“What do you want to feel?” he murmured, his breath warm against my cheek.
Everything. But instead, what came out was, “Taken care of.”
– Love in the Time of Serial Killers, p. 261
As almost everyone and their dog knows at this point, I wrote a romance novel called And Maybe They Fall In Love and it’s coming out in February.
A smaller group of people know there’s another romance novel, IWHBAGS, in the works after this one, and still smaller is the support system who knows my current WIP is the start to a fantasy series…in the same world as my two romance novels.
I have a lot going on when it comes to the books I’m writing, and sometimes it’s easy to lose my way in the drafts.
So, this year, I’m giving myself the tools I need to write the stories I want to tell.
Instead of committing to a numerical reading goal for 2023, I’ve committed to a categorical one: I will read two categories of books this year: independently published books and books that I can analyze for craft. (Side note: these two are not mutually exclusive.)
In my own writing, I’ve learned – through undergraduate critiques and endless hours of revision – to appreciate my own strengths and weaknesses.
This year, I want to discover stories that are strong where mine struggle, and I want to steal their craft. I want to learn in the best way any author can, which of course is not through an expensive education or those ads that pop up on Instagram, but through reading good books.
The first book I read with this goal in mind is called Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson.
“But wait, Emma!” you cry from your leather armchair. “Didn’t you say you wanted to read for craft? What are you doing picking up a romcom? You need something LITERARY! Or at least older than a book released in 2022! They call each other “my dude”, for crying out loud!”
Good stories are good stories. Genre, method of publication, and topic are all just extra adornments to what matters most: plot and character.
And this book has ‘em.
I picked up Love in the Time of Serial Killers during a Half Price Books sale and read the first few pages in the store, and then just…couldn’t put it down.
I finished reading in a day or two, which involved bringing the book with me to a family game night and slamming it shut when my dad wandered too close to my reading spot at very unfortunate moments.
(This book is open door, which means there are explicit sex scenes. Because of that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone younger than eighteen. Or anyone who plans to read on their parent’s couch.)
“My dude,” I said. “If you think this desk looks heavy, you should see my trigger finger on my Mace in about five seconds if you don’t back off.” (p. 4)
Phoebe Walsh is working on her dissertation for a PhD in true crime fiction while grieving her estranged father’s death and tidying affairs at his house when she meets local hottie and probable-serial killer, Sam Dennings.
Sam is not actually a serial killer, but he quickly becomes the most dangerous thing in her life as Phoebe learns that she is both worthy of being desired and that desire itself is worth the fear of abandonment.
There are so many elements of this story that could be isolated as valid craft analysis topics. Here are a few I’d love to discuss:
Phoebe’s reliance on true crime terminology as a comforting lens through which to assess reality
Body image and positive body representation
Dialogue that balances on the edge of funny and corny in the best way
Fear and consequences of running from/facing it
Capability and worth
Alas, I’m not going to go into those worthy topics, because then this essay would be ten thousand words instead of three thousand, and I’d probably start to hate this book instead of appreciating it as I currently do.
To find a balance for my own sanity and aid my own writing, I’ve chosen to explore the use of the neighborhood cat, Lenore, as a foil for Phoebe’s own character development.
In the rough draft of the romance novel I’ll start revising this spring, my main character struggles with her own agency in the face of uncertainty, and I in turn have struggled to portray her as a character still progressing in those scenes where she seems to be stagnant.
Using Lenore as a predecessor or indicator for Phoebe’s relationship with uncertainty throughout the novel provided Thompson with an avenue to show growth without pushing Phoebe to unrealistic confidence in her relationship with Sam before she’d reached that place naturally.
“I didn’t want to have a fling with my neighbor. Just like I didn’t want a cat, I didn’t want to be friends with Alison again, I didn’t want to stay here any longer than I had to.
It was exhausting, not wanting things.” (p. 165)
Lenore is a black cat who Phoebe meets when she moves into her father’s old house, and almost immediately she is connected with both Sam, the mysterious neighbor, and Phoebe’s dissertation work. On a call with her advisor, Phoebe responds to a question about “whether [she has] anyone in her life” with:
“Considering that a cat was the first strange creature who’d inspired true friendliness since I got here, I was inclined to say no. And then I realized Dr. Nilsson meant whether I had anyone romantically in my life, which was more of a hell no.” (p. 45)
Lenore continues to weasel her way into Phoebe’s life as Phoebe faces uncertainty in relationships around her. For example, when her advisor cuts Phoebe off in the middle of a discussion about a serial killer case Phoebe finds particularly interesting, Phoebe finishes the conversation with Lenore (p. 47).
Lenore is the reason Phoebe reconnects with her childhood best friend, who happens to be a local librarian with an affinity for the feline (p. 201). Discussing Lenore is the first time in their rekindled friendship that Phoebe calls Alison “my friend”, which “surprised [her]” (p. 151).
Toward the climax of the book, Lenore is included in the text Phoebe sends to Alison that evidences the first time she ever says “I love you” to anyone:
Hey, as you know, I’m heading out tomorrow! I know you’ll be at work, so just wanted to say thanks again for all your help w/ the cat and the blazer and all of it. ily! (p. 303)
“Please help me because I’m drowning here” (P. 202).
But most importantly in this particular story – which, after all, primarily concerns itself with the romantic relationship between Phoebe and Sam – Phoebe learns to accept desire and its consequences in her life because of Lenore.
Throughout the novel, the theme of want is expressed in many different scenarios. Phoebe constantly battles against her wanting, or her desires, because of the uncertainty desire creates; this is part of why she’s so invested in true crime.
“The pulsing heartbeat of true crime, of all human stories when you got right down to it, was we all wanted and hoped and dreamed and loved, but we had no control over what happened in the end” Phoebe types as Lenore “jumped up and walked right across [her] keyboard” (p. 241).
This lack of control makes any relationship with Sam feel impossible, at first, and Phoebe keeps him at a safe distance with serial-killer inspired suspicion about his ordinary life.
It’s only when Phoebe starts discussing Lenore with Sam that she allows herself to express desire for him in a simple way: in the guitar store where he teaches lessons, she asks him to “play [her] the dorkiest thing imaginable” (p. 97).
This request, as benign as it might seem, shows Phoebe growing comfortable with asking for what she wants. Although she regrets it moments later, and apologizes to Sam for “wasting all [his] time”, she was still brave enough in the moment to ask for what she wanted.
This back and forth is repeated several times throughout the story; after letting her long hair down in Sam’s garage and passing a heated moment staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, Phoebe allows herself to think “What if I went back, just for a minute?” before she “just kept walking, stepping over the cat, who was back in my driveway again” (p. 138).
After choosing to reject her own desire to see Sam again, Phoebe informs Lenore that “This isn’t your home” and “shut the door” on the cat in a way that’s very much akin to her internal shutting out of her personal desires.
Even though both Sam and Lenore haven’t done anything but seek Phoebe’s affection, the concept of accepting that affection is so daunting that she must put physical space between herself and both the cat and the music teacher.
We learn a little bit about why Phoebe is so averse to letting people and animals into her life when Lenore bolts through the open front door and secures herself under Phoebe’s bed. Phoebe reflects on a childhood desire to adopt a terminally ill cat from a shelter because “doesn’t this cat deserve someone who’ll take care of him?”, to which her mother replies with the hassle and expense end-of-life care would involve (p. 141).
With Sam, Phoebe sees herself as someone who is “wasting all [his] time” at first, but eventually realizes that she is deserving of someone who will “take care of [her].”
This idea culminates in a heart-warming moment when, after Lenore has run away and returned (an incident we’ll discuss in more detail later), Sam and Phoebe have this incredibly telling interaction:
“What do you want to feel?” he murmured, his breath warm against my cheek.
Everything. But instead, what came out was, “Taken care of.” (p. 261)
Phoebe is finally honest, and Sam delivers in a scene I had to read with the book slanted at an angle – because, again, I was on my parent’s couch. But I love this emotional vulnerability, and this was a step in Phoebe’s character development that made me incredibly happy.
Phoebe desires to be taken care of, and that’s something she rejects vehemently at first. When Sam tells her “the basics” of cat care include “food, water, litter box, veterinary care. Love. That’s it”, Phoebe responds by thinking “no one ever died from a lack of love” (p. 163).
However, as Lenore makes herself more comfortable in Phoebe’s life, Phoebe gets a front row seat to just how easily a cat will take what it desires – whether it be food or affection.
And it seems that as Lenore warms up to Phoebe and expresses her desires, Phoebe in turn grows bolder in her own pursuit of what she wants.
Unfortunately, even as Phoebe learns to express her desires more, she also learns that desire does come at a cost.
Lenore runs off one day out of a door Phoebe left open on accident, and while looking for her with Sam, Phoebe says this line that absolutely killed my soul and left it dead: “why wouldn’t she have run?” (p. 254).
Phoebe’s just barely allowed herself to start opening up and desiring meaningful relationships with others, and here we see what her expectations have been the whole time: eventually, everyone will leave.
And Phoebe sees that as her fault, as she spirals and wonders if “maybe the brief domestication I’d foisted upon her was the worst possible thing I could have done, a way to dull her best street instincts just when she’d need them most” (p. 258).
Phoebe’s fears oscillate between a terror that Lenore has abandoned her and a misery created by the thought that Phoebe herself was responsible for Lenore leaving, all overshadowed with the existential fear of death that leads Phoebe to rush toward the emotional isolation she’s comfortable with.
Phoebe announces that “I can’t take care of something else…Sam, if I take in this cat, I’m basically saying that I am going to watch her die one day” (p. 259). This precedes Lenore’s return, and although when Phoebe realizes “she came back”, there’s a moment of relief that’s quickly followed by the “taken care of” spicy scene, this certainty of her own inability to provide or accept care is what ultimately leads her to break off her relationship with Sam (p. 259).
Phoebe asserts that “to love someone was to need them, to open yourself up to pain and rejection and loss…there was way too much risk involved” (p. 286).
She breaks Sam’s heart in a third-act separation that was the only complaint I had about this book, packs up Lenore, and moves back to North Carolina for her defense of her dissertation.
And that’s pretty much the end of Lenore’s role in Phoebe’s character development because, at this point, Phoebe’s learned the lessons.
She knows that asking for what she desires is “something [she] could have”, but it also brings her uncertainty (p. 268).
She knows she’s capable of care and being cared for in a relationship.
She knows that vulnerability is terrifying, but the reward is great when you open yourself up to possibilities.
Now, all Phoebe has to do is realize Sam is worth the risk and run back to Florida for a last-minute love declaration that leads to their happily ever after.
The last major mention of Lenore is in conjunction with Phoebe’s return to North Carolina to prepare a defense of her dissertation.
“Everything was normal.
Except it wasn’t. Now I had a cat…” (p. 312)
Phoebe goes on to list the ways she wasn’t normal because of her heartbreak over Sam, but she starts with Lenore.
At the end of the day, Lenore is the one who disrupts Phoebe’s normal life enough to push her to change throughout the novel. It’s Lenore who teaches Phoebe to embrace her own desires.
And it’s Lenore who teaches Phoebe that just because someone leaves doesn’t mean they can’t come back.
“The problem with putting off writing was that the words didn’t just magically appear the longer you left your computer to its own devices” (p. 106).
Fair warning: my second novel had kittens in the plot long before Lenore entered my life. I don’t plan to use the kittens as my character foil, especially now, because that would look a little tacky, but they will be there.
Instead, I think I want to take my main character’s creative passion, which she’s avoided pursuing because of family things, and use her development of both skill and confidence in her creativity as a foil for her development of desire in her own life.
She doesn’t necessarily have a problem with denying herself the physical aspect of her desire for the love interest (this book has a lot more fade-to-black moments than Elle and Christopher warranted).
My character denies herself agency. Sure, the love interest might be a fun distraction, but she can’t fall for him because external expectations dictate otherwise. Whether her family, her society, or the dark magical underground system that’s accidentally unearthed at a charity gala, there are lots of active reasons why it’s easier for her to live a life that looks like everyone else planned.
But, through exploring unconventional art in her creative passion, she might just be able to unlock some of that confidence she needs to both get the boy and fight the bad guys. We’ll see!
Please go read Love in the Time of Serial Killers and tell me what you thought! And, while you’re at it, if you want a significantly less-cool book that does not have kittens but does have a lot of nervous, awkward pining, check out my book that releases in February, And Maybe They Fall In Love.