I was surfing the Internet looking for ideas for my third book when I came across this sentence: “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history.” It was followed by a number: thirty million.
As a writer, I’ve learned to listen to the little voice that says pay attention to this. Even though my books are set in Nashville and seemed far away from the things I reading about, I knew there was something here I needed to explore.
The number was an estimate, for obvious reasons. Modern-day slavery takes place in the shadows, with many of its victims unaccounted for in any census. But other experts and law enforcement agencies reported similar numbers, and a detailed document published by the International Labor Organization in 2005 reported ten million slaves in Asia alone. A UN report released in 2004 showed 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia, more than half a million in Brazil and more than a quarter of a million in Haiti and in Pakistan. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Benjamin Skinner, the author of A Crime So Monstrous, was offered a ten-year-old girl for fifty dollars.
Human trafficking is not only a third-world problem. Victims of both sexual and domestic servitude have been discovered throughout the United States, with high-profile cases in Florida, California, New York, and even sleepy New England. Nashville isn’t immune. A report released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation revealed that trafficking cases have been identified in almost every county in the state. Nashville, with its convergence of three major interstates, is a hub for all manner of trafficking—drugs, guns, and humans.
I was both appalled and intrigued—appalled because of the degree of human suffering involved, and intrigued because the writer part of my brain had latched onto the subject. This is it. This is what you have to write about.
It was a powerful subject and a worthy cause, but a cause is not a story. A story is a person striving toward a goal against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and I didn’t have that yet. I had a detective and a cast of recurring characters I loved, but the catalyst for the story and the driving force behind it were missing.
Then I remembered an exercise I’d done at the beginning of the series. When I was getting to know my detective, Jared McKean, I’d done a character interview, asking questions on paper and writing his answers as they came to me. Knowing he’d lost both of his parents, that he had always idolized and tried to live up to his memory of his father, and that he had an older brother with whom he had a loving but complex relationship, I asked what seemed to be a logical question: “Do you have any other siblings?”
There was a silence, and then he said, “I don’t want to talk about that.” I suddenly knew that he had a sibling, or siblings, that he didn’t yet know about, that this state of affairs was related to his father’s service in Vietnam, and that sooner or later, Jared would come face to face with his father’s secret past.
The two ideas, Jared’s unknown sibling and my research into human trafficking, came together, and a scene sprang into my mind: The body of a young Asian woman is found in the dumpster behind Jared’s office. In her hand is a Vietnam era photograph of Jared’s father, a Vietnamese woman, and two small Vietnamese girls. On the back of the photo are Jared’s office address and phone number.
I knew then that Jared’s half-sister would show up on his office doorstep and beg him to find her daughter, taken by traffickers. Suddenly, I had the heart of the story—two haunted people, each of whom wishes the other didn’t exist, who must become a team if they are to save a young woman before she is killed or whisked into a world beyond their reach.
That story is RIVER OF GLASS.
Shamus-award finalist Jaden Terrell is the internationally published author of three Jared McKean novels and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the special programs coordinator of the Killer Nashville conference and is a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Terrell is also a member of International Thriller Writers, Private Eye Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. A graduate of the Citizen Police Academy and the FBI and TBI Citizen Academies, the former special education teacher also has a red belt in Tae Kwan Do and is certified in Equine Sports Massage Therapy.
To learn more about Jaden, please visit her website.