We writers often talk about steps like “outlining, drafting, editing” and so on, but for me there’s a longish phase where I’m thinking about a story before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard. I’ve been thinking about my next Kat Voyzey mystery, and that got me thinking about what gave me the idea to write my first novel in the first place.
I began writing Involuntary Turnover right around the time I quit my HR Manager job. And I had a love/hate relationship with my work. I enjoyed the work of helping managers succeed, and I thought the conflict resolution aspects were meaningful. But I hated enforcing ill-conceived policies. In particular, I remember being cheesed about all the double standards where I worked. Like, management made a big point about forbidding open toed shoes, then they’d go around wearing open toed shoes. Then I’d be expected to enforce that rule while making excuses for the exceptions. There were tons of tiny inequities like that. Individually, they didn’t matter much, these were petty issues. But taken in bulk, all the small indignities added up and made me want to climb the walls and sprint for freedom. (Note: open toed shoes are not great for sprinting. Wear flats.)
Because my job so often required me to bite my tongue, I developed this running inner monologue to blow off steam. I joked to myself that HR people spoke in code, because if we said what we really thought, we’d no doubt be fired on the spot.
HR Speak: That’s interesting.
Truth: That’s fucked up.
HR Speak: I know this feels unfair.
Truth: This is unfair. You’re being screwed. But legally it’s allowed, so I’ll talk about your feelings because the facts aren’t on our side.
HR Speak: I wish it were that simple, but…
Truth: Hark! We are prisoners inside an irrational corporate bureaucracy.
HR Speak: What did your boss say?
Truth: Look, we both know your boss is the devil. And I can’t overrule the devil. I barely have the authority to order office supplies. But I’ll help you negotiate without getting fired. Well, I’ll try.
Working in human resources, I had a growing disconnect between my professional outer self and my inner monologue. And sometimes my suppressed feelings would leak out. For example, I used to post “A Word a Day” outside my office for fun, and sometimes the words I chose were wildly passive aggressive. I’d come out of a disappointing meeting, and the next day, I’d post my vocabulary word for all to see.
Word of the Day: Hypocrisy
Definition: Noun. The practice of stating beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not possess.
Write What You Know?
When I decided to try my hand at writing a novel I thought it would be fun to have an HR heroine who found a dead body at the office. Write what you know, right? I’d read hundreds of murder mysteries, and I had a feel for office drama. And to round out the story, I borrowed from the funny things that had happened at work. Like the time we accidentally hired an arsonist, and she was super nice. You don’t work in HR for long without accumulating some amusing anecdotes.
Many first-time writers start with with material that’s quasi autobiographical. I was no different. I was once a snarky HR manager who craved integrity in a world that wanted me to stay in my lane. I kept my f-bombs on the inside, toed the line, and wished that my days were more interesting. And if I ran my workplace harassment investigations with the solemn determination usually reserved for hardboiled detectives on the BBC, well, that was just me taking my job seriously. I learned to ask the right questions to solicit the facts, whether that be in a job interview or to untangle an argument between coworkers. And I walked the dark hallways outside the medical records department and delighted in the spooky way my footsteps echoed out in front of me. All of those emotions and images were in my bones long before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard.
Why I Wrote the Kat Voyzey Mysteries
I wrote my first mystery novel for several reasons. The winter I started writing Involuntary Turnover, I was stressed out, struggling with my Masters thesis, and a big storm had knocked out our power for days. Writing gave me an escape when I needed one. And beneath all that, I had some things I wanted to say about corporate life, about the ways it can be unfair, and about how we need to stick up for one another and not let the desire for easy answers sweep the truth to one side.
I had a chip on my shoulder, you might say.
But what the writer feels inside, what motivates them, those things aren’t necessarily what the reader will take away. That’s one of the beautiful things about art, I think. We each mix our perspective with what we read and no two people will ever have the same experience of a story or a painting or a piece of music.
Time has a way of mellowing us out, and I no longer feel salty about the time I spent in human resources. I look upon those years fondly, and my frustration back then drove me to start a business where I helped managers make better choices. It all worked out. And I even got a few good mystery novels out of it, and a writing hobby that would eventually become something more.
I’m looking forward to Kat’s next case. Without getting into spoilers, she took a big step at the end of book three, and I want to see how that shakes out for her. And while the “things I want to say about work” have changed a great deal since book one, there’s one thing that remains the same. I believe all good stories should contain a core of emotional truth. No matter if you’re writing something realistic or fanciful, fiction is all about using lies to tell the truth, and it helps to start a story with a sense of what that truth might be. And perhaps that truth is just something you hold in your heart while you write. And as for what others make of it, well, that’s up to them.
I enjoy the thinking part of the writing process. It’s mysterious. A story so often arrives in pieces. And where do these pieces come from? Some of them come from me, and some of them come from the universe. It’s a strange and beautiful alchemy, and I felt it for the first time when writing Involuntary Turnover.
A Last Chance for a Free Copy of Involuntary Turnover
If you’ve followed me this far, book buddies, I have a tip for you. Involuntary Turnover has been free for a while, that’s something we authors call a permafree marketing strategy, kind of like a free sample. The whole series is going back up to full price in July, so if you’d like to snag a free copy of my first book, now is a good time to do that.