Novelist Jenny Milchman was tucking her children into bed one night when she suddenly pictured what she would do if they were to disappear.
She was on the road for her first book tour, living in motels and "car-schooling" along the way.
She envisioned a scenario that ultimately inspired the pivot point in her new book "Ruin Falls" (Ballantine Books, $26), a point where the world tips and raw fear takes over.
She realized how vulnerable she and her children were.
"I sort of imagined how I would feel and it kind of took off from there," Milchman said.
That explains why the story in "Ruin Falls" takes off like a roller coaster and never slows down. It also explains why the terror the mom feels is palpable.
"It's fictional for sure," she said, adding, "No, it never happened to me."
What starts out as a story of a simple vacation to Dad's hometown with a cross, touchy dad and a doormat-like Mom trying to keep things calm with a couple of restless kids becomes more of a frantic mystery chase.
Liz is shocked to find her small pickpocket son and young daughter missing, then shocked again to discover her husband knows something — maybe everything — about it.
Then he's gone too — this man who she thought was into saving the Earth and living off the land but who apparently has gone a little over the edge.
Liz is catapulted into a situation where she's desperate to find answers but blocked on many sides.
She's angry and worried yet surprisingly resourceful.
Liz spends a lot of time on the computer reading threads that ultimately give her information. She's also able to enlist an old friend on the police force to help her.
She finds she doesn't know the people closest to her very well at all. Her in-laws lie. Even her best friend doesn't tell her all she knows. Everybody has something they're keeping from her.
And there are stories of deception and the secret lives of strangers — a pregnant woman controlled by her abrasive mother, an ex-con bent on causing pain, a coach who feels guilty about an injured player's death — coming together that cause surprise.
Milchman tells the 342-page story mostly from Liz's perspective but jumps in with the other characters' stories. Some can feel intrusive when Liz's story is just getting good.
It's confusing for a while to tie all the story threads together, but it's interesting to see where it all goes and how Milchman makes it work.
It's also a little implausible that so much deception could go undetected and unnoticed or stopped. Sometimes it feels like everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown in to make a good tale, but the writing is good and it keeps one reading just to see what happens.
Some questions go unanswered at the end, but it's a satisfying conclusion.
There is some violence and death, but it's written in a way that is readable and clean.
"Ruin Falls" is Milchman's second published novel, and she's already written a third that is being edited as she tours.
All three take place in the same geographical area but are not meant to be a series, she said, although followers of her work will recognize some characters.
Milchman worked as a psychologist prior to seriously pursuing about a writing career.
"It took me a very long time to get published," Milchman said of the 13 years it took to publish her first book, "Cover of Snow."
She grew up in New York and lives in New Jersey.
Sharon Haddock's personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.