Opioids. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. These are all topics I’ve plumbed the depths of in my work. And no, I don’t write incendiary exposes or insightful non-fiction. I write commercial thrillers, page-turning fiction designed to captivate readers and fuel sleepless nights.
My foremost motivation is to entertain people. I live for the craft of storytelling. I love creating lush worlds and complex characters that lure you in and rob you of hours of your time. So why would I choose to lead my readers into such somber and macabre real-world issues like human trafficking? Because in addition to being a commercial artist, I’m also an invested citizen of the world. Like anyone, I doom-scroll Google News and wonder how the world is going to survive another day. Whether I’m writing a suburban domestic suspense or an international crime thriller, I can’t help but interject contemporary issues into the plot. It’s my way of making sense of the world. It’s how I ground my readers in my world.
I don’t shy away from difficult topics. After all, I write contemporary thrillers, and the things going on in the world today are the foundation for thrillers. (Go binge old Law and Order: SVU—every episode was ripped right from the headlines and included a lovely back-and-forth between the characters debating some moral dilemma about the social issue du jour). I also believe if you want to elicit a reaction from your work, you must tickle a nerve in people. Is this an intelligent approach when aiming to ingratiate readers? I think so. We want people to relate to our characters and their experiences. We want our readers to have opinions and emotional reactions. We want them to feel. (I always say I’m not entirely heartbroken by the one-star review–if I angered the reviewer that much, I’ve clearly pinched a nerve.)
I’ve written a wide variety of thrillers and through them, I’ve tackled many serious issues resonating with me at the time. Organized crime and the drug trade in The Redemption Lie. The misogyny of the corporate tech world in The Perfect Life. Human trafficking in The Keepers Promise. Sexual assault in Pale Moon. Even I make myself uncomfortable sometimes. So how provocative should you go when tackling social issues? Whatever your book calls for! Or whatever you think is necessary to tell the story, as long as you understand your audience. Not every social issue is hotly divided, of course. While uncomfortable to read about, I think we can all agree human trafficking is bad. Hopefully, we all agree racism is bad. Domestic and sexual violence? Bad. But Immigration? Reproductive rights? Gun laws? Environmental protection laws? Vaccines? Phew! Dust off your boxing gloves and prepare to enter the online debate ring.
In my latest thriller, Lost Sierra, I found myself tackling several headline issues. I also wrote this book during the heart of the pandemic while quarantined with a newborn at home, so, needless to say, my mind was in a twisty place and the ills of the world weighed heavily on me. The world felt like it was fracturing and collapsing during that time, and all I could think about was how I was going to raise my daughter in this dark, dark apocalypse in which we’d found ourselves. The only way for me to make sense of it all was to write about it.
The toll Covid was taking on all kinds of communities–urban to rural—the income inequality rising to the front page, the resurgence of white supremacy beliefs, the continued silent epidemic of opioid deaths, the decay of the rural small town—all these make an appearance.
Are my views on these topics clear through my writing? Maybe. I imagine if you’ve read enough of my work, you’ll start to get an idea of which way I lean. But I try not to let that be the main point. I aim to explore these topics from both sides. From the victims and perpetrators to those on the sidelines looking in. Those ignorant of what’s actually happening. Those really trying to help and those simply giving lip service to the solutions.
Any time you focus on hot-button issues, whether it be the rights of certain communities, healthcare, immigration, sexism, racism–pick your poison–your characters are going to have opinions about them. After all, you can’t just have your characters living in a state of complete neutrality on such timely matters. If you have done your job right, your characters are living, breathing people, and undoubtedly have diverse opinions about these topics. You, the author, must decide how much of those opinions mirror your own. Exposing your personal beliefs through your writing certainly poses some career risks. We live in an increasingly polarized society and even hinting that you lean left or right, up or down, can cause a polite exodus of readers on the nice end, and a complete Twitter mob on the not-so-nice end.
One of my favorite authors, Karin Slaughter, has tackled all kinds of dark issues in her books–from child abuse to sexual violence to the deep-rooted racism in her home state of Georgia. While provocative, I think the issues are usually undivided by rational, decent people. Then came False Witness in 2021, a contemporary thriller set in the heart of Covid. She was not shy about her views on Covid. In the book, she probes into some of the bigger problems highlighted by the pandemic, like the housing crisis, underfunded schools, the treatment of inmates in prisons, food insecurity, and the chasm between the haves and have-nots. And for the first time, her views on these things came through pretty clearly. There were many angry readers who didn’t appreciate her injecting her opinions into her work. Ms. Slaughter’s response? She writes contemporary thrillers that focus on trauma. This was the story that needed to be told, and she wasn’t going to ignore the real-life situation unfolding around her.
So, how can you retain neutrality, or at least equitability of thought (if that’s what you’re going for), when exploring contemporary issues? Personally, I aim to explore the dual nature of every divided matter.
I spent my childhood and young adulthood in Northern California. While the Golden State is indeed a vast and diverse place, I must admit I was often surrounded by people who, more or less, thought as I did. My opinions on certain issues were ironclad because they were never countered. And while I considered myself “worldly,” my worldview was indeed limited. In 2016, I left San Francisco for Dallas, Texas. Talk about a culture shock during a particularly tumultuous social time. It happened to be an extremely divisive year politically, as you might recall. And for the first time, I was surrounded by people who didn’t always share my opinions.
I could have refused to engage with my new community and their sharply differing beliefs. I could have isolated myself. But instead, I chose to see how people were experiencing the same world events through a different lens. My husband and I have gone on to live in multiple regions, including the Rocky Mountains, the south, and even Europe, all in the last seven years, during which time our country has gone through tremendous social upheaval. I’ve now seen so many contemporary issues through the eyes of people all over the United States, as well as internationally, and I can use that to add depth to my characters’ experiences.
There is a scene I love in Lost Sierra where my main character Daphne, an intelligent but painfully naïve young woman from Berkeley, CA, is arguing how there is no excuse for the ignorance and bigotry she’s encountered in the rural mountain town of Sierra Ridge. Her companion, Logan, counters that while he agrees there’s no excuse, it doesn’t mean there is no reason. He goes on to explain how people in micro-isolated communities come to hold the views they do. How the resentment festers. How people become despondent and lost, even if the path forward seems clear as day to Daphne. It’s a slightly controversial scene (and believe me, it was difficult to defend a white supremacist, even if just through the character’s opinion), but I think it’s one of the most important scenes in the book and an example of how you can add depth to every debate in your work to create a thoughtful exploration of every issue.
Your story is yours to tell and only you can determine how deeply to explore every topic you write about, how timely or real you want to get. Yes, you might ruffle some feathers, but you might also stir some thoughtful discussion!