Like Tess, the main character in Lies Agreed Upon, I first encountered New Orleans as a tourist. I loved the city each time I visited, especially its architecture, culture, and rich culinary heritage--but I chose it as the setting for the mystery in Lies Agreed Upon because of a real event in my family.
My maternal grandparents came from Louisiana, and I knew vaguely that their families had once been well-to-do landowners and businessmen. But I knew very little more until my mother and her siblings, who had been raised in very modest circumstances in Texas, were surprised to learn of inherited land near New Orleans. A bitter legal battle over ownership ensued between my mother's family and relatives still living in Louisiana. The Louisiana courts eventually ruled that the property belonged to all descendants of the original owner: a Spanish immigrant who arrived in Louisiana in 1838. As one of his many potential heirs, I received a family tree with 307 names--and that's not counting my generation. The life stories of the people in that family tree bear no resemblance to the events in my novel, but the surprise inheritance and its family feud inspired the basic premise of my mystery tale.
Another event in the novel is based on personal experience, too. My paternal grandfather worked as an oil rig foreman in Louisiana for a time. When I was about 6, we visited my grandparents there in their house on a bayou. We were fishing from the bank one day, and while the fishing poles were temporarily untended, a huge gar was somehow hooked. My mother grabbed the fishing rod just before it was pulled into the water by the far, and my grandfather landed the fish. My grandfather then handed me the dying gar on a line and ordered me to drag it to a poor black neighbor's shack to give it to him. It was a terrifying duty since the fish was still snapping in its death throes, and, I am ashamed to admit, I was a child of segregation and afraid to deal with a black stranger.
My children--raised in California in a home of mixed ethnicity and with friends of every race and religion--happily cannot relate to the prejudices of my childhood. But no story set in the South can ignore the bitter residue of slavery and Civil War that still mar Southern politics and culture, black and white.
I love New Orleans' varied cuisine, and I included mentions of it in my story because food is so essential to the character of the city. Louisiana's distinct Creole and Cajun food traditions are separated from neighboring regions by more than miles. In my family, my father's Texas-oriented side was firmly fixed in a tradition of fried food, while my mother occasionally honored her roots by serving Creole-inspired dishes. I used to mentally call these collisions "the okra wars," where the fans of the crisp, floured and fried okra of Texas stridently rejected the Creole-spiced stewed okra and tomatoes of Louisiana.
The way people speak is important to the flavor of a place, too. So I thought it essential to some of the older characters to capture the distinct accents of New Orleans and its environs. Older people are more likely to speak in the "Yat" of New Orleans or in French-accented Cajun voices. I tried to balance this with readability. Louisiana natives will doubtless find lapses in authenticity, and I hope they'll forgive them.
If you haven't guessed, the Hotel d'Iberville, Beauvoir's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, the Alhambra gardens and The Lost Lady Restaurant are imaginary. Other places--1850 House, the Oak Alley and Laura historic plantations, Tremé landmarks, the Garden District, New Orleans cemeteries, the restaurants in the French Quarter, and the clubs on Frenchmen Street--all do exist. You can't tour with Happy Cajuns Swamp Adventures, but there are many swamp tours that will let you feed marshmallows and raw chicken to alligators!
The history and culture of Louisiana and New Orleans are rich and complex, and I could only touch on them to provide a context for the characters. I urge readers to explore further, not only through reading but with a visit to New Orleans, to sample its unique cultural "gumbo" for themselves.
Because The Cruelest Lies is still in the works, I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that the old Victorian house rented to Tess's boyfriend in the novel is inspired by a real house in a Virginia suburb, my home during part of my teens. Tess's bedroom is a replica of the bedroom I had along the back of that old house. The room had four doors: a door from the upstairs hall, a door to the servants' stairs from the kitchen below, a door to stairs to the attic above, and a door to a long closet under the eaves. Every night I had to carefully secure all the doors, or, at 1 a.m. precisely, they could all swing slowly open on their creaking hinges to reveal black maws of spooky space. Why? I don't know, but it was terrifying at first. I soon grew used to it to the point of ignoring the phenomenon. In fact, once when I had a sleepover of teenage girlfriends, I just forgot about the doors amid the party fun, which including playing with a Ouija board. Just after the group fell asleep, the eerie door-opening phenomenon occurred, sending the sleepover, already primed by Ouija board theatrics, into screaming hysterics.
There are many other real settings and personal experiences that inspired The Cruelest Lies plot, which I will add after publication. Stay tuned!
I intend to write several mysteries in a series, all centered around the word "lies."
Because its focus is on tragic intersections of family history with New Orleans history, the title of the first book, Lies Agreed Upon, is inspired by this quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: "History is a set of lies agreed upon."
My second book, The Cruelest Lies deals with a community's blindness to, and silence about, the evil within in it. So it has a title inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's words: "The cruelest lies are often told in silence."
The third and final entry is tentatively titled Where the Serpent Lies. It is set in Hawaii's Eden-like beauty and is based on the line spoken by Shakespeare's Macbeth: "There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled/ hath nature that in time will venom breed,/ No teeth for the present."