A few of my readers have asked me to tell the story of how Bad Weather came about. The novella is set in 1992, after all, and while it's a companion piece to the Fenway Stevenson Mysteries, Fenway doesn't appear (she would have been two years old at the time!). So how did it come about?
About twenty-five years ago, I was an English major at UC Santa Barbara, and my emphasis was creative writing, which meant that I could write stories for my senior thesis instead of a fifty-page essay comparing Oroonoko to Middlemarch.
At the time, I was influenced heavily by the work of Paul Auster, which contained a lot of references to the work itself. He wasn't the only author who did it, but I liked his work the best. My professors called it metafiction and I was a big fan. This was also around the time that the movie Like Water for Chocolate was released, and magical realism was not only in the cinematic consciousness of America, but it also started to creep into the stories I wrote.
For one of my classes—I don't think it was my senior thesis story, but it might have been—I wrote a short story called Bad Weather in its first draft. In it, the narrator, a male grad student living in Los Angeles, meets an intoxicating writer named Frankie who refuses to give up her last name.
At the time, I wasn't writing mysteries—the creative writing program at UC Santa Barbara focused primarily on literary fiction, and looked down its nose at genres like mysteries, fantasy, horror, and the like. This short story was literary, and was heavily influenced by metafiction. Just like in the novella just published yesterday, Frankie tells the main character that she is the author of a crazy, violent, hyper-sexual, award-winning novel called Exodus Nights. But the story explored themes of identity and gender roles as its primary source of conflict. It had a bunch of religious imagery in it as well—with the author's last name being Bethany (just like in the 2018 novella), I put in a bunch of references to Jesus riding the donkey from Bethany into Jerusalem—which became so prominent in the story that I changed the title from Bad Weather to Palm Sunday. The big reveal at the end was simply about Frankie's identity, which upended the main character's expectations.
There weren't any gunshots, there wasn't any detective work done in law libraries, there wasn't nearly the amount of suspicion in the original main character, and there wasn't a competing love interest for the main character. If it sounds pretentious—well, it was. I did get an "A" on it, though.
Cut to 2018, after I published The Reluctant Coroner, when I was digging through some boxes in the garage. I found three of my old short stories from UC Santa Barbara, plus 120 pages of a partially completed novel from 1994. Palm Sunday was in the batch of short stories. I hadn't seen it in years.
One of the first things I noticed when I read it was how weak the main character was. Another thing I noticed was that Frankie acted so outside of expectations that I thought any normal person would get suspicious and want to investigate. Then I thought, what if Sheriff Craig McVie from The Reluctant Coroner had met Frankie in the early '90s? What would he think? Would he investigate her? What would her do?
I didn't have Palm Sunday in a computer file, so I started to type it in, but after about half a page of straight transcription, I realized I'd much rather rewrite it with McVie as the central character. So I started over.
I told a writer friend what I was doing with the story, and she thought it was interesting. "But it surprises me that you'd choose to write a book about McVie as the first spin-off character," she said.
"Really? Did you have someone else in mind?"
"Absolutely. Dez. She's my favorite character."
"Oh," I said, and it wasn't the first time someone had told me that Dez needed her own book. "Well, the whole premise of this story is about a guy who's really attracted to Frankie so he doesn't see what's really going on."
"Isn't Dez a lesbian?" my friend said. "Is there any reason she couldn't be so attracted to Frankie that she doesn't catch on right away?"
She was right. The story's themes focus so much on identity and gender roles anyway, I realized that it would be really interesting to have a story with those existing themes from the point of view of a college student who's dealing with coming out in the early 1990s, before Don't Ask Don't Tell was even a thing, before marriage equality was even in the national debate.
I started to rewrite the story with Dez as the main character—and she had a lot to add. I found Dez to be fascinating at twenty-one years old, before she was comfortable in her own skin as she is in the Fenway books. I also gave Dez a roommate, best friend, and voice of reason (for those of you who remember SAT analogies, I posit the following: "Dez :: Fenway; Rhonda :: Dez"). I gave Dez another romantic interest. And I added gunshots, research B.G. (before Google), a criminal justice professor, and more. 37,000 words later, I decided to go back to the original title, Bad Weather (partially because I took out the pretentious Bethany references, but also because I liked the title a lot better). It's a novella, less than half the length of the Fenway novels—but a lot longer than Palm Sunday.
I realized, too, that I had never written a gay main character before, but I realized it so late in the process that I didn't really think about it when I was writing. I also had written a lot of Dez in the two Fenway novels, and felt like I knew her really well.
Bad Weather isn't a murder mystery—there's no murder in it, for one thing. I've called it a plagiarism mystery, an identity theft mystery, and a romantic suspense novella. I think it's a great character study for Dez. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it—and that it gives you the book about Dez that many of you have been asking for!
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