Today marks the release date for Colby Marshall‘s Double Vision, the second book in her Dr. Jenna Ramey series. Dr. Ramey is an FBI profiler with grapheme-color synesthesia, and she harnesses her crayon color senses of the world to help her solve crimes.
Dr. Ramey became a mild celebrity after bringing down her own black widow mom, assisted by her synesthesia, and now she’s called in to a mass-shooting at a grocery store. What first appears random may be connected to a mythology-obsessed killer’s crimes. There’s also an oracle-like savant of a six year old who just might hold the key to the murders, and Dr. Ramey’s well-meaning troublemaker of a love interest Yancy, a 911 operator who gets too involved with his callers.
Colby Marshall takes the writer’s adage “write about what you know” to heart, as she also has grapheme-color synesthesia. Colby took some time to answer my questions about sensing colors, women in mysteries, and what she’s reading.
Kali: You gave your protagonist of this series, Dr. Jenna Ramey, grapheme synesthesia, a condition that you have. Do you think this sort of synesthesia makes you more emotionally intuitive? And what is it like to have it?
Colby: Different types of synesthesia manifest differently, so I can’t claim I know what every type is like to experience. In the case of grapheme-color synesthesia, the hardest aspect to describe is how the associations a synesthete makes are the same as those anyone makes in the way that they manifest. If a person hears the word “cake,” the image of a cake might flash in their mind. The difference is, their word/image reference was learned. Somewhere along the way, someone or something taught that person what cake is, showed him or her what it looks like, and so the association of the picture and word developed. Color associations are not limited to known things. Often a synesthete will lay eyes on something for the very first time, and immediately have a color association for it—that’s actually why it’s so useful to Jenna when she analyzes a crime scene.
A grapheme synesthete like me or my character Jenna might imagine a piece of cake upon hearing the word, too, but the word might also trigger a color we automatically associate with it. The source of that color is completely internal (and can vary amongst synesthetes). Cake’s association, for instance, would not be pink simply because the first time the synesthete had cake happened to be at a Barbie-themed birthday party. The specific color they associate is usually random, without rhyme or reason behind it, even to the synesthete. However random though, the associations of all synesthetes tend to be consistent and reliable. If a synesthete associates Thursdays with the color green (I do), Thursday is always going to be that exact shade of green.
In reality, most synesthetes don’t pay attention to their synesthesia on a day-to-day basis unless the connections it brings about are somehow unpleasant (like how I taste copper when I touch velvet—yuck!). It’s just a part of their normal involuntary thought process. As to whether synesthesia causes one to be more emotionally intuitive, I don’t think that’s an inherent by-product of the nature of the condition itself. Like I said, most synesthetes don’t pay much attention to their associations. Some aren’t even readily aware they make them, and some who do don’t know there’s a name for that weird way they always associate the color red with their math class. I do think, though, that if a synesthete is somewhat self-aware, it’s possible for him to choose to actively notice his color associations and study them over time, looking for patterns, and then use those findings to his own advantage. For example, if a comment could be interpreted different ways the synesthete might recognize a color he tends to link with sincerity rather than a color he correlates to the disingenuous.
I do think, though, that if a synesthete is somewhat self-aware, it’s possible for him to choose to actively notice his color associations and study them over time, looking for patterns, and then use those findings to his own advantage. For example, if a comment could be interpreted different ways the synesthete might recognize a color he tends to link with sincerity rather than a color he correlates to the disingenuous.
So, yes, there are some things you can do with it, let it tell you things here and there if you’re watching for it, but it’s definitely not the same thing as seeing auras or something like that. Synesthetes do not have some sort of psychic perception that allows them to see energies around people manifested as glowing colors. The synesthesia phenomenon is far less mystical in nature, and involves virtually no paranormal clairvoyance. Unlike aura reading, which some say can be learned, one cannot be taught to be a synesthete. A synesthete’s associations are natural and intrinsic. And where a color a synesthete associates with a given thing is completely random, with auras there are set standards for what each color represents. So, sure, there are ways to use it, but a mind-reading tool, it’s not.
Kali: One of the other main characters in this book, a six year old, sees the world through its numbers. Did you set out to write a character with another filtered view of the world, sort of a parallel to Dr. Ramey?
Colby: That’s a really good question, because while Molly’s number fixation is an excellent complement to Jenna’s color synesthesia, I actually didn’t start out thinking, “Hey, I want the next Jenna book to have a new character with a ‘special’ way of looking at the world, too.” Not exactly, anyway. When a concept for Double Vision started to form in my mind, from the beginning, I’d envisioned this character of Molly, a intelligent little girl with a lot of spunk, who I knew would make an interesting eye witness for Jenna to interview. My best friend in real life has this interesting little quirk where she tends to count the letters in words she hears almost as a subconscious reflex. For whatever reason, as Molly began to take shape in my mind as a character, I gave her some of my friend’s number quirks…and then some. Though, yes, as the idea to give Molly this intense preoccupation with numbers took shape, it certainly became clear that she would be a cool parallel to Jenna and that their two “filters” would become very integrated into the plotline.
Kali: FBI profiler Dr. Jenna Ramey helped the cops catch her mom, a black widow killer, as a teen. What made you give Dr. Ramey this mega-tortured background?
Colby: For one thing, I knew I wanted Jenna and her use of synesthesia within her profession to be sort of famous within her world and especially amongst the law enforcement communities she comes into contact with, because it was one way her synesthesia could be very relevant from the get go, but also respected—even if at times misunderstood—by the characters she works and consults with rather than having to continually explain the phenomenon and how she uses it to people, have to have her face skepticism and ridicule and prove herself over and over again. Dr. Jenna Ramey already having a good bit of notoriety allowed me to use the synesthesia as a tool in the book rather than make it the focus of the story entirely, which I don’t feel would have been nearly as interesting.
There are some other ways I could’ve validated Jenna and explained her fame since people can garner distinction in the field of criminal investigation and psychiatry in a variety of ways—maybe she could’ve rescued a celebrity, cracked an infamous cold case, or secured a drug bust that brought down a brutal crime family. But I decided that the reasons for Jenna being so well known should hit a bit closer to home so that it was not only part of how she discovered she could use her synesthesia as a tool against bad people, but also so the experience could help make Jenna the strong woman she is. For her to become the woman she is, she was forced to face a demon that wouldn’t just terrify anyone but also rock them to their core and make them question everything down to the very blood in their veins.
For her to become the woman she is, she was forced to face a demon that wouldn’t just terrify anyone but also rock them to their core and make them question everything down to the very blood in their veins.
I also love the way the backstory there allowed me to explore the family dynamic of the Ramey household, since it is unusual compared to the typical nuclear family. Since Jenna is a single mother, she and her toddler share a house with Jenna’s father and twenty-something brother, and the latter take care of little Ayana while Jenna is off fighting crime. Their setup is partially for practical reasons: they have all been victims of Claudia in the past and know best how she works…and that they can trust very few people. So, while the living arrangements work both to help each other out as family as well as their own protection and that of Ayana, it’s definitely been both exciting and challenging to write. It keeps Jenna’s family very much close-knit even though they’re all moving forward with their lives in different directions and also continuing to deal with their own individual emotional scars Claudia left in her wake. And of course, when a jolly wannabe chef and a scruffy, wisecracking singer/songwriter are the men of the house taking care of the little lady while the daughter/big sister brings home the bacon, let’s just it sets the stage for some charming scenes and situations that are really fun to write.
Kali: As a female mystery lover, I tend to get tired of women in the traditional role of tortured victim. Your books have unique plots that break out of this mold—a plot to assassinate the President and Vice President to put a woman in power, or a mass killer with ties to Ramey’s own murdering mother. Did you intentionally decide to give women more dynamic roles in your books?
Colby: Hm, that’s tough, because part of me wants to say, yes, of course I set out to give women more dynamic roles in my stories. But what the other part of me wants to say is the honest answer, and it’s that it never occurred to me to write female main characters to be any less fearless, bold, resourceful, charismatic, or compelling than their male counterparts. I think when writing characters, men or women, it’s important to make them real. Every man or woman has strengths, weaknesses, flaws, fears. What I do think is that what that character does with those strengths and weaknesses, how those flaws and fears make him or her behave and take action is what makes the characters what they are and gives them their place in the book’s plot.
That’s why there’s room for all sorts of different characters and their types in every story. It’s true. I have many strong female characters in various books. But I think I just wrote them the way they are because they made sense.
After all, stories call for a tortured female character from time to time (mentally or physically). Occasionally, even a damsel in distress or female victim is warranted, and that’s okay if the story needs it. What’s important is that if that female character is a victim in your story, make her real, not a stereotype, and make that character choice because it resonates with you and makes sense within the confines of the story you’re telling as a necessary device to execute your plot. Don’t let it be a lazy choice. Choose it because the character adds more to the story that way. Definitely don’t make that character choice based on her gender.
What’s important is that if that female character is a victim in your story, make her real, not a stereotype, and make that character choice because it resonates with you and makes sense within the confines of the story you’re telling as a necessary device to execute your plot. Don’t let it be a lazy choice.
For my part, I have strong characters, both male and female, and I have some tortured, weak characters of both sexes, too. Jenna’s main love interest is an amputee with plenty of hang-ups in his own head, but when it comes to chasing guys with guns, he sure isn’t slowed down. I have a few characters in different books who definitely seem weak on the surface, but who are strong in their own impressive—and sometimes terrifying—ways. I think it’s all about striving to write real people—even if they’re characters—instead of reverting to tropes and stereotypes.
Kali: How did you research for your books? I thought the perspective of Yancy, the 911 operator, was especially interesting.
Colby: Research is both one of my favorite parts of the process as well as deeply important to me. While every genre has its own challenges, one tricky aspect of thriller-writing is that usually, the setting is the real world, be it modern times or in history, and either of those comes with its own set of complexities. When you’re writing about the world we live in with its ever-changing technologies, discoveries, and ways of doing things, researching certain things that come up in your writing is imperative.
For example, in Color Blind, the investigation takes Jenna into the world of massively multi-player online role-playing gaming—think World of Warcraft. I’d heard of RPGs before and am married to a gamer, but that was the extent of my experience with and knowledge of this intense, passionate group of people immersed in an intricate, hardcore subculture. That’s why I enlisted my husband and his gaming friends to put me through online gaming boot camp so I could learn how different games of that sort worked, the types of player characters, what weapons they had and how they used them, the way players from all over might or might not form groups and play together…I learned everything from how gaming communities function as whole when ranking players to how points are awarded. I even sat in on a gaming session so I could hear how the players talked to each other. I may have heard a few noises I never wanted to know my husband or his friends make, but overall, taking the plunge into that world myself in order to soak up everything I could was the only way to ensure details are as true to life as I can make them. Any time an author puts a book out into the world, it’s almost a guarantee that somewhere, some day, an expert on something you used in your fictional scenarios is going to end up picking up the book. I’d much rather that reader be pleasantly surprised at how much I was able to get right than want to throw the book across the room every time he read a detail he knew wasn’t accurate or didn’t make sense.
Any time an author puts a book out into the world, it’s almost a guarantee that somewhere, some day, an expert on something you used in your fictional scenarios is going to end up picking up the book.
So in most cases, including researching emergency dispatch so Yancy’s actions at work come across correctly, I don’t take short cuts. First, I read any information I can find on the subject that comes from a credible source. Books, blogs, articles, online training manuals, etc. All throughout the reading up on a topic, I make notes of any questions I have I can’t find answers to, any time I can’t seem to find a specific enough description or information on an aspect of the research even after searching in books and online, or anything I realize I need to know for the specific circumstances in the book scenario that is a special case not covered by the general overview of a subject many books and articles touch on. For example, emergency dispatch websites might explain that emergency dispatchers will often try to keep the caller on the phone and talk to them, say things to try to calm them and assure them help is coming. But talking to a child caller in a dangerous mass shooting situation still in progress may call for particular, specialized protocols than those for adults or even children calling with every-day emergencies, like Mommy broke her arm. When I feel I’ve exhausted all of my own avenues to read and find my answers, I then seek out an expert in the field to interview, ask my specific questions, and generally just talk with about their field and experiences. I always try to learn everything I can before interviewing an expert for two reasons. First, I don’t want to waste her time asking her questions Google could’ve answered for me, and secondly, I can ask far better questions and ask far more detailed, intricate questions tailored to how they relate to the specific scenes in my book. If I don’t do some work before talking to the expert, I’ve wasted his time and mine, because chances are, I’ll still leave with a hundred more questions since I didn’t get to ask the specific ones related to my scenes that I needed to.
I strive to research enough that I can write things as authentically as possible. I’m not perfect, for sure. One very sneaky typo escaped through all of my read-throughs, my editors’ passes, the line-edits done by the copy-editing team, a misspelling. It showed up in the final version of Color Blind, and I was so frustrated with myself for letting it slip through since it happened to be a mistake involving a researched aspect of the book. I’ve wanted to kick myself for missing it, because it didn’t look like an accidental misspelling, but a research mistake. So, no matter how thorough a writer can be, there will always be little discrepancies that show up. I just always try to research to an extent that those little mishaps far outweigh the things I’m able to accurately portray.
Kali: Who are your favorite current mystery authors?
Colby: Oh, I have so many. Off the top of my head in no specific order: I’ll read anything Lisa Gardner writes. I adore Tami Hoag, Meg Gardiner, Kate White, and Chevy Stevens, Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Joseph Finder, Steve Berry, Hank Phillippi Ryan, C.J. Lyons. I read a few particularly tempting cozies, but steer more toward police procedural thrillers, hard-boiled kind of stuff. More on the horror-side of the genre, I love R.L. Stine (I wish he’d write more novels for adults, dang it!), Stephen King, and Andrew Pyper—one of my newest favorites!
I’ll read anything Lisa Gardner writes.
Kali: Are you working on the next Dr. Jenna Ramey novel? If so, can you give us any clue as to its plot?
Colby: Yes, I’m already working on Dr. Jenna #3. I won’t give too much away, but this next case Jenna and the Team take on is a nightmare on a whole new scale and will find them running point for a type of investigation the BAU is almost never brought into, much less asked to take lead on.
The first chapter opens with a band of ruthless assassins converging on a bank in Washington, D.C. They slaughter everyone inside and escape—every one—without stealing a dime and leaving only a message for police warning another attack is coming. The attackers responsible for the massacre are more than willing to communicate who they are and what they want. The problem is, they only do so through cryptic messages hidden in a labyrinth of classic literature references.
The attackers responsible for the massacre are more than willing to communicate who they are and what they want. The problem is, they only do so through cryptic messages hidden in a labyrinth of classic literature references.
With the clock ticking down the hours and minutes until another bloodbath, Jenna and the rest of the BAU team have a challenge profiling not one or two, but a dozen individual killers… but even if she is able to save the day, two enemies from her past are lurking in the shadows right in her blind spot.
Hi. Ashlee here, the quirky counting best friend. I loved this interview – Colby was really informative, but I was also really impressed with your inquiry – thanks for asking interesting and well-informed questions!
Great article on my friend and favorite author, Colby Marshall! You provided her the opportunity to show her intelligence and expertise!!