I’ve always thought of writers as magpies—we’re known for thievery, and that’s often what we do. We steal little parts of life, sometimes from our own experiences, but often from other people. A conversation overheard in a restaurant. A fight observed in the street. A line of dialogue said by a friend. We’re always collecting, gathering, storing so that we can use what we’ve gathered later, at the appropriate time. Sometimes the connection in the finished work is obvious and sometimes more tenuous, but if you know where to look it’s there.
This happened to me in a direct way a year and a half ago when my brother-in-law’s mother was suddenly diagnosed with brain cancer and given six weeks to live. The whole family was shocked and saddened, me included. We’d all spent a lot of time together over the years, and she was a vibrant woman in her late sixties who seemed to have boundless energy. How could she be gone so fast?
As I watched this real-life tragedy play out, my writer’s brain started cataloguing things and asking myself questions. For instance: faced with the same stark deadline, would I spend time going through my things and giving them away? Or would I speed away to a beach somewhere and leave the sifting to others? Would I make a general announcement on social media or through email, or leave it as a family secret that would come as a shock to many once the inevitable happened? Would I try to investigate how this had happened to me—what had been missed, how had it progressed so quickly—or put down my questioning brain and let it all go? And most importantly, was six weeks enough time to leave the world at peace, or was that impossible?
This is what it’s like to be a writer! Or at least, this writer. In all of these questions, an idea formed. I write suspense, so what was the suspense twist to this premise—a woman given six weeks to live? I researched glioblastoma and found that in some cases, it might be linked to exposure to certain toxins. Aha! Maybe this woman—this theoretical woman, not the sweet woman I knew—had been exposed to a toxin. And maybe this exposure had been on purpose. Maybe someone wanted to get rid of her and they’d tried to poison her? But the poisoning hadn’t worked and here she was, a year later, with an unintended consequence? Interesting, interesting. The idea was sticky—it stayed with me—but, to be honest, it scared me. Was spinning a book out of something so close to me wrong? Was it the right way to honor her? I struggled with that.
But I also had to propose some book ideas to my new editor. I had two—another idea that I’d been thinking of for longer that was more fleshed out, and SIX WEEKS TO LIVE. I sent them off, and soon I heard back. Oddly, another one my editor’s writers had a similar idea to my “other idea” and she’d already approved that. But she was intrigued by Six Weeks. Write that one, she said. So, I started to. Nervously. I came up with the plot—a woman trying to solve her own murder before she passed away. I added suspects to her life—a soon-to-be ex-husband, her adult daughters. I made sure to make my main character as different from the real woman as possible. In fact, by the time the manuscript was done, the only similarity between them was the diagnosis. But the book was for her. Because of her. I wanted to honor that. I dedicated the book to her, and I let my brother-in-law know what the book was about. He was gracious—as he always is—but part of me still wonders if he’s truly okay with it.
But this is what writers do. We’re magpies. We steal things. Hopefully what we give back is enough compensation.
Catherine McKenzie was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. A graduate of McGill in History and Law, Catherine practiced law for twenty years before leaving the practice to write full time. An avid runner, skier and tennis player, she’s the author of numerous bestsellers including Hidden, Fractured, The Good Liar, and I’ll Never Tell. Her works have been translated into multiple languages and The Good Liar, You Can’t Catch Me and I’ll Never Tell have all been optioned for development into television series.
Visit her online at www.catherinemckenzie.com, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/catherinemckenzieauthor, on Instagram at @CatherineMcKenzieAuthor and on Twitter @CEMckenzie1
Six Weeks to Live publishes April 20, 2021 in Canada. Join Catherine for the Canadian launch! Event Link: https://www.facebook.com/events/276347913828110
Photo credit: Jyrki Salmi (header banner)
One thought on “From Tragedy to a Book—By Catherine McKenzie”
Intriguing. Writers are motivated by hosts of experience, imagination, pain, and pleasure. What matters is what we are able to do with these influences. Sounds like you craft well.