Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, an award-winning series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. She is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur who lives in Tempe, Arizona. Donis’ latest release,The Wrong Girl, is a coming-of-age tale of a girl in the glamorous 1920s which introduces the reader to a fresh new series starring Bianca LaBelle, star of the silent screen action serial, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse.
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
My parents initially inspired me to write. They read to us from our babyhoods, and encouraged us to tell stories, and when we could hold a pencil in our little fists, to write stories. Then my mother would make a big deal over them. That is how you inspire a child, make a fuss over her. It also made a reader out of me, and as I got older, my reading inspired me to write. Now, many years later, when I get into my author’s head, practically everything inspires me in one way or another. As for which authors have influenced me, Ellis Peters’ Virgin in the Ice is the little mystery that set me on my current life course. My first Alafair Tucker novel is constructed very much as an homage to that book. Old favorites who taught me what a good historical novel looks like include Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters, Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, Pauline Gedge. Newer favorites include Rhys Bowen, Laura Joh Rowland, Martin Edwards, Karen Odden. There are so many others I love.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
I had spent a dozen years writing a series about Alafair Tucker, raising ten rambunctious children with her on a farm in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. The tenth book in that series was set in 1919, and as I began to ponder ideas for my next novel I realized that the kids were mostly raised now. I began to wonder what was going to happen to each of them in the future. The world is undergoing a radical change. World War 1 has changed the face of Europe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 has devastated the planet, and for the first time, the United States has emerged as a great global power and center of popular culture.
I’ve settled Alafair’s older offspring with spouses and children of their own, but the younger ones are going to be coming of age in a new era. Besides, children don’t necessarily grow into the people you wish they would. What would happen to someone who was raised in a secure, loving environment, but grew to lust after adventure and excitement? So in order to satisfy my own curiosity and shake things up a bit, I decided to follow one of the children into the Roaring Twenties and see what became of her. As it turns out, she left Oklahoma altogether and had a really exciting life. Frightening, too. Several people have pointed out the The Wrong Girl has aspects that fit with the Me Too movement.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
I like to read about ancient history – Roman and Greek, Asian, Indian, pre-Columbian America, European, any pre-historic imagining. I like to read and write about 20th Century United States, mainly because I lived through the entire last half of it, and my parents and grandparents lived through the first half of it. In my experience, readers may know the facts of what happened, but it’s really enlightening to know what it felt like to experience it at the time.
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
A new series set in a new location and era means lots of research. One great resource for learning about the world of 1920s America is silent movies. Besides reading old newspapers and doing historical research, I must have watched dozens of silent movies. Until … eureka! The magic happened and I realized that the new book should be fashioned like a silent movie, with inter-title cards rather than chapter headings, full of peril and ending on a cliffhanger.
I’ve been to the places I’m writing about in southern California, especially Santa Monica and Los Angeles. I have felt the air and smelled the sea, so I know the feel, smell, colors, and vibe of the area. But I’m writing about what these places were like 100 years ago, so I have to superimpose the sensory feel of 21st Century SoCal over the black and white images of Southern California in the 1920s. There are lots of online images contemporary with the 1920s for me to work with. Some of my favorite images come from an odd online source, the Southern California Water and Power Museum.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I usually leave a blank and keep going. Then when inspiration strikes, I go back and fill it in. I know the perfect word is out there, so in order to find it, I sometimes use a thesaurus to look up an almost-but-not-quite-what-I-want-to-say word.
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
It’s sometimes a slog, like it is for every writer I’ve ever met. Sometimes it’s almost a religious experience when inspiration strikes from you-don’t-know-where. It’s no wonder the ancients believed in the Muses. Since I live in southern Arizona, I usually write at home in the afternoon, because it’s too hot to go outside.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
I don’t use a program to write/organize my work-in-progress, though I know some writers who swear by it. I’m too old-school. Which means I often compose in longhand. I find that writing by hand is a good way to clarify my thoughts. Most of my manuscript is written on a laptop, though.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
That’s like asking who’s my favorite child. My husband is an art historian, and when we were first married we spent a year in Europe where he took me to every art museum on the continent he could find and I got a crash education in art, which began a love affair that has continued for over forty years (with both art and husband). We had an apartment in a little French town called Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Auguste Renoir had his last studio. I love so many artists and types of fine art/sculpture/photography/architecture that I think there isn’t enough room in this essay to expound. Suffice it to say that I really got into Deco art while I was researching The Wrong Girl, which is set in the 1920s, and Erté (Romaine de Tirtoff) is the embodiment of Art Deco. I love Maxfield Parrish, too. I have eleven Parrish prints on my living room wall.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
a) Just get the words down on paper and don’t worry about making them perfect on your first draft. You’ll make your MS beautiful when you go back and shape, shape, shape it. Writing is rewriting. b) If you want to get published, don’t give up. If you have a good book, there’s somebody out there who will appreciate it.
Tell us about your next book.
I set my new series up to be like a silent movie serial in that not every detail is wrapped up in the end. The second book, which is currently under construction, deals with the death of the first great lover and screen idol, and Bianca’s dear friend, Rudolph Valentino. My protagonist, Bianca, believes that Rudy’s death is no accident.
Blanche Tucker longs to escape her drop-dead dull life in tiny Boynton, Oklahoma. Then dashing Graham Peyton roars into town. Posing as a film producer, Graham convinces the naive teenager to run away with him to a glamorous new life. Instead, Graham uses her as cruelly as a silent picture villain. Yet by luck and by pluck, she makes it to Hollywood. Six years later, Blanche has transformed into the celebrated Bianca LaBelle, the reclusive star of a series of adventure films, and Peyton’s remains are discovered on a Santa Monica beach. Is there a connection? With all of the twists and turns of a 1920s melodrama, The Wrong Girl follows the daring exploits of a girl who chases her dream from the farm to old Hollywood, while showing just how risky—and rewarding—it can be to go off script.
Congratulations on your new release, Donis. Sounds like you have another 10 stories to tell about Bianca Dangereuse. Congratulations on The Wrong Girl receiving a starred review on Booklist.
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