widow in her seventies, surprised a burglar in her home in State College, Pennsylvania. He stabbed her to death. I found her body the next day.

My parents and me. I must have been about four years old.

My parents and me. I must have been about four years old.

When I decided to write a novel that included murder, I wanted to depict, as honestly as I could, the reality of what happens when a human being takes another person’s life. Murder, I believe, is not something to write about lightly. (I don’t often read in the mystery sub-genre called “cozies,” in which killings are downplayed or even treated with humor. And it bothers me when, in a mainstream mystery, an author kills off characters with no thought or acknowledgement given to how those deaths affect others: families, friends, communities, even the people who must investigate those murders.)

The main character of my historical mystery, A Stranger Here Below, is a young sheriff of Pennsylvania Dutch extraction named Gideon Stoltz. I wrote several drafts of the novel and was not fully satisfied with Gideon as a character. Then someone who knew my personal history, and whom I’d asked to read the story, made a courageous suggestion: Draw on your own past and give Gideon the experience of having lost his mother to murder.

At first, I resisted. Giving Gideon that kind of painful backstory would mean that I myself would have to revisit, and in some ways relive, the loss of my mother to a particularly cruel and horrible death. Then I thought about how important truth and honesty are to the writing of good fiction.

Fortunately, a few years after my mother was murdered, I wrote down what had happened to her – and what had happened to me and to our family in the wake of her killing. In the essay, which I titled “Stones,” I tried to depict my mother’s life and the kind of person she was. I also sensed that creating a story out of my mother’s death could help me place that traumatic event more fully in the past.

So I reread “Stones.” And I drew on those memories and details when creating Gideon Stoltz’s past and developing him as a character.

Yale Review published “Stones” in 1999. It’s long (about 16 pages), and it’s unsparing. Read it if you wish. You can access it HERE.