Back in January I broke with the program to talk about 42 things I’ve learned in 42 years. This month I’m going to go back and hit upon my weirdest plot bunny because it’s a doozy.
I’m pretty sure that the idea for Better Get to Livin’ started germinating back when I was a high school senior. As first chair trumpet, sometimes Mr. Fentress Casey–best name for a funeral director ever–would come to get me to play taps* for military funerals. It says something about small towns that such absences were never unexcused. I mean, someone needed to play taps, didn’t they?
The perks of being the taps girl was that I would get to skip class and I would get paid to do it. The downside–at least for many–would be that I often rode to the cemetery in the hearse. While waiting for the procession to start, I also had to cool my jets in the back kitchen of the funeral home listening to the insanely slow chime version of “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder”** and speculate on what it was like to be a funeral director, whether there were any ghosts hanging around Casey’s, and what might be behind the door that I knew led to the embalming area.
Oddly enough, I think I forget just how much the idea of funeral homes creep so many people out because the experience at Casey was never all bad when I was there with my family. Sure, I was grieving. Sure, once the funeral came around I would be weeping, but visitation always proved a bright spot. Family members would take a break in that same kitchen where I used to wait, and they would tell stories, often funny ones that brought a warm glow for the person we were missing. For all of their sadness, funerals have a way of bringing people together who haven’t seen each other in a while, a nice reminder that life is short and that people are the most important part of it.
So, back to the plot bunny….
My mom sends me the local paper even though I don’t live in Henderson anymore. Ah, not only does The Independent scratch that itch for home, but I also find all kinds of great stories and ideas–especially from the “Only Yesterday” section where they pull information from past editions of the paper. One day, I got The Independent and saw that Mr. Casey had passed away. One small snippet of that story captured my imagination: Mr. Casey considered being a doctor but decided to continue on in the family’s mortuary business. That started the what ifs. What if he didn’t want to be a part of the family business? What if he had to be? What if some idiot started a rumor that kept him from finding love or even that many friendships?
This is the point where I tell you that I’ve met a few funeral directors at this point, and that they have all been fine upstanding men and women who don’t seem to have any problem falling in love. Also, I need to remind you that I totally made up the part about the bourbon parties. Everyone I have met or interviewed has been a consummate professional. (Hopefully, someone just said, “Bourbon party? I need to read this book!”)
I tried to be true. I tried to be considerate. But I also wanted the story to have southern quirk. Enter Uncle Hollis, who’s very loosely based on Teddy from Arsenic & Old Lace. Instead of a bugle, he sings Elton John songs. Enter the idea of bourbon parties. One character surprised me–I figured out that Caroline, matriarch of Anderson Funeral Home, writes romance. It’s not something I mention directly in the book, but that is the answer to one of the discussion questions in that back. That is what she’s being sneaky about: writing her first book.
The plot bunny from my high school days then led me to read books like Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers and Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. Both of those books are especially outstanding. Through other sources, I learned all about cemeteries, the history of embalming, and the embalming process. I read up as much as I could on ghosts. As I wrote I incorporated things happening in my life at the time. For example, I went on a field trip with my son to the Pickett’s Mill battlefield so I had the Colonel, one of my ghosts, lose an arm there back in the Civil War. I’d also been reading Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, so I made her the idol of my Hollywood ghost, Pinup Betty. You might also note several books about serial killers on the list to come. For reasons. If you are interested in some of the books I read while doing research, you can find them all on my Better Get to Livin research shelf on Goodreads.
Then my plot bunny gave birth to another plot bunny: the hearse from Better Get to Livin’ became the focal point of a novella about a group of mourners who are spreading ashes from one end of Tennessee to the other while driving around in an orange and white checkerboard hearse. Did I mention those ashes are housed in a Carmen Miranda cookie jar? You can get Orange Blossom Special on e devices in late July.
I think I’m done with hearse now.
Then again, you never know. . . .
*While we’re talking about plot bunnies, check out this post about why the military bugle call, taps, is both lowercase and not in quotation marks.
**May this be an official warning: if anyone plays any of that slow chime crap at my funeral, I will come back and haunt them. Seriously. My funeral is to be a joyous occasion. There is to be liquor, hip hop, and New Orleans jazz.