Revenge of the Radioactive Lady: An Open Letter from the Author

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Finding a New Plot

An editor friend who read the manuscript suggested I "find a new plot." This struck me as absurdly unhelpful, but it got me thinking. I needed the past to come into the present. Once I created the character of Marylou Ahearn, aka Nancy Armstrong (from the movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) aka the Radioactive Lady, it did.

In the novel, Marylou underwent the radiation experiment in Memphis in 1953, which caused the death of her daughter at age 10. In 2006, googling the name of the doctor who ran the clinic, Marylou discovers Dr. Wilson Spriggs's current whereabouts in Tallahassee, Florida. She decides to move into his neighborhood, go undercover as Nancy Armstrong -- and get even with him.

Marylou, whose neighbors believe she's simply a sweet old Baptist lady who has retired to Tallahassee, is smart and observant and quick to pick up clues. Trying to insinuate herself into Dr. Spriggs's family, she studies each member closely, learns their secrets, and strategizes how best to extract useful information. Brazenly playing a different role with each person, she reveals her true identity to no one. Sound familiar?

Of course, Marylou is 77, not 18. She lacks Nancy Drew's unlimited time and money and physical prowess and famous lawyer father to rescue her from danger. Marylou suffers from regret, self-doubt, and indecision. Unlike Nancy, she's been married and divorced and has had to endure not just the loss of her only child but also the terrible injustice of having been tricked into drinking a radioactive cocktail. She doesn't stumble upon random mysteries to solve; she has a single, dark goal.

And the subjects of Marylou's investigation are not dopey misguided connivers like the villain Mr. Basswood in The Whispering Statue, who never figures out who Debbie Lynbrook is until after he's caught, whereupon he screams, "You were wearing a wig that half-covered your face! You're Nancy Drew, not Debbie Lynbrook!" No, as Marylou gets to know Dr. Spriggs and his family, she realizes they're complicated, appealing, damaged, brave, and as desperate for love and companionship as she is.

Maybe Marylou Ahearn is what Nancy might've been if she'd ever grown up and burst the bubble of her charmed life. Or maybe Marylou is Nancy Drew combined with my funny Southern mother. Either way, Nancy's spirit resides in Marylou. And thank God for that, because Marylou saved my novel and made it so much more fun for me to write -- and, I hope, for you to read.


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