As some of you know, the first book of my series is nearing the end of it's first beta read. About a week ago, a particular statement caught my attention. Toward the end of a reader's feedback on chapter 1, they said:
“I'm fascinated by the relative nonchalance of the characters so far. They are all involved in something really, truly egregious and horrific and are awfully workaday about it. It's jarring, which may be intentional.”
Normalizing atrocities. That is one of the many aims my story ended up taking. You may ask yourself “What do you mean ‘ended up taking’? Didn’t you write the story?” Ha! It came out of me, yes. But the reality of writing is that characters develop, and stories unfold through us, often against our will. We are the portal from which other worlds emerge. I mean, sure, we sit down with an idea, some coffee or tea or wine and the best of intentions. But everything that happens from there takes on a life of its own. Things do not always go our way and most of our plans fly out the window. For instance, The Shattered Lives Chronicles was SUPPOSE to be a short erotic story. Next thing I know it’s a goddamn monstrosity with sex included, although no longer the focus. How one manuscript became many still baffles me.
However, just because most stories write themselves through the medium of a writer does NOT mean the points are hollow. Every scene has a goal. A reaction it wants you to feel or a question it begs you to ask. Sometimes by slamming you in the face with an event. Sometimes using a gentle whisper of clues. My muse LOVES to foreshadow almost as much as it enjoys giggling at the Easter eggs it plants.
But I digress.
Throughout the first 4 books of The Shattered Lives Chronicles, my characters demonstrate what one of my friends likes to call “the frog in the pot”. If you’ve never heard this saying, it goes like this. You place a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. If the water is tepid and the heat increases gradually enough, the philosophy implies the frog will acclimate instead of panicking. By the time it realizes its life is in danger, it’s too late. Of course, the theory was disproven (science, bitches), but the metaphorical argument remains pretty solid.
We normalize when faced with fucked-up situations where we feel powerless. It’s how we survive. It happens every day. And it is prolific in victims of long-term abuse.
My fictional tale of human trafficking is ‘mild’. Dark, certainly. Still, it’s ‘mild’. For one, I did not have the balls to write a more truthful version. You know, where it doesn’t matter what age the girls are before they’re exposed to sexual intercourse and/or sold into slavery? My story waits until they are 16 before their sexual education becomes physical. My world also doesn’t offer them up on the black market until the age of 19 or 20.
The first version of my story (before 3 rewrites and dividing by 6) didn’t put much thought into this discrepancy. The tale fell out of my brain through my fingers and onto a keyboard, where it came to life on the monitor of a gateway computer. When I ‘finished’ it in 2009, it was nothing more than 1,000,000+ words of outlining (that’s not an exaggeration, either). As I started the self-editing and rewrites, however, the true concept started to take shape as the character background deepened. My muse established more than one “frog in the pot” scenario.
The first was the behavioral conditioning theory for raising a high-end version of a sex slave. Throwing them in a lukewarm pot and increasing the temperature in a way that keeps them naïve, obedient, dependent, and willing. Taken in at 5 or 6, the girls remain within the prison-like walls of a huge facility in the middle of nowhere. Their only access to the outside is a roof with a pool, running track and some outdoor games to keep them active. The place censors education, reading material, music and videos, and they are not allowed to develop bonds with each other. They can count and tell time, but do not know simple math and have never seen money. Though taught enough to be conversational, they are undereducated to an extreme that would make them seem “dumb as a pile of rocks” to outsiders. Essentially brainwashed to believe they cannot survive on their own, they learn nothing about consent. They are ultimately brainwashed to believe they cannot survive without a purchaser.
Sidebar: The extreme naivete was REALLY difficult to write. Taken at such an early age, they would not remember the outside world. I had to think hard about what they would and wouldn’t know. What they have never seen, heard about, or experienced even in censored movies/books/magazines. Most challenging of all, I had to figure out how an intelligent woman raised under such conditions would make deductions the others wouldn’t from what she saw/heard/read.
If this concept sounds like it’s leading to a sexy tale of romance, you will be disappointed (and possibly disgusted). Just because the form of human trafficking I created is ‘mild’ does not mean it’s an erotic novel or a story of romance. The Shattered Lives Chronicles is a dark series, with sex scenes meant to drive the story forward and areas of violence not everyone will be able to tolerate. In Rendered Asunder (what is now book 5), there is one scene I walked away from for a few hours because not even I could handle it. This story has no heroes, only survivors.
Of course, the frog in the pot philosophy is easy to apply to anyone raised under the above summarized circumstances. Tylar (the female main character) and the other subjugated women introduced in On Fractured Ground are victims of behavioral control. Told their entire lives: “Come on in, ladies, the water is fine! The flame is for mood lighting.”
But what about my other two main characters? Ah. This is where it gets complicated.
Exposed since birth to a ruthless upbringing, Corbin is complex. All of what I’ve said about the human trafficking facility his grandfather founded is in the book blurb and within the first chapter. I can’t explain much about Corbin without spoilers, but I will tell you this. He isn’t normalizing, per se. He suffers from a form of Adult Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes fact that the reader might be able to discern while reading if they have a psychiatric background. Everyone else will simply notice that it is not pretty. One beta reader even went so far as to say "he has too many sides". That is what personality disorders can do to someone.
It is hard to tell exactly when Chase started to normalize the corruption surrounding his life. Raised by a single mother, he never knew his father. But that’s a far cry from the brainwashing and abuse the other two endured. Lured into becoming a sex trainer (known as skill trainers in the book) at 16 did send his life into somewhat of a spiral. Perhaps acting as an accomplice at such an age started the gradual increase in temperature beneath the vat he fell into? To be honest, I actually don’t know. The one thing I am aware of is where his friendship with Corbin comes from and why he sticks around. It’s in his nature to protect, and he has acted as his round-the-clock personal bodyguard since Corbin was 16. He saw something in Corbin that no one else cared to notice. The signs of child abuse. He decided to step up. To become Corbin's only friend in an effort to provide a support network the young Manning would otherwise not have had. It took him a while to get Corbin to let him in, but the two became bonded. Not everyone has the capacity to see life the way Chase does. It is both his burden and his blessing.
One of the main points in my series is this: not every pot on the verge of boiling shows obvious signs, and not every frog knows how to jump out.