Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Trip to Fantasyland

By Kris Neri (guest blogger)

Since I’ve always believed that we writers are products of the paths we’ve followed, in art and in life, it’s not a surprise that I write madcap mysteries like my Tracy Eaton mysteries — the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity Award-nominated Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, Dem Bones’ Revenge and the forthcoming Revenge for Old Times’ Sake (Spring ’10; Cherokee McGhee Mystery).

The mystery part is easy to understand. I’ve loved mysteries since Nancy Drew first led me into this life of crime. So much so that, in adulthood, I once bought a Triumph Spitfire convertible because it approximated her roadster. Worst car I ever had — so unlikely to start that I needed to keep a tow truck on retainer. Maybe you can take fandom too far. But that was neither Nancy’s fault nor the mystery genre’s.

I’ve also always loved screwball stories. As a kid I would rush home from school in the hopes of catching an old madcap movie on TV. So, it was probably inevitable that I would come to write a series that bestselling author Jan Burke described as, “I Love Lucy meets Murder, She Wrote.”

But imagine my astonishment when a character started speaking to me in unexpected terms. Sure, she seemed to be a character in a mystery, judging by the mere fragment of the scenario she provided, and given her reality-challenged demeanor, I knew it would be a zany mystery. But this character, Samantha Brennan, who told me she was a fake psychic and scam ancient deity, added another element — the supernatural.

Whoa! Where did that come from? Even though I live in Sedona, Arizona, the Vatican City of the New Age, I knew zip about psychics and ancient deities, either real or fake. When I refused to write her, Samantha fed me her own quirky description: “What a sight I was! Long blonde hair curling wildly in every direction, crowned with a wreath of battered silk flowers held together with Christmas tree garland. Makeup by Crayola. And that dress I wore — half Renaissance ball gown in bright blue satin and lace, half soothsayer garb with its filmy organdy layers, half jester suit. Too many halves, I know, but it was quite a dress.”

To further lure me in, Samantha gave herself a partner-in-crime, Annabelle Haggerty — a genuine Celtic goddess, hidden beneath the steely exterior of an FBI Special Agent. She also dreamed up a steamy romance for herself with Angus, Annabelle’s ancestor, the hunky ancient Celtic god of youth and love and laughter, and she roped in banshees, brownies and flower fairies, not to mention shape-shifters and leprechauns to add to the fun.

But where did all this come from? Not my past. Still, I agreed to write one short story, “Showtime on the Winter Solstice” (The Rose in the Snow), and then another, “Hocus Pocus on Friday the 13th” (Medium of Murder). By that point, these creatures and their paranormal fun had me so hooked, I couldn’t help but give them a full novel, High Crimes on the Magical Plane (Red Coyote Press), which just debuted. NYT bestselling fantasy author, Diana Gabaldon, has described as “…delicious; a funny, pell-mell romp of an adventure rife with psychics, FBI agents and clowns."

Samantha and Annabelle have taught me so much about writing supernatural mysteries, such as the fact that magic doesn’t make mysteries easier, it complicates them, and that when they rely on it, there have to be consequences. High Crimes on the Magical Plane literally opened new worlds for me, and I’m thrilled that bestselling author Charlaine Harris has said of it, “You’ll enjoy the unlikely twists and turns in this novel, and both characters are delightful.”

But where did all this come from? Were these characters just a gift from the universe? Is that too woo-woo? What does it do to my theory that every writer uses material gathered from her life?

It occurred to me then that as a kid, I always hated the first day of school. It wasn’t school itself I objected to, although the formal educational system and I do have different takes on the need for regimentation and stifling boredom. It was only the first day that I dreaded because, year after year, teachers made us write essays on what we did on our summer vacations.

What summer vacation? Sure, I was off from school like everyone else. But my family never traveled anywhere.

Rather than admit to my embarrassingly boring family, I made up grand adventures. I shared how I scaled Mt. Everest or camped out at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine or took a trip to the rings of Saturn.

Kindly teachers, who must have understood why a kid would avoid the standard approach on a routine assignment, never objected — until the Saturn essay. That year we had a bench in the hall outside of our classroom. My irate teacher flung her arm out, sending me to sit on the bench, where I was supposed to think about my unforgivable transgression.

Out in the hall, I admitted to myself that while I wished I actually had gone to Disneyland or the beach or somewhere normal like everyone else, I felt good about being someone who could make up a trip to Saturn. I was already a writer, I just didn’t know it yet.

With High Crimes on the Magical Plane, I’ve not only continued on my madcap mystery path, I’ve reconnected to the outrageous imagination of the little girl who would make up a vacation spent on another planet. Samantha and Annabelle and the High Crimes gang are a product of my life paths, after all, even if it took a while to see that.

I’m still sitting out there on that bench. Only now, I’m really loving it.

Writers, are your paths reflected in your work?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think you should have gotten extra-credit on that assignment! After all, you were creative in the process.

I was always on the path to becoming a mystery writer. I was a huge mystery reader growing up, and loved writing. The perfect combo was putting the two loves together and write murder mysteries!
Mystery Writing is Murder

jenny milchman said...

How great that you felt legitimate in your identity so young, Kris! I love this post, and would take a trip to one of your worlds over Disney any day!

Kris Neri said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I think I should have got extra credit, too, instead of being sent to the hall. But some teachers can't handle that much creativity.

I think the choices we make when we're young do play out later in life. You're a perfect example!

Kris Neri said...

Thanks, Jenny! I must confess I've probably always marched to the beat of an off-beat, misfit drummer. ;)

RhondaL said...

Funny how the threads of our lives show up in our stories. It's interesting to see the connection between the lady who writes about a modern Celtic priestess with a day job in the FBI and the little girl who dreamed up a summer tour of the rings of Saturn for a dreaded school report.

I think a lot of us can draw similar connections between our interests, brief fascinations, hopes and dreams to the characters and settings of our stories. The latter all rise from that bubbling back burner brew of experience and dreams.

Thanks for stopping by PDD. I enjoyed your post.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I loved reading about your childhood fantasies/writing adventures.

I lied my way through grammar school, telling outrageous things that no adult believed I'm sure, but never called me on.

Loved reading this, Kris. I'd love to get back to Sedona one of these days--most beautiful place in the world.

Kris Neri said...

Thanks, Rhonda!

Marilyn, I never think of it as lying, but it is. I don't think adults realize how squeezed some kids feel.

We'd love to have you back at our store, The Well Red Coyote, in Sedona. Just let us know. Sedona is an amazingly beautiful place.

Tammie said...

As a veteran in-class daydreamer, I understand where you're coming from. I had a second grade teacher who was at least ten years older than God when I was in her class in the late 60s and she enlightened me there was no difference between making up stories and lying! She also used to make me promise to show up for Sunday School, kindly explaining that if I didn't show and died during the week, I was going to hell. This is probably what sent me down the Stephen King path at about age 12.