We binged the Netflix series Dear White People last night, and got so involved we couldn’t stop watching; it was one of those shows where you say “oh, just one more won’t hurt” and then it’s over and you’re saying it again and then “well, there’s only ONE left” and then it’s over and you just sit back and think, “wow.” Full realized characters, incredible acting, and the writing? Stellar. Again, it was told from almost everyone’s point of view, so you got to know everyone and their backstories, especially with each other. It was funny, provocative, timely, and diverse. Obviously, my favorite character was the young gay writer, coming to terms with his enormous crush on his hot but straight roommate, trying to figure out who he is while navigating the murky waters of a college campus and institutionalized racism–but no one had an issue with his sexuality. His also gay editor at the independent campus paper got off a line that has me still laughing–and it was repeated by another character in the same episode: “Labels are what keep people in Florida from drinking Windex.”
I finished reading a book yesterday, started a couple more and put them in the donation pile after a couple of chapters, and really was at a loss for what to read next; and finally settled on Victor Gischler’s The Pistol Poets. I did a panel with him years and years ago at the Louisiana Book Festival–really liked him, thought he was smart and funny and engaging–and then read his book Gun Monkeys, which I also enjoyed, and always meant to get more of his books. Sometime last year something reminded me of him, and I finally got some more of them. It has a great opening, and I am looking forward to spending some time with it today, as well as some cleaning, writing, and editing.
The other day, I wrote about the character of Jerry Manning, who appears in Garden District Gothic, and how much I liked the character. I also used him as a character in The Orion Mask–which I had somehow forgotten–and in fact, Jerry is the catalyst for that entire book. I had already created the character of Jerry for the Paige book I’d intended to write, and I liked him so much I actually introduced him to readers in The Orion Mask.
I had the idea for that book a long time ago; I’d always loved the romantic suspense novels of Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart (although I would argue that she wasn’t a romantic suspense writer, simply marketed as one), and of course, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of my favorite novels of all time. One of the reasons I loved that style of book so much is because they were not only mysteries, but there was a Gothic feel to them, stylistically and mood-wise, and I always wanted to write one. (I had already published what is my personal favorite of all my novels, Timothy, and really wanted to go back to that well again.) I originally came up with the idea for The Orion Mask many years ago; when I came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras the first time in 1995, only in all my notes and so forth it was called The Orpheus Mask; the driving idea was a murder that happened a long time ago, and rare, valuable Mardi Gras masks had something to do with the crime. After moving to New Orleans and becoming more knowledgeable about the city and its history, I realized the Krewe of Orpheus was actually too new–plus, I couldn’t really use an actual Mardi Gras krewe. I still wanted to do the book, though, just wasn’t sure how to make it all work. I also knew it had to take place outside of New Orleans; for the story to work, the majority of the action needed to occur at a mansion in the countryside.
Fortunately, there are plenty of those. I was already using one for Murder in the Arts District, that was based on a sort of hybrid of Houmas House and Oak Alley, and thought, oh, what the hell, I’ll just use the same place for this book, too. It is fiction, after all. I’d created a fictional parish as well–Redemption Parish–for that first book, and had based a small town near the plantation on Breaux Bridge, just off I-10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette that I’d visited with some friends from out of town years ago, but the town never really appeared in that story, so I could really use it for this book. But I still didn’t know how to connect the masks in…and then we went to Italy, and while we were there we went to Venice, and you cannot escape the Carnival masks or the Murano glass there. As we walked the cobbled alleys of that remarkably beautiful city (I so want to go back), it hit me in a flash: someone from Venice who worked with the glass came to America, to Louisiana, and the plantation not only was a farm but also produced glass, using the same techniques made famous by the Venetians, and they could have produced masks for the Kings of the major krewes of Mardi Gras made from the glass. I invented my own, now-defunct krewe–the Krewe of Orion–and everything fell into place.
My story, of course, which was about a young man whose mother died when he was very young, and who was raised by his father and stepmother, completely disconnected from his mother’s family and only comes to see them as an adult, which starts the story, didn’t really have the right hook I needed to get started. Why would he suddenly, after all these years, finally get in touch with his mother’s family?
And that’s where Jerry came in. Jerry, looking for another true crime to write another one of his books, has discovered the murder/suicide involving my character’s mother. I named the character Heath Brandon, after a friend of mine, by inverting his first and middle names (I’d actually given a character his actual name before we met; it was very odd because his name was so familiar to me when we met, but we’d never met before, and then one day I realized I had actually written a character with that name, but I digress.). I put Heath into another fictional city I’d created for another book, Bay City (based on Tampa), and had him work at the airport at an airline ticket counter (a job I’ve actually had), working for the fictitious airline I created for Murder in the Rue Dauphine and have always used ever since whenever I need an airline.
I sat up in a strange bed, wide awake, my heart pounding.
Disoriented, I looked around in the gloom, not sure where I was or what had woken me up from my already restless sleep. I shivered. A storm was raging outside as my mind began the process of clearing out the fog. Wind was whipping around the house, rattling the windows and the French doors. The rain was coming down in a steady stream. As I sat up further in my bed, lightning lit up the room, and I recoiled in horror. The brief flash of illumination had exposed the shadow of someone against the curtains over the French doors. I bit back a scream as I wondered if there was anything within reach in this strange room that I could use as a weapon. My eyes were still seeing spots as thunder shook the house as I remembered there was a table lamp on the night stand next to the bed. As my vision cleared, I could see through the gloom that the doorknob on the French doors was turning. I reached my hand out to the table and fumbled for the switch on the lamp. I found it and clicked it on, filling the room with bright yellow light.
I thought I heard footsteps running away along the gallery. I threw the covers aside and climbed out of the massive bed. I dashed over to the fireplace on the other side of the bed, grabbed one of the brass pokers, and carried it over to the French doors. I flipped the lock off, turned the knob , and the wind immediately grabbed them out of my hands. They slammed against the walls and swung back. The wind pushed me back a few steps. Curtains moved away from the walls, and the canopy over the bed rippled as I struggled to latch the doors against the walls. Once this was accomplished, I tried to step out onto the gallery. Lightning flashed again as I stepped out onto the wide gallery. I wrapped my arms around me and wished I’d put on at least a T-shirt. The wind was blowing the rain onto the gallery, and the heavy drops were splashing my legs with water as I looked through the gloom in each direction.
I didn’t see anyone.
My heart still pounding, I closed and locked the doors again before heading back to the bed, still holding the poker in my hand. I put the poker into the bed next to me and slid underneath the covers. Maybe it had been a dream, maybe there really hadn’t been someone out there on the gallery trying to get into my room, and it was just my imagination working overtime. There wasn’t anyone out there, you fool, I scolded myself, you’re just a little off balance—but it’s understandable. It isn’t every day you meet a family you didn’t know you had a month ago. I switched the lamp off and pulled the covers back up to my chin, and lay there, staring at the canopy over my head.
It was hard to believe it had only been a month since I first noticed the bald man sitting in the airport lobby, and my entire life changed.
The bald man was Jerry, of course, and he tracked Heath down as he investigated the long ago murder/suicide, and it was Jerry who set the stage for Heath to come back to the family estate, Chambord, and find the truth about what had happened all those years ago, about his mother and the Orion mask.
Writing the book was a lot of fun, and I’d love to do another, similar style book at some point.
I had thought about giving Jerry his own series, or his own stand-alone book; and when I started making notes I realized something: he had been a personal trainer/stripper (so had Scotty) and he came from a repressive small town and a white trash family (Chanse), and thus was basically repeating myself, which is one of my biggest fears. So I shelved the idea…but it runs through my mind periodically because the idea is a good one. I may have to write it about a different character, though.
And now, back to the spice mines.