The Big Idea: Jaime Lee Moyer
JAIME LEE MOYER:
Most writers are magpies. We collect shiny ideas, obsessions, and images that we can’t let go of or forget. Many of us dream stories as well, most of them offshoots of all the things we’ve crammed into our brains.
Delia’s Shadow was a magpie novel that began as a dream fragment. This book is made up of so many ideas and pieces of knowledge I’ve acquired, experiences and obsessions I’ve had over the years. I drew on my love of history, ghosts and unexplained phenomena, an image I couldn’t forget, and an obsession with understanding how little boys—normal little boys—grow up to become serial killers. The scariest monsters of all are the human kind.
This book started in a dream about a young woman dressed in old-fashioned clothing and standing next to a railroad track. A satchel sat at her feet and steam from the locomotive billowed around her, swirling and writhing in a very creepy way. Delia was looking over her shoulder, watching for the person following her.
I couldn’t get this image out of my head or stop thinking about who was following Delia, and why. Well, it turned out that the person following her was a ghost. Why this particular ghost decided to haunt Delia turned out to be very important. Once I knew why, the whole book fell into my head.
Delia has always seen ghosts, but only as glimpses of faces watching from a corner, or faded haunts walking through walls. The ghost she discovers standing at the foot of her bed one morning is different. Shadow, as she comes to call this spirit, follows her relentlessly, invades her dreams, and demands things of Delia. This young woman died before Delia was born, the last victim of a brutal killer that terrorized San Francisco and then vanished. Delia finds herself compelled to discover what Shadow wants from her and lay the ghost to rest. This was the first idea.
The second idea is woven in with the first. In 1885 a serial killer used the city of San Francisco as his private hunting grounds, picking and choosing his victims at random. This killer tormented the lead detective and the newspapers with a series of letters that detailed his victims’ suffering, and describing victims never found. The murders stopped as suddenly as they began and the killer was never caught.
Thirty years later, in 1915, the killer is back. Lieutenant Gabe Ryan finds himself investigating a series of murders that bear an uncanny resemblance to his father’s old cases. The killer threatens to begin hunting victims at the Panama Pacific Exposition unless Gabe prints his letters in the paper.
The minor–or not so minor—third idea was a series of questions I asked myself: How do people turn into monsters? Where did this man go for thirty years and why is he back? How could a police detective without modern forensics catch this man?
Once upon a time there was a real serial killer hunting in San Francisco, picking and choosing his victims at will, spreading fear and the uncertainty that anyone was safe. This man stopped killing suddenly and vanished. He was never caught, his identity never discovered. One question I couldn’t stop asking myself was—what if he came back again and again and again? I had a lot of real life inspiration to draw on, but I had to come up with answers to all those questions. Answers that made sense.
Choosing the time period was easy, as was deciding that five of the main characters were women; six if you count the ghost. 1915 really was at the beginning of what we think of as the modern age. Cars were becoming as common as horse drawn buggies and wagons. Women had already won the vote in California years before and were proud of their independence. Women’s roles were changing, attitudes were changing, and the flapper era was just around the corner.
Not everything was rosy and sunny in 1915, nor all the shifts positive. The Great War was being fought in Europe, ushering in drastic changes and casting a pall on the future. Before the war ended almost an entire generation of young men would be lost. Focusing on nothing but the darkness surrounding Gabe and Delia, Sadie and Jack, and Dora, would be an easy trap to fall into.
I didn’t want to do that, not to the characters and not to readers, and not to me. Friendship and love, trust and a great deal of hope are woven into this story, and a belief in better days. Hope and friendship will get you through the darkest times, and enable you to get up again when you’ve been knocked down.
That might be the biggest idea of all.