Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

M.J. Rose, author of "The Delilah Complex"

As a reader, the first garden that meant anything to me was The Secret Garden written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was more than magical, it was deeply mysterious: locked up and hidden behind a stone wall with overgrown trees that reached for the sky.

It was the first mystery I'd ever heard read to me and opened up a floodgate of questions. Why was the garden locked? Why wasn't the lord of the manor ever home? What was the very secret hinted at in the title?

And so began my love of mysteries, forever intertwining suspense and gardens for me.

As a writer, the book has deep meaning for me. It was one of the first novels that made me think about writing a book myself even though I was very young. My mother had been reading The Secret Garden to me one night when I stopped her and asked her if we could go to see the garden in the book the next day.

She explained it was made up.

Even though I knew about make believe at that point, I'd never before connected the concept to books. I was enthralled.

My mother later told me that I declared that night that when I grew up I was going to write books about discovering a secret garden.

In a way I do that now, as an author, because isn't writing mystery or suspense novel very much like uncovering gardens that have been hidden and secreted away?

And when I picture the mess in my head when I begin writing a novel it looks just Burnett's Secret Garden -- a tangle of roots and branches, bushes and flowers all in need of light and pruning and a whole lot of work before they flourish again.

Since that first mystery meant so much to me as a child, it's not really surprising that there is a garden of some kind in everyone of my novels be it a terraced greenhouse in Lip Service or gardens painted on canvas in Flesh Tones. Gardens seem a way for me to define my characters. Does she have a one? What kind? Does she tend it? Does someone else take care of it for her? Does she have a garden she goes to for solace? Even if the character ignores a garden or destroys one, that's telling to me too.

In my series, which began in 2004 with THE HALO EFFECT and continues this January 1st with the release of THE DELILAH COMPLEX, my main character is a New York City sex therapist who works in the East 60's off of Madison Avenue but somehow manages to have a garden on her very small window balcony.

I had just begun working on the first book when I gave Dr. Morgan Snow her garden. Still fleshing her out, the garden came as a surprise. Morgan is a strong woman, a busy hard working, divorced woman who is committed to her daughter, and equally committed to her patients.

It is her very commitment to her patients and respect for patient /doctor confidentiality that puts Morgan in danger and sets each book in motion.

I knew all that. But at the point when I discovered she had a terrace garden the real nuances of her personality were still unknown to me.

And then I knew it wasn't just a garden, I knew it was a butterfly garden - with every flower and bush there to attract those lovely and colorful insects.

But why?

What about Morgan made her want to plant on her terrace? And why butterflies?

Research I then did revealed that the word Psyche in Greek means both soul and butterfly and that Psyche, the Greek goddess, was represented as a butterfly.

Of course! Morgan, as a therapist, is deeply connected to and fascinated with the human psyche. That she is also fascinated with butterflies not only made sense to me but gave me insight into the way her mind works as well as the level of her commitment to her patients, her profession and her sensitivity to beauty and nature.

It was late spring by then and I was still in the midst of uncovering her, so I did what I usually do when I am in the process of creating characters - I try to literally live out parts of their lives. For some novels I've worn my character's clothes or jewelry, eaten only their favorite foods or read only the kind of books I think they might like.

In this case I did research on city terraces and then on plants that attract butterflies and finally created the container garden that Morgan has on her balcony on my own porch. Writers are so odd. We come up with ideas and then have to figure out what they mean. Work backwards. Reverse the order of things.

Not until July, when the flowers bloomed and the butterflies came and I watched them flit around the plants in all their orange and red and cobalt and violet glory, did I fully understand Morgan.

The more time I spent in my own butterfly garden, the more I got to know my character. As the flowers bloomed, so did Morgan and as the butterflies flew so did the words. When France Hodgson Burnett was ill and dying at her estate in Plandome in Long Island, she wrote a last article, published posthumously as "In the Garden." In it she says, "As long as one has a garden one has a future, and as long as one has a future one is alive."

For me too, as long as my characters have gardens, I can see them alive and understand their futures as they will live them out in my novels of suspense.

My character Dr. Morgan Snow on her garden: I glanced at the two high, arched windows on the south wall of my office. Beyond them was a three-foot wide ledge - which in Manhattan, many would call a terrace. It was only big enough to stand on and look down at the sidewalk or up at the sky but I'd crammed the space with planters containing flowers and bushes that attracted butterflies.

When I'd first created my city garden, everyone told me I was dreaming, that there were no butterflies in the city outside the ones in the butterfly exhibition at the Museum of Natural History.

Except I knew there were masses of monarchs in Central Park. They settled on flowers in Shakespeare's Garden, in the Conservancy, and in the Rambles. And since The Butterfield Institute was only a block and half from the park, I thought they might come. The first year they didn't, but they showed up second summer and have been coming ever year since. Lovely red-orange Monarchs, Cabbage Whites, or pop art Zebra Swallowtails found their way to my small garden and graced me with their short-lived loveliness. Winged creatures that existed to reproduce and in the process help flowers to reproduce.

By late September the butterflies were usually gone, but this year it was still so warm that they had not started their migration yet. A monarch, as deeply orange as the leaves on the Maple trees, flitted from petal to petal while Shelby struggled with figuring out how to reveal her secrets.


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