Rewriting real-life tragedy
I have led what most people would consider a charmed life. I grew up solidly middle class, in a nice home with two loving parents and a slew of beloved pets. I am college educated, financially comfortable, a happily married mother to two healthy children who’ve grown into kind and thriving adults. My father has never been arrested for murder. My husband has never disappeared without a trace. The only monsters who’ve darkened my door are the kinds asking for Halloween candy.
And yet I’m well aware of the evil that exists in the shadows. It terrifies and fascinates me, how darkness can come for you without a second’s warning, how something as random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time can flip even the most charmed life upside down. Yes, my life is blessed, but maybe that’s why I spend so much of my day studying the shadows, so I can see what’s coming for me.
The best fiction is rooted in truth.
I live in a city where the nightly news is filled with villains and worst-case scenarios. I don’t have to open the newspaper to find them, dozens and dozens of story ideas based on real-life crimes happening right here, in my hometown. Armed robberies, abductions, shootings, disappearances, murders. In my own neighborhood, even, in homes only a few streets away, the darkness creeps dangerously close.
Like when a friend called me on an ordinary Friday to tell me her husband of twenty-plus years had beaten her. The kind of beating that resulted in two black eyes, a cheek swollen to twice its size, a sprained wrist, a finger mangled and broken in multiple spots, and bruises over a good part of her body. What happened afterward was even worse, a long string of betrayals and malice from the person who’d once promised to love and cherish her forever. He said and did things that were unforgivable, and suddenly, seemingly overnight, her husband became her worst nightmare.
And then there’s another who returned home to find two armed strangers waiting for her in the garage. They held her and her two small children at gunpoint and forced their way inside, demanding a very large and strangely specific ransom from her husband. They terrorized her and her children, tied her to a chair, and broke her jaw before she managed to escape and flag down a passing car. A random case of wrong place, wrong time? Not exactly. The ransom amount was a number they’d gotten off a bank statement pilfered from the mailbox.
Those women survived, but their ordeals wouldn’t leave me alone. What would I have done in my friends’ shoes? What if the man I loved broke my bones and my heart? How far would I go to protect my children? Though I would never exploit them or use their names or any identifying details in my writing, fictionalizing their stories has been both an outlet and a balm, because it’s allowed me to give their experiences some meaning.
In fiction, I can serve justice.
In the real world, life is messy, and it doesn’t play fair. Criminals go unpunished, murders remain unsolved, the missing are never found. The armed intruders got away. My friend’s abuser died, and in the days after his death, I learned he did it again. He assaulted another woman, spent another night in jail, then left this world without apology or warning. Was his death the karma my friend and I kept saying the universe would provide? To me, it just feels like a terribly empty plot twist propelling a sad, sorry story where nobody wins.
On the page, though, that’s where I can serve up justice. Through my stories, I dole out punishment, teach the bad guys a lesson or two, make them pay, or even better, apologize. I can hold up these women as the heroines they are and right the wrongs done to them. Even if their charmed lives did go up in proverbial smoke, I can give them the endings they deserve. The ones I wish they could have had in real life.
And maybe that’s the lesson here, to not take anything for granted. Because even the happiest, most blessed lives can go sideways in an instant, and for a whole host of horrible, pointless reasons. Maybe that’s why I write such dark stories, to remind myself that the only truly charmed people are the ones that exist on the page.
About the Author
Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of seven novels, including her forthcoming My Darling Husband and The Marriage Lie, a Goodreads Choice Awards semifinalist for Best Mystery & Thriller. Her books have been published in more than a dozen languages and have been optioned for film and television. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.