Q&A: Darrel Nelson (The Return of Cassandra Todd)
We learn many hard lessons in high school but, for many of us, the hardest lesson comes after classes are over. For those who are bullied, one of the hardest things to learn is how to forgive. The Return of Cassandra Todd tells the story of one young man who must learn this lesson in order to save a child and the child's mother from her violent husband.
Q. What inspired you to write The Return of Cassandra Todd?
When I finished writing The Anniversary Waltz, I decided to try a different genre to increase my odds of finding an agent and a publisher. (Back in those days I had neither, even though I had tried for thirty years to do so.) I thought that if historical fiction didn’t work for me, then perhaps suspense would. I had recently read a book by a favorite author of mine in which the whole novel took place over a ridiculously short period of time. So I decided to try my hand at writing a fast-paced story that took place over an equally short period of time. The basic question that I built the novel around was this: What would you do if the person whose friends severely bullied you in high school came back into your life asking for help in eluding her abusive husband? I had read a newspaper article on spousal abuse and decided to explore that theme, placing my main characters in a series of dangerous situations as they struggled to flee their pursuers. As a schoolteacher with thirty-seven years teaching experience, I had seen my share of bullying over the years. So I combined those two themes—bullying and spousal abuse—into a page-turning story of courage and faith overcoming adversity in the face of overwhelming odds.
The challenges involve being realistic and yet tasteful. I wanted to avoid graphic violence but be realistic because the subject matter naturally conjured up situations of danger and suspense. There was also going to be death in the book. But I decided from the outset that it would not be by the hand of the principle characters. Rather, it would be the natural result of the bad guys’ actions. They would be “hoisted by their own petard,” to quote Shakespeare, which means they would bring about their own downfall. I felt like that would be the most tasteful and realistic way to deal with the delicate subject matter of death and danger.
Q. How much do you worry about research and details versus just telling a riveting story?
You don’t want the details to get in the way of the story, nor the story to gloss over the details. There has to be a balance there somewhere. My editor was good at red-penning scenes where I waxed eloquently in describing certain details and settings that in the end slowed the plot down. I almost cried when some scenes were cut, but I eventually realized that trimming off the fat maintained fluidity. On the other hand, my editor insisted that the facts and setting be realistic. I couldn’t just make stuff up. But in the end, I probably erred more on the side of maintaining a riveting story than on filling my book chock-full of heavily researched details. The key word is balance. You have to have a balance between the details and maintaining the pace of the story.
Q. What authors or life experiences have influenced the kinds of fiction you write?
Nicholas Sparks and Charles Martin have definitely influenced my writing. I’m a sucker for a good love story. As far as my life experiences go, my first novel was historical romance, and I drew on my own courtship with my wife to portray the love story between Adam and Elizabeth. I dedicated the novel to my wife for a reason! For my second novel, I was able to draw on my own experiences as a Boy Scout and a Scout leader to write the outdoor scenes in the book. Also my years as a schoolteacher helped me understand and portray the effects that bullying has on people. I was also a lay minister in my church and counseled abused women. So all in all, I was able to draw on many of my life experiences to write both books.
Q. In what specific ways does your faith impact how you write fiction?
My faith impacts my writing in every way! I will not use inappropriate language, gratuitous sex, or graphic violence in my books. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to read and recommend them without reservation. I believe in God and His goodness, and I believe that I am accountable to Him in all I do, say, and write. I want my books to be uplifting and wholesome, but not “preachy.” I don’t want to be “in your face” with my personal beliefs, but I don’t want to avoid religious themes either in order to be politically correct. As I stated in Question 3, balance is the key. I want to let my faith show in my work but in a manner that will not alienate readers. I paint with a wide brush and am careful not to slip in my personal beliefs and then chuckle to think I pulled one over on my readers. I have no hidden agenda. I simply want to tell a story that appeals to a broad base and makes my readers feel better for having spent some time with me.