I’ve said, over and over, here on my site and elsewhere, that every novel is triggered by a “What if…” – a glimmer of an idea in the author’s brain.

LIVE TO TELL’s opening scene—a chase through the streets of Manhattan—was the “what if” that inspired the book, and the premise came to me one night as I was rushing to Grand Central Station to catch a train home to the suburbs.

What if someone were being pursued through New York and had something important in his possession—something he needed to quickly stash away and later retrieve? Where in the heart of a busy city could he safely hide something without risking that someone else would stumble across it? The answer to that question was clear to me as I raced to catch my train home that night—Grand Central Terminal’s Lost & Found. But it opened the door to the most complex thriller plot I’ve ever created.

I wrote the opening scene before I knew exactly who my character was, what item he wanted to hide, why anyone would want it, or even who was chasing him. As I wrote, the pieces of the plot began to gel. He was an investigative reporter. He possessed a memory stick that would incriminate a high-powered politician. He was being chased by the police because he had, out of desperation, committed a petty street crime. And he impulsively concealed the memory stick in a child’s stuffed animal.

And so, LIVE TO TELL—and Lauren Walsh—were born.

I knew, when I began writing, that this domestic suspense plot marked a return to my “Mom-Jep” (Moms-in-Jeopardy) roots. Thus, my heroine would be an ordinary woman—a stay-at-home-mom whose path fatefully crosses that of my villain. I injected the Walsh family and their hometown with plenty of characteristics that ring true with the people and places in my own suburban New York life.

Fictional Glenhaven Park is loosely based on the Westchester County town where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years, and I’ve used it as a setting in a number of novels—including SLIGHTLY SUBURBAN and IF ONLY IN MY DREAMS, which I wrote as my alter-ego Wendy Markham. I often choose to write about danger that strikes close to home, which is supposed to be a safe haven. I can effectively build suspense by planting the idea—in the heroine’s mind, and the reader’s--that unseen threats lurk in the most ordinary backdrops: a neighborhood pool, a front porch, a doctor’s office waiting room. Thus comes the sense that there is no safe place, no escape.

The pink stuffed bunny—an object that seems innocuous enough in the beginning-- plays a key role in the plot. As we meet and get to know the Walsh family—Lauren, teenaged Lucy and Ryan, and five year-old Sadie, who have been abandoned by husband and father Nick, in the midst of a midlife crisis—the lost toy comes to symbolize loss itself. Basically, Fred the bunny is little Sadie’s “security blanket.” I could relate to Lauren, the devoted mom whose children were fiercely attached to toys at various stages in their lives.

My older son received a quilted folk art pillow when he was born, and it sits on his bed to this day, though the pillow is long gone and the case has been reduced to just a ragged square of fabric. He personalized it, calling it “Pee-oh”—his toddler way of pronouncing “Pillow”—and my husband and I still do.

My younger son was attached to something he called his “softie”—a woven blanket depicting AA Milne’s Pooh Bear. My sister-in-law Stacey gave it to him the day he was born. The Softie has been from the Caribbean to Alaska, warming many a hotel, cruise ship, and even railroad compartment bed.

Like “Pee-oh” and “Softie,” Sadie Walsh’s “Fred” is a crucial member of the family, and Lauren will go to great lengths to get him back when Sadie loses him. Her maternal instinct is to protect and nurture, and we see this from the novel’s opening—with its mundane domestic conflicts—to the end, when the children’s lives are in jeopardy and Lauren must save them.

In the past few years, I’ve sadly witnessed many friends’ marriages crash and burn, accompanied by the same small town gossip mill that drives my heroine’s insecurity. It was an effective plot device: the added pressure of having everyone around Lauren watching and judging her—and the loss of her social circle and closest confidants-- enhances the tension and the sense of isolation. I liked the idea that even at home, surrounded by people, she’s alone and vulnerable.

Building on that theme and drawing from real life, I’ve also created scenes that portray the slower rhythm and scant population of late summer suburban days. My own suburban hamlet becomes a virtual ghost town every August, when summer camps end and families depart for annual vacations. I’ve tried to capture that odd emptiness here, but in a sinister way. Lauren no longer welcomes the annual solitude. Particularly now that an invisible threat begins to loom.

In creating the characters of Lauren’s adolescent children, I drew from my own experience as the mom of a tween and teen. After reading the manuscript, my older son asked me if I’d based Ryan—the sweet and sensitive son transformed into a mercurial and combative young man—on him. The answer was no—and yes. Certain scenes, like the one on page 48, where Lauren is doling out cash for yet another pool snack bar meal, or chasing after him with sunblock, were inspired by my real-life daily dealings with my sons. But so was the later scene with Lucy, who is tenderly supportive of her emotionally wounded mother.

Another scene inspired by real life is the one on pages 51-52, where Lauren wistfully watches a young mom with her children at the town pool. As my own children grow up, I’ve had many a similar moment—envious of mothers who dole out goldfish crackers to cherubic toddlers as I watch my own boys recklessly barreling off diving boards and flirting with precocious girls in skimpy clothes.

On page 74, where we spend some time with Lauren’s estranged husband Nick and his new mistress, I really wanted to show that for all his faults, he isn’t entirely without a conscience. It was difficult to find any empathy for the character, personally, but necessary. In this plot, as in real life, the destruction of the marriage isn’t black and white. There are grey areas. Nick does miss his wife at certain times—but they definitely outgrew each other. And his new girlfriend isn’t perfect. We see here and elsewhere that he’s a weak man, and we sense that Lauren is better off without him—and that she’s going to be just fine on her own.

Keep reading, and I’ll be back with insight into the next three chapters!


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Comment by Nancy Gorby on January 28, 2011 at 8:54pm
When I read "LIVE TO TELL" I was so anxious to see what happened next that I just lost time.  I started reading it around 8 pm on Tuesday and decided at 7:43 am Wednesday that I needed a break and a nap.  Could not go to sleep.  Picked the book back up at 9 am and finished it at 11:20 am.  Husband bought me a color Nookbook for Christmas because I always have a book and the light on and he can't sleep, so I purchased "Scared to death" and have not started it yet.  I am doing so much catch-up. Since I read her first book that someone gave me, I went on a book hunt and I have read all her books without one disappointment.  I see her name on a book and I just buy it.  Nancy Gorby
Comment by John on March 8, 2010 at 4:07pm
Oh, take your time--it'll just be something to look forward to! :)
Comment by Wendy Corsi Staub on March 8, 2010 at 12:50pm
I'm not sure segment two will be up Tuesday, John, I got way thrown off by the storm power loss and all the travel before and after! I was planning to write all the copy for the readalong last weekend but obviously couldn't do it without electricity, so I'm still trying to work on it (and everything else I need to catch up on, yikes!)...
But it'll be there asap if I can't get it up tomorrow, so come on back! And thanks!
Comment by John on March 8, 2010 at 7:03am
I love these read-alongs! Thanks for taking the time to do them--it's great to have this behind-the-scenes look at a book because it often gives you a whole new perspective. And I have to say that your characters (and their circumstances) are particularly strong and well-drawn in LIVE TO TELL. Already looking forward to tomorrow...

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