“Where do you get your ideas?”
Most writers hear this question at least once in their ‘career’ if they’re lucky. The easy answer is “I don’t know.” Neil Gaiman says he used to make up pithy responses until an 8-year-old asked the question and he couldn’t look into that little earnest face and give a sarcastic answer. It is, after all, a very good question!
Most of my fiction writing up until now has been inspired by visits to Paris. The idea for Hotel Deja Vu came to me during a ‘girls’ trip. You really get to know people when you travel with them and I found myself wondering what it would be like to be a tour guide in Paris, a career I had toyed with in my youth when I was a more tolerant person. Alia was inspired by a visit to the Loire when we saw a tumble-down mansion sitting in an overgrown garden behind a service centre. The Circle of Ashes is inspired by my obsession with druids and stone circles but I wanted to write something very different to Outlander!
In 2017 I had the kernel of an idea for a story about two sisters, a murder, and an old festering resentment that would destroy everything. It was only an idea, something I chatted about with a few friends and they’d say things like, “Oh that’s in the same vein as We Need To Talk About Kevin, or Gone Girl.” People seemed to like the idea, as dark as it was.
Then in February 2018, after a terrifying flight that was more turbulence than not followed by an aborted landing in the mountains, we had a most unexpected extra day in LA. And I had the setting for my story.
After figuratively kissing the tarmac at LAX we headed to an airport hotel and ate a quiet dinner. We have flown a lot and that was certainly the closest we had ever come to meeting our maker as a result. We slept surprisingly well and woke the next morning to a bright city, the smog of the previous week had been blown to smithereens like we nearly were. We’d been in Las Vegas for the weekend and heard that a sightseeing helicopter had crashed killing the 5 people on board so it was both a sobering moment and reason to be very grateful.
We jumped in an Uber and headed to the Observatory. We had avoided going the previous week due to the smog which ruined the view and the Observatory itself was closed for filming, a regular phenomenon to watch out for as a tourist in LA. The Observatory was also closed on a Monday so we had to settle for the stunning view over Los Angeles stretching as far as the Pacific Ocean on this crystal clear day. (I lost the most of the photos when my laptop died but they were terrible anyway. I hadn’t taken the time to check the light settings and the colour was all wrong.) We enjoyed wandering around at the various buildings, dodging the scam artists and photo buskers (what else would you call those people who dress up in cheap costumes and get paid to pose for photos?) We watched a young guy do reiki healing on two people on the grass in front of the Observatory with hundreds of tourists walking around (Only in LA?)
There were no lunch options up there so we decided we would ‘hike in the Hollywood Hills’ aka wander down towards the city and see what we could find to eat. It was surprisingly quiet up there away from the constant traffic and we even heard a woodpecker, something that was very exciting for a couple of Aussies who grew up watching Woody Woodpecker! (We don’t have woodpeckers in Australia.) It was a cool winter’s day; I imagine it would be very warm doing the same walk in Summer.
We made our way past the famous Greek Theatre and wandered down into the suburb of Los Feliz. I decided that my antagonist, Nicole, lives in Los Feliz, the quirky but upmarket suburb at the foot of Mount Hollywood overlooked by the Observatory. Among others, there’s a bookshop, some funky clothes stores, a french cafe. Sorry, I kind of brushed past the ‘bookshop’ part. I love bookshops and like most bookish types have a soft spot for indie bookshops and Skylight Books is up there with the best of them. I wanted to move in. I bought a notebook, my go-to souvenir. I am still super annoyed that I didn’t know The Last Bookstore existed. I guess I’ll have to go back again… I just hope it’s still there when I do! I wasn’t prepared for how much I loved L.A. I just hope she can weather this awful moment in history and bounce back.
We ate lunch at Messhall – This is from their website – “Messhall stands in the storied walls of what was once Willard’s Chicken Inn, and later The Brown Derby. During the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille bought Willard’s Chicken Inn, a country-colonial chicken restaurant, and quickly turned it into the “it” place to be for Hollywood’s elite. The building’s unique dome-shaped roof allowed for a water pumping system that made it one of the first air conditioned restaurants. The structure was designed by influential architect Wayne McAllister, credited with creating some of the most popular mid-century drive-ins and car hops. After Willard’s closed in 1940, the Los Feliz Brown Derby Restaurant opened on the site as a 24-hour Drive-in Car Cafe, and remained popular till the ’60s. Messhall is now one of architect McAllister’s only original designs still standing.” So much history in one little building!
I was buzzing after my bonus day in L.A. and the tale about Mimi (her real name is Marilyn…) and her sister Nicole began to bubble into existence. I pulled out the new notebook and started to write. Then we hopped right back in a plane and flew to the mountains, because you have to ‘get back on the horse.’ Thank the hairy goddess this flight was like flying on a silky pillow of air followed by a landing smoother than Barry White’s voice.
It was a departure for me, to set this story in anywhere other than Paris. I don’t think I could have chosen L.A. if I hadn’t visited just before I started writing the first draft for Camp Nanowrimo (April 2018.) Perhaps it was a bit of a no-brainer because Mimi and her sister were involved in the movie industry. Who knows. You’re always once decision away from a totally different life. What if I’d freaked out and been too scared to get on the flight to the mountains? What if I’d decided to do my Master’s after coming home instead of just spending the time writing? What if I had died from the awful pneumonia I contracted while in the mountains? What if I was patient zero, bringing back something like Covid? I guess we will never know!
The first few paragraphs of Chapter 1
The marble foyer glowed, the setting sun like a laser through the tinted glass facade of the house. Mimi lifted a hand to cover her eyes, taking care, out of habit, to lift her chin just so, and hold her pinkie finger up at an angle. Sundown was her favorite time of day. Golden hour. She could see herself standing there. Was it only the day before? In the middle of that elegant foyer, in white silk and diamonds, ready to leave for the Globes?
She sat up a little more and lifted her chin. Show them your best side, Mimi, he’d said.
‘Frontside, or backside?’ she mumbled under her breath. She smiled at the old line and fluttered her long lashes at her reflection, turning her head slowly from side to side.
‘Show them your Golden Globes, baby…’ she whispered. She pushed her ample breasts up, grinning at an imaginary cameraman. The smile faded as she slumped over again, forehead to the cold mirror.
The day after an awards ceremony was always a day of rest for Mimi and Charles. The origin of the rule lost to time, those days had a taken on a sacred quality. Charles and his spiritual teacher would hike Runyon Canyon, swim, and meditate. Mimi would run through routines with her Master until her hands bled. She had a Vim profile dedicated to her martial arts practice with over a hundred thousand followers. They loved videos of her bleeding hands, the bruises from the ill-timed punches. Her followers loved her authenticity.
Mimi put her hands over her ears. The silence pressed in on her. What a difference a day could make. No Paparazzi poised to capture her every move. Mimi had wedged herself into a corner. Marble step on one side, mirror on the other. The dress, white as always, was torn. She pulled at the threads, tearing it a little more. Pouting at her reflection, her eyes flicked away from her own face finally, frowning, prettily she thought, at the blood spatters on the dress, down her leg, on her white lounge shoe. She frowned at the mess in the foyer, at Charles lying there, staring up at her, the sickly smell of blood and shit. The smell reminded her of the pig’s head they’d used in the scene in Battle for Mother Earth. The sun shifted slightly on the last moments of its journey over the city, blinding her for a moment. She flicked her head to face her reflection again and tilted her head to the side. Jokes aside, her left was definitely her best. She tipped her face the other way and lowered her long lashes. The golden light in the bright room shifted again, reminding her that time was of the essence. Nicole wouldn’t be far away. Sighing, she lifted her head away from the mirror and stopped. Right it is.
She brought her head a little further back and rammed it hard into the glass. Gasping, her head swimming, she brought it down again. A red blotch appeared on her right cheek and she smashed it into the mirror again. Without stopping to think, she smacked her face into the sharp edge of the marble step. The sunset glow burst like fireworks, pain coursing through both temples. Clamping her hand over her mouth, she glared into her own eyes, her face beating in time with her thumping heart. Her hand lifted involuntarily to brush her cheek. What does it take? Finally, a welt bloomed on the cheekbone, the skin split a little in the third blow. She watched, fascinated, as the tears formed and channeled down her cheeks, mascara going with it…