The ideas for my novels always come to me in the voice of the main character. Letters to Juniper was no different. During the 90s, I was as horrified as everyone else at news stories about the Montana Freemen, Ruby Ridge, and the Waco Siege. In all three cases, children were living inside the compounds during the standoffs.
One day a young girl’s voice spoke to me and told me Sarah’s story in the form of letters, like a diary. I started writing it down.
It would be swell if the act of writing simply involved taking dictation from the voices inside my head. Creating a character requires more than voices. The character must become flesh and blood. I knew from the start I had a lot to learn about this character. I had to unlock the secret. Who was Sarah Smith?
There was only one way to find out.
When creating a character I definitely use character sketches, bios, and interviews. But for me, research is my passion. Through my research process, the character shows me who she is. The character comes to life.
The news stories were all about what happened after the FBI showed up. Lots of footage of reporters and agents standing around with video cameras trained on buildings. Okay, so Sarah’s home was surrounded by federal agents. How did she feel about that? What was her true conflict?
I needed to know what was going on inside those buildings, which meant I had to peer into an alternate universe inhabited by members of the Aryan Nation, plus skinheads, white supremacists, Separatists, and neo-Nazis.
I visited some of the groups’ websites but they were packed with propaganda and hate speech. They were also pretty sophisticated. While I was poking around at one of the sites – I won’t say which one – an angry red message box popped up on my screen: “WARNING!”. The message said something about me not being a registered user. I don’t remember the exact words. I closed my browser. Then someone sent me an email asking why I was looking at the website, which creeped me out. I couldn’t figure out how the person knew my email address. I hit reply and typed a few general questions but then I remembered something. During my research I read about a writer who had become acquainted with a group of neo-Nazis in the Chicago area so he could get interviews for a story. Then he disappeared. I decided one-on-one contact was a really bad idea. I deleted my reply.
Instead I looked in a different direction. I spent hours and hours at the library digging through the periodicals section. I found several accounts in magazines and books by attorneys, law enforcement agents, and journalists, all of whom had witnessed life inside isolated, extremists’ compounds. Many of their stories provided details about the leaders’ use of rigid beliefs and oppressive rituals to control others, especially women and children. I had found Sarah’s conflict.
During my research I found interviews with women who had left extremists compounds with their children, some of them refugees of the Branch Davidian ranch in Waco. Their confessions offered a glimpse into the emotional impact on the children. I also gleaned background information which helped me understand how the women and children ended up in those situations. From their stories I constructed a bio for Sarah Smith. The more I researched, the more I understood her. In the process I discovered a key element to her past that surprised even me, and will certainly surprise readers.