How to say where something began? Start tracing the root of anything, and it twists and coils and doubles back more sinuously than you knew. When I try to trace the root of my Charles du Luc historical mystery series, it seems to begin in my doctoral research, done in Paris, on the 17th and 18th century ballets the Jesuits produced as part of teaching rhetoric at their school called Louis le Grand, on Paris's Left Bank.
During the research visits, I fell in love. With the Jesuit ballets, Paris, French history. And with the Jesuit Cultural Center in Chantilly, half an hour's train ride north of Paris, where I lived and got to know the warm, welcoming, brilliant Jesuit community there. They became my French family and I went back year after year, long after the dissertation was done.
One evening, I stayed in Paris after the libraries closed and went to see Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Molière was educated at Louis le Grand, and as I watched the play, I wondered if his theatrical experience had begun there. I also remembered that I'd first seen the play during high school, at a transplanted 18th century theatre in Sarasota, Florida. So the
root coils back to the Florida Gulf Coast, where I took my first step toward France.
From there, it wound through my university study of religion. And then it twined around my knees. I became a professional modern dancer, and after twenty years of dancing and choreographing, my knees informed me that they were doing no more jumps, no more plies. Which left me with the heartstopping question of 'now what?' Left me still an artist, but without an art form. So, like a good Monty Python fan, I decided that it was time 'for something completely different!' I became a police officer. But knees turned out to be useful in law enforcement, too. Then I became a dance professor, and during that time, another college commissioned me to write and perform a one-woman show for a lectureship. I wrote Response Time, about what happens when a middle-aged female artist hits the street as a cop.
I left teaching and toured the show around the U.S. Which let the root run along the stage of a small theatre in New York, where one night after a performance, a woman came backstage and said, "I really love the writing in your show. What else are you working on? I'm a literary agent." When I found my tongue, I said, "I'm working on a mystery novel." That novel didn't get published, nor did the next one or its revision, but the wonderful agent stuck with me. Discouraged by all the failure, I turned back to the long ago research in Paris, wondering if I could turn it into a story.
The long, gnarled, twisted root heaved up the floor of my study, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, loving every word, caring not at all what happened or didn't happen to what I was writing. Everything I'd ever done or been came together and gave itself to The Rhetoric of
Death : love of history, interest in religion, the doctoral research, love of theatre, working as dancer, choreographer, playwright, actress, professor, cop.
The novel's hero, Charles du Luc, is a young 17th century Jesuit, teaching rhetoric--the art of communication--and producing ballets at the college of Louis le Grand. In The Rhetoric of Death, he finds himself working with the first Paris police chief, Nicolas de la Reynie, to catch a student dancer's killer--while trying to keep his vows and be faithful to what he loves. To my great joy, Berkley/Penguin has made the Charles books a series and the second novel, The Eloquence of Blood, comes out September 6th. In it, Charles is faced with proving the Louis le Grand Jesuits innocent of the murder of a young woman who was disputing an inheritance with the college. The third Charles book is two thirds written. The fourth is prowling on the shadowy edges of my imagination.
Tracing the root of the Charles books reminds me that nothing is ever wasted for the artist who keeps working, who keeps making, no matter what's lost or won.