Behind the Scenes: Writing Death Omen, the Sixth Mae Martin Mystery

Now that the book has been out a little over a month, and readers have had a chance to get into it, I thought it would be interesting  to share some of the background for the story and the setting.

The idea for the plot first came to me when I was reading a book I reviewed in depth almost two years ago, The Healing Path by Marc Ian Barasch. In it, the author chronicles his search for healing, and the choices he made when he was seriously ill. He also interviews people who took a variety of alternative, conventional or combined paths. Some were healed in body and spirit; some were healed only in spirit. He visited one healer who was so tactless and blaming, her words stunned me. My antagonist character was born, blended with aspects of a director I worked with in my theater days, a gifted young woman with control issues who could be domineering and aggressive in her methods of getting actors to find their feelings.

When I read a book review describing some unusual ideas about reincarnation, it added other ingredients into my mental stew, along with several articles on Tibetan traditional medicine in a medical journal on alternative therapies. It was the healer who made me angry that got the ball rolling, though. I live in a place where alternative healing is popular, and I would hate to see sincere seekers misdirected.

Another component of the story was the stress of being a medical mystery. No one wants to be one, and yet all illnesses and treatments have an element of the unknown. When symptoms show up, some people put off getting the mystery solved. They’re like the people who would call in to Car Talk and say their car was doing something terrifying but they managed to drive it home. Click and Clack always marveled at these callers. “If it could kill you, why do you feel like you have to drive it home?” We can be that way with our bodies, too. There’s such fear of what the symptom means, it’s an incentive to avoid the diagnosis. We go into denial. Or we don’t trust our doctors and go to alternative practitioners—some good and helpful, some not.

Midway through writing the book, I had an injury that an orthopedic doctor assumed was a labral tear in my hip joint—something that would require major surgery and time in a wheelchair for recovery. It was scary, wondering what was coming. However, suspecting he hadn’t listened to me very well, if at all, I postponed the MRI for a suspenseful month, observed my symptoms, then wrote him a letter thoroughly covering all the facts. He gave me a referral for physical therapy, and I’m well now, no surgery. Not all medical mysteries turn out this well, but the experience helped me understand some of my characters who are dealing with frightening prognoses.

Earlier in the writing process, I resided in one of the suites at the Pelican Spa. It was the summer of 2016, my last summer as a part-year resident of T or C before moving here. I got the idea to have the antagonist characters offer their healing retreat at the Pelican, and asked the manager if it would be okay to write a book in which some wacky people from Santa Fe rent the Red Pelican portion of the spa for a weekend program. She said, “That’s really happened.” The staff was incredibly generous, giving me tours of the Red Pelican rooms that summer and again this year, when I wanted to get the finishing touches right. The setting with an Asian flair turned out to be perfect, since a Tibetan traditional doctor plays a role in this mystery. The Pelican Apartment Motel, the section of the spa where I spent that summer, is where Jamie stays during the retreat, and I lived in the in the green-walled room he is given.

The bright laundry line visible from Jamie’s room is one of the features of the setting I couldn’t resist using. The laundry shot was taken by Donna Catterick, who took the picture for the cover, and was originally posted on her blog. I also like this picture of the Red Pelican’s courtyard rock and Buddha that Donna took. My characters often gather on the benches around that rock.

I didn’t tell my cover designer anything about the Pelican. I considered asking her to incorporate something of its color schemes and then decided to trust her judgment. She considered many options but found she kept coming back to the pink lettering. If you look at the cover next to this picture that a friend took of me doing ustrasana, camel pose, for a yoga  studio web site (I teach at a studio attached to the Pelican), you’ll see that the colors match remarkably. The archway where I’m posing is at the back entrance to the Red Pelican Courtyard that my characters often use.

A second real location in Truth or Consequences that I used is The Charles, another classic hot springs spa. When I arrived in T or C in June this year, I asked the owner if she would be willing to fictionally employ Mae Martin as an energy healer at the Charles. This was a healing modality they hadn’t offered in the past, though they’d had massage and reflexology there for years. She told me they’d recently added an energy healing room, and urged me to talk with her manager. I did, and he not only gave me permission to use the space in my book, but encouraged me to take pictures and make sure I got it just right. When I saw the room painted as a healing cave with blue sky in the ceiling, and crystals on the shelves, even lamps made from crystals, I knew Mae was meant to work there. Sometimes reality and fiction line up perfectly.

Reflections on Commitment, Listening, and Free Speech

On Saturday Jan. 21st, I got up at four-fifteen in the morning to drive through heavy fog to meet a bus with thirty-four other riders on it and found that so many people wanted to travel from this one small Virginia city that there were two buses at this site. More buses loaded at other locations. All over the country, people made trips like this, and many rose earlier and traveled farther.

On the trip, I sat with one of my yoga students, a retired teacher with years of experience herding middle-schoolers on field trips, and she was an inspiring as well as organized and helpful traveling companion. She has coped with her profound sadness about the election outcome by getting active, not only with calls and letters and donations, but by volunteering to help resettle refugees and to help feed the homeless. Every week she does something to remind herself that the world can be made a better place. Wherever we went Saturday, she radiated gratitude. She thanked the police and National Guard who were on security duty. She thanked the employee of the portapotty company who was cleaning a row of units where we stopped. She hugged our bus driver at the end of the trip.

A series of signs quoting Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us in almost all the front yards we passed as we walked from RFK stadium to the national mall. “I have decided to stick with love. Hatred is too great a burden to bear.” “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And many more. People waved from their yards. One played motivating classical music on speakers from upstairs windows. When we were dispersing later in the day, some residents came out in support again. One man brought a keyboard out in front of his townhouse and played for us.

Sometimes people give up and think their vote won’t matter or their voice won’t be heard, but the march was a visual illustration of the fact that every person does count. Hundreds of thousands of people decided, “I’ll show up,” and went to great lengths to do it. A Native Hawaiian group came all the way to D.C. If large numbers of the marchers had had said, “My presence doesn’t count. Someone else will show up and that will be enough,” the impact would not have been the same.

I’ve never seen so many people in one place with the same purpose, moved by their ideals and convictions. The pussycat-ears hats were ubiquitous, on men and women (and one very happy baby). Maybe that’s part of why everything was so upbeat and peaceful. Sending a message by wearing a funny-looking pink hat may keep you from acting like a big bad warrior. The major themes of the signs protesters carried were women’s rights, respect for all people, inclusiveness, opposition to bigotry, support for the Affordable Care Act, reminders that climate science is real, and inspiration and humor.

Inspiration: They thought they buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.

Without follow-up action, this is just a parade. No. Today is day one.

Build bridges, not walls.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (A quotation from Voltaire.)

Love trumps hate.

Humor: There’ll be hell toupee.

Putin Free.

I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea.

My personal favorite: Remember facts?

It can sound clichéd to say how diverse a group is, but this one really was. It included men and women, people of all ages from children to elders, people with disabilities, members of all races, people who were gay, straight, trans—you name it, they were there, and harmonious in each other’s company. I saw no uncivil behavior even when we got stuck in human gridlock on the mall for I don’t know how long—two hours? No violence, no arrests, and an amazing level of patience in a situation that could have brought out the worst in human nature. I was too far from the stage or the Jumbotron to hear a word the speakers said, but those of us on that part of the mall stayed upbeat and engaged. Aside from occasionally chanting “start this march” when we didn’t yet know we were too numerous to do it as planned, we passed our gridlock time making friends, reading the signs around us, singing and dancing and stretching and laughing. A popular call-and-response chant went like this: “Show me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!” This is what America looks like, too.

 People who disagreed with us were civil. Real life isn’t like the hostile land of social media. I didn’t notice any harassment. Non-marchers just walked on by. A group whose banner proclaimed they were Bikers for Trump had set up a small stage on a green off Pennsylvania Avenue. They didn’t have more than twenty people in their audience, mostly young women in the pink pussy hats who had—unwisely, I think—chosen to debate with them. We older and maybe wiser folks observed that the young women should just have left those guys alone. The bikers had as much right to be there as we did and they weren’t attacking us, just having their say. A genuine conversation with them could have been worthwhile, but understanding-focused dialogue is a learned skill.

Unskilled argument digs opponents in deeper. Maybe what the country needs next is a massive rally for listening, in which people from the various political islands can build bridges and have constructive dialogue. It would take courage. Participating in the mean-meme world of Twitter trolls takes no courage at all, no critical thinking, and no real attention, but meeting a fellow human face to face with commitment to show respect and compassion does.

One demonstrator’s sign bore a message I think all sides could agree with: Read More Books. The young man holding it was smiling.