Past Lives: Bonus Content
I collected a lot of pictures while working on Past Lives, but I based the characters on regular people—cops, waitresses—I found in image searches. That helped me create characters, but it’s not right for me to post pictures of private individuals. I based some of the secondary characters on actors, which I feel better about since they’re already public figures and it’s a bit like another imaginary “role.”
Past Lives began as an experiment. I am a huge fan of Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s work on story structure, and I wanted to see if you could run a Hero’s Journey and a Heroine’s Journey in parallel. The key difference is that in the Hero’s Journey (and Schmidt is clear the character doesn’t actually have to be male, which is interesting), the Hero is encouraged and supported and then reaches a point at which he has to make a choice to break away. In the Heroine’s Journey, the Heroine (who, again, doesn’t have to be female) starts with low status, and her efforts are actively opposed. She reaches a critical point where she has to believe in herself. I’m not doing the nuances justice, and I hope you’ll read Schmidt in her own words.
But that was the genesis. Lots and lots of color-coded post-it notes later, I had Mike, a new detective with a bright future, and Jill (at that point named Beth), a rather lonely, anxious, pathetic young woman, discounted by people around her, whose conviction that her missing fiancé might have been murdered and reincarnated seemed absolutely nuts. I liked her, but my first round of test readers almost universally hated her, and I ripped out and rewrote a lot, changing her name in the process. The opening four chapters, in particular, I had a hard time with. That went part through about seven major rewrites. You can read the original first chapter, for comparison here, if you’re interested.
I was asked at one point in the early drafts what the theme of Past Lives was, so I’ll state it here: for me, the theme was always “There is value in the fringe,” and reincarnation, in the West, is definitely a fringe idea. I created a whole host of ‘minority report’ or ‘fringe’ elements—Valerie’s astrology, Jill’s mother’s lottery tickets, Lillian the eccentric, elderly psychic, Isaiah being gay and black in predominately white Vermont, Gideon’s Tea Party and GMO conspiracy theories. Mike, the Hero rooted in and supported by his society, is committed to consensus thinking. He wants to be inclusive, but he’s reluctant to go out on a limb because that way madness lies—if you start believing fringe ideas, where do you stop? Jill, the Heroine, is all-in. She isn’t supported by her society anyway and makes common cause with the other fringe characters. She can even side with the villain because the powers that be think they can ignore his demand for justice. Not all fringe ideas are true, however, and it’s inherently dangerous once you cut ties with what the people around you generally agree is true or false, and I found that element of danger fascinating in the book.
I love speculative fiction because it adds an element of surprise and intrigue, but when I’m working on a project like this, I’ll usually have one big “gimmie” (like Lexi’s A.I.), and then I try to ground everything else in as much hard fact as I can. I spent a lot of time researching forensics and locations—Google Ads is still convinced I’m looking to buy a house in Vermont. So I call this particular book a “paranormal police procedural.” There isn’t really a category for that, but I loved the contrast. I wanted to tell the story mostly from Mike’s perspective and then at the last minute, pull the rug out. It’s only because he goes way out on a limb on something completely crazy that the case can be solved and tragedy is averted.
The Hero and Heroine’s Journey provided the structure of the book, but the idea itself came from Dr. Ian Stevenson’s Children Who Remember Past Lives (2000), which includes the case of Bongkuch Promsin, a 2-year-old boy in Thailand who recalled being murdered in a village about nine kilometers away and identified his killers. Another boy, 3-years-old, born in Golan Heights, identified his killer and led people to his body in a field and another location where the killer had left the ax. It’s the sort of thing that makes the back of your neck prickle. What impresses me most about Stevenson and his successor, Dr. Jim Tucker, is that they are both absolutely committed to being researchers, not theorists, and they are very careful not to overstate what they have and have not verified. If you are interested in reading more about reincarnation, Near Death Experience, or Out of Body Experience, I think the best work is being done at University of Virginia, and I recommend Jim Tucker and Bruce Greyson in particular.
Some of the books I read while writing include:
The character of Mike owes a lot, I suspect, to Michael Redhill’s (Inger Ash Wolfe) James Wingate. I was also very influenced by Elementary Season 2, which was running at the time I was constructing the main murder plot.
Some more pictures of actors and locations I collected while writing: