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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Jaime Lee Moyer on Limitations in Historical Fantasy

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Jaime Lee Moyer! – Sarah Chorn

Jaime Lee Moyer lives in San Antonio, land of cactus, cowboys, and rhinestones, where she writes novels about murder, betrayal, friendship, magic, and kissing. Her cats approve of all of this, including the kissing. Her first novel, Delia’s Shadow, was published by Tor Books on September 17, 2013. The second Gabe and Delia book, A Barricade in Hell, comes out June 3, 2014 and Against a Brightening Sky, will be published in 2015. She writes a lot. She reads as much as she can.

Limitations in Historical Fantasy

by Jaime Lee Moyer

The year I turned twenty-eight my body decided to betray me. I went from being healthy, full of energy and able to easily run, to being chronically tired, feverish and arthritic in every joint in my body. Pain became a constant, unwelcome companion, and signaled the end of me being able to run.

But I could still walk, and being the most stubborn person on the planet, I refused to give up more physical function and strength than I had to. The motto became use it or lose it. And I got lucky. Two years after I first got sick, the “unspecified autoimmune disorder” largely went into remission.

I still have flare-ups, and the pain never really goes away completely, but I can do just about everything I did before the autoimmune demon reared its head.

Except run. I still dream of running.

All of this gave me a little insight into what it’s like to have your life changed abruptly, and all the things you took for granted about your physical abilities vanish. Not being able to trust your body can be — no, it is — a scary thing.

I don’t think it’s overstating the impact on a person’s life to say that it can instill a kind of PTSD, where you become hyperaware of every twinge, every random pain as a harbinger of getting worse. You can also become just as sensitive to every well-intentioned offer of help. That not only alters how you look at the world and your interactions with others, it can change how the world looks at you.

And that brings me to writing and characters and doing my best to get one right.

In the third book of the Gabe and Delia series, Against A Brightening Sky, an African-American lieutenant detective named Scott Jordan Lynch arrives in San Francisco from Chicago. Jordan is over six-foot four, in his forties, widowed, and after twenty some years on the force, he’s in charge of his own squad. That is a major accomplishment, one he fought long and hard to achieve.

In 1919, the year the book is set, Chicago was one of the few cities in the country that hired, and promoted, African-American police officers. San Francisco didn’t hire its first African-American cops until the 1940s. The language of the time referred to them as “colored” or “Negro” police officers, and to say these men faced a lot of challenges on a daily basis is an understatement.

I have the habit of visualizing my characters as real people, with lives that started outside the context of the story, and that continue on when the book is finished. The more I think about them, the more real they become. This habit extends to secondary characters as much as it does to protags, and that was especially true with Jordan Lynch.

Very mild spoilers ahead for book three: Not long before Jordan came to San Francisco, his life changed suddenly and dramatically. A criminal that Jordan suspected of taking part in a series of murders ambushed him, stole his badge and his gun, and left Lieutenant Lynch to bleed to death in an alley. Due to a complicated chain of events, Jordan’s badge and his gun are involved in one of Gabe’s cases in San Francisco. The Chicago cop endures a long, uncomfortable cross-country train trip to get them back.

Jordan survived the ambush (barely) but the gunshot left him with a permanent and severe limp, in chronic pain, and dependent on a cane to walk more than a few steps. He went from a proud, physically strong, physically able man in his forties, to just shy of being an invalid.

This is Jordan’s new reality. This is his life forever more and a day.

On top of the normal obstacles that Jordan faces–and faces down–he has to adjust to his new physical limitations, and prove to others that he can still do his job. Pride alone isn’t going to get him through. If anything, pride could end up getting in his way of adapting to his disability, or coming to terms with what he can’t do.

Coming to San Francisco and working with Gabe on his case brings other challenges. Most of the men on the SFPD have never even heard of Negro officers, let alone worked with one. There is always that moment of silence and touch of shocked disbelief to get past, the glance at Gabe for confirmation the man standing there is really a cop, followed by furtive glances at the cane.

I thought for a long time about the psychology involved in such a life-altering event and the changes in society that make Jordan’s experience a hundred years ago so very different than the here and now. Today, a cop who was shot and partly disabled would have psychological counseling available, physical therapy to regain as much function as possible, and something resembling a support network in place. That support might not be long term, or perfect, but it would be there.

S. Jordan Lynch would be on his own, other than what consolation and support family and friends might be able to offer. The men in his squad would do what they could to ease his way, but the higher-ups in the department would be watching for any and all signs that he couldn’t do the job. He’d know that too.

How would knowing he’d never get any better change Jordan Lynch? Would he be angry, bitter, and distrustful? Would he withdraw from the world? How would Jordan cope with discovering how far he could push himself, the sense of failure and frustration if he pushed too hard, and the pity in a stranger’s eyes?

I asked myself those questions and a thousand more. Most of my questions found corresponding answers.

The one thing I was certain of when I started thinking about this character was that I couldn’t just tell readers he was disabled, I had to understand that that meant to him from the inside out.

How the world saw S. Jordan Lynch was largely unimportant. The important thing, and the key to writing the man he is, was how he saw himself.

Little by little, I figured him out. But even if the puzzle of Jordan Lynch isn’t spelled out on the page, the pieces of who he is are woven into his actions and reactions. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say Jordan is a survivor, and that while his disability is a part of him, it’s not the whole. It’s important to write a character with hopes and fears, with quirks and opinions and experience to share.

I needed to make S. Jordan Lynch more than just a man with a cane.

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