Tough Look Back

First of a Series
Dana Lemaster

"The past is never where you left it."

Katherine Anne Porter

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For years, I went to great lengths to keep certain parts of my past out of my writing. Better, I thought, to deal with the past elsewhere and focus on other sources for my creative work. There’s only one problem-memories can have sharp edges. It’s especially true when they’re called back to you via the lives of others.

This is an account of how I came to write my book, A Death In Hartsend. Though the book is inspired by actual events, all its characters and events are fictional.

Plans For A Visit

The year I turned fifteen, my family moved from a sedate Kentucky town to a newly organized planned community in Maryland. Moving at that age would probably have been challenging under any circumstances. In my case, the biggest challenges came from a whopping case of culture shock. I skipped the honeymoon stage entirely, heading right into the uncomfortable stage and staying there for what seemed like forever.

We got word that a family member in Kentucky planned to marry at Easter. The wedding would be near our home town. My parents wanted to visit relatives after the wedding but agreed to let me go back to our home town for a few days. I looked forward to seeing friends and relaxing in a familiar place.

Tragedy Strikes

Shortly after I arrived at my friend’s house on Easter night, we got the news. A fifteen-year-old girl from my former school had been murdered.

Everyone sat looking at each other in shock. We all knew the victim, a sweet girl oriented toward community service. I remember being impressed by her writing talent and wondering if she might become an author one day.

Keeping Silent 

When I rejoined my parents, I didn’t say anything about the murder. Mom had taught school in our hometown, and the girl who died was one of her students. I knew it would devastate Mom to learn about what had happened. Staying silent was my way of trying to protect her.

This happened before the internet and cell phones. A story like that wouldn’t make national news, and it’s unlikely any library except the Library of Congress would have a copy of my town’s local paper. The best source for updates on the case would be reports from friends.

I waited for months but heard nothing. When I asked about it in letters, I didn’t get a response. When I visited my hometown a year later, I made inquiries. No one seemed to know anything. I thought it meant the police hadn’t arrested anyone. Through the years, I remained silent but also never forgot.

A Change Of Heart

Let’s fast forward to 2017. I’d been happily married for several years, had a practical first career as an accountant, and now focused on my dream career as an author.  My current work in progress was a sitcom pilot called The Change, about a menopausal tax attorney who started hormone replacement and became a superhero. I also wrote film reviews for my website, Thinking Cinema. It’s about as far from writing a book as you can get.

That was also the year women began sharing their stories of sexual assault. Even though I didn’t know them, I felt compelled to listen. Increasingly, I thought of the girl who died so many years before. What bothered me most was the parts of her story I still didn’t know. 

Finally, I decided to talk with my mother. It’s not a decision I made lightly or without concern. As everything turned out, I worried for nothing. Mom already knew about the murder. She told me someone had been convicted of the crime, but we didn’t know him. It gave me a bit of relief to learn the murderer wasn’t someone from my old school, but that’s hardly the same thing as closure.

The Drive To Write 

Now I had facts, but not answers for how to move on. Like many authors, I tend to find my answers by writing. That’s when I knew the sitcom would have to wait, because I’d be writing a book instead. But what kind of book? I rejected the idea of a true crime story because it isn’t a genre I write or follow. The story I created would be fiction.

All my life I’d heard from my parents that you couldn’t expect fairness from life. They learned about unfairness early, since they grew up in Oklahoma during the 1930s. In the stories they told us, though, unfairness tended to be the enemy people overcame. If asked about the times unfairness won, they’d shrug. Usually they’d say something like, “You put your head down and get through it.”

When my friend was murdered, unfairness won. I put my head down then and kept it down for years, but I didn’t feel anywhere near “through it”.

Inspiration From Survivors

Meanwhile, I read the papers and listened to the news each day. The #MeToo movement grew in strength as more women spoke up, acting to take control of their lives. Their courage provided an inspiration to me, as I’m sure it did for many others.

Although I can’t pinpoint the exact date and time, the real work on A Death In Hartsend started in the early fall of 2017. I knew this would be a story dealing with the emotions that arise from loss.

Sometimes authors pick projects. Sometimes projects pick them. I had no idea how much work lay ahead on this book, or the level of its difficulty. All I really knew then is that the “Go” switch in my head had been flipped, and I wouldn’t turn back.