How Dr. Pepper Hunt Was Born

I’m a psychologist and a mystery novelist. The two careers share some of the same territory: narratives and story arcs, multiple layers of experience, disguised messages, and truth hiding in dark corners, twists and turns leading to clarity, the ability to focus and follow the story.

In 1985 Jonathan Kellerman, a New York Times Best-Selling Author and a psychologist, wrote his first crime novel, When the Bough Breaks, featuring a forensic psychologist, Alex Delaware, his fictional alter ego. I knew immediately this was a unique and perfect concept for a mystery novel. A psychologist turned detective can offer insights into the mental problems that drive a dangerous criminal’s disturbing behavior.

Most murder mysteries are satisfied with the discovery of the killer’s identity, but Kellerman’s novels take on the more ambitious task of creating a character with a psychiatric disorder that provides the motivation behind the crime. In the 32 years since, Kellerman has written 32 more New York Times Best-Selling novels. I enjoyed how he used his fund of professional knowledge to create psychologically accurate crime fiction. And I thought I can do that.

It would be many years before Dr. Pepper Hunt, my alter ego, showed up on the page and evolved into the character that she is today. By that time, after working in schools, hospitals, drug treatment centers and private offices, Pepper was ready to use her clinical knowledge and skills to start solving crimes. She needed her first case.

The story idea that finally became my novel, Last Seen: A Dr. Pepper Hunt Mystery began to take form in November, 2009, when I committed to writing a 50,000-word draft in 30 days with the help of National Novel Writing Month. Nanowrimo challenges would-be novelists to bypass the inner critic and editor and speed-write a novel in a month. And as it did for many others, this format worked for me: I finally got my novel. Well, the first draft of what would eventually become a novel. It just needed a little more work: 40,000 more words and five years of revisions!

I’d had the idea in my mind since I moved to Wyoming many years ago and encountered the great wilderness spaces of the rural west. Writers often begin with the question “What if?” and the story evolves from there. The first thing I thought of in all that looming space: there were lots of places to hide a body. And for anyone who wanted to escape, the geography of southwestern Wyoming offers tons of options for getting lost. Beyond the miles of open high desert lie hidden caves, steep rock ledges, deep chasms cut into granite mountains, dense forests deep and dark enough to hide anything. I wondered, “What if someone went missing out there?”

With that question I sat down to write my novel. It’s safe to say that not one word of that first draft actually appears in the finished book. But the words had to be written anyway. Revising that early, uncensored free writing resulted in the words that remain.

For example, Pepper Hunt started out as Hope Devine. The last name honors the psychiatrist I treated with in my twenties and Hope is essential for a psychologist/detective to have. After several of my beta readers thought the name was too noticeably symbolic, I changed it to Jane Hunt, a strong name for a character and a strong love of life, and for my sister-in-law Jane, who was born in the west all her life. I chose Hunt for her last name because it suggests energy and pursuit and she’d be hunting with her mind. Although it doesn’t get talked about in the book, Jane is Pepper’s given first name. She got the nickname Pepper for the color of her hair and the spicy, sharpness of her personality.

Pepper Hunt and I share the same educational background and New England roots. We both love figuring things out by listening to the music instead of the words. But Pepper does things that I won’t do: she rides horses and shoots guns. She’s in her element with those potentially lethal forces. It’s fun for me to live vicariously through my character. I never know what she’ll do next. Maybe in the next book, she’ll ride on a roller-coaster or do a high-speed chase in the fast lane.

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