by Leigh Perry / Toni L.P. Kelner
People have asked how I came up with the idea for a mystery series about an ambulatory skeleton, and I'm afraid my answer isn't overly helpful. But I can tell you how that idea first started becoming a book. Even better, I can show you.
With almost every fiction project, I start out by creating a Notes file. That's where I put my initial thoughts about a character, or requirements if it's for a anthology gig, or the description of the dream I had that might be a good story some day. This is not stuff I ever show anybody, so this is a first for me. I've annotated a bit, in blue, to point stuff out. And since I put in stuff not directly related to the project -- as in, 'I'm really hungry," or "I wish the neighbors would finish the drilling or whatever the heck they're doing out there" -- I've edited this just a bit. I mean, nobody really cares which neighbor I was angry at in June of 2004.
Yeah, June of 2004. That's when I started making notes for the book that became A Skeleton in the Family, first of my Family Skeleton series, which was released in September 2013. In fact, in the notes I refer to coming up with the idea around a year earlier. So that's a genesis of ten years from idea to publication.
So here's what I wrote on June 25, 2004. (I still date my entries.)
BEWARE - THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!
June 25, 2004
Okay, I know I've got notes for this story idea somewhere, but I can't find them on this computer. So either they're on bits of paper somewhere, or they exist only in my fevered imagination. So let's get some of this down now, even though I know I've been noodling over this idea for close to a year.
So here's the idea for Sid. he's an ambulatory, intelligent human skeleton. And he talks. There is no particular explanation of this. There can, in fact, be no particular explanation for this. It's like My Mother, The Car or My Favorite Martian or Francis the Talking Mule. Since it can't be explained, I won't even try very hard. Though perhaps Sid will come up with his own origin story each book. Assuming that I can sell more than one in the series. Assuming that I can even sell one.
Personally, it sounds kind of strange to me. I just think it would be fun to write. I suppose I could just go for a short story, which might give me a better chance of success. Lets see what I can come up with...
Anyway, Sid lives with a youngish woman who inherited him from her family. Sort of. I'm thinking Sid was a decommissioned skeleton from a museum or teaching collection.
I ended up using only part of this explanation for Sid's origin, and the youngish woman Sid lives with got a lot older. My original thought was to have her as a grad student, but she ended up as a English professor with a teen-aged daughter.
That being said, let me check out e-mail and plug in some info from an e-mail exchange with archeologist Dana Cameron:
Since the email exchange was private, I'm only putting my emails here, not Dana's. This exchange is the oldest text I can find referring to Sid, so you see that Femme Dana was part of the gestation of Sid from pretty close to the beginning. When you're writing about a skeleton, it's incredibly helpful to have an archeologist on speed dial.
From: Toni L.P. Kelner
Sent: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 5:35 PM
To: Dana Cameron
Subject: Picking your brain
I need to pick your brain for this project I've been wanting to work on. I don't know why, because I suspect my agent will hate it, but it makes me giggle. It's woo-woo, with an ambulatory skeleton named Sid.
Sid has no memory of his pre-skeletal life, but during the book, he will be solving his own murder. I've been trying to come up with a reasonable explanation of how Sid ended up as a whole skeleton, rather than a rotting body somewhere, and your story about finding the old specimens in the basement of the Peabody-Essex inspired me. What if the killer boiled away Sid's body and hid him in a bunch of skeletons about to be removed from a collection? And instead of destroying them as he was supposed to do, an enterprising grad student sold some of the more intact skeletons as Halloween decorations. Is that something that could happen?
Yes, I know worrying about this when I've already got a walking, talking skeleton named Sid is a bit bizarre, but I figure Sid is all the willing suspension of disbelief I'm going to be able to get away with. Everything else should be reasonable.
Anyway, any ideas?
Dana replied with all kinds of nifty data, and stories about a professor which may be illegal so I'm really not putting that up! She also had some very reasonable questions.
I'm not going to explain at all how he can move without ligaments and the like. He just does. When they first get him--they being the family of the little girl who kind of adopts him--he's wired together. He "comes to life" when she's in trouble, and stays alive as she grows up.
What if the unscrupulous collector had his ill-gotten gains stored in a mini-warehouse, and got behind on his rent? Then the stuff would be sold at auction. My mother the flea market dealer has bought lots of stuff that way. Would it be legal to buy a real skeleton? But I can see a warehouse guy who wanted to get rid of stuff saying it was a fake skeleton, and folks believing him. The reason I was thinking about the decommissioned collection was that it would kind of get around that law about selling remains, if it does exist.
A medical school might work, but it would be kind of tricky to sneak in a skeleton. Especially since we've got to get rid of all the nasty flesh and blood, too. What is a reference collection?
At some point in the book, I do want a forensic anthropologist to take a peek. Sid will play dead for the occasion. Well, he is dead. He'll play possum. The anthropologist will wonder what's holding the bones together. Sid will then let all his pieces fall apart. (Why can he do this? Why the heck not?)
As for moving through society, he doesn't much. He lives with this girl, in a closet, of course. Her brother knows about him, and possibly her parents, but that's about it. Otherwise, he only goes out at Halloween, dressed as Death, and possibly to Mardi Gras or other costume occasions. Since he can "de-articulate" himself at will, I figure the girl can carry him in a bag if she wants him along.
I have no idea why I think this would work, but the concept amuses me mightily. Vampires, werewolves, mummies--all old hat. Who else has done a skeleton mystery?
Again, Sid originally had a younger companion. Also, the older sister Deborah was originally a brother. And it turned out that the parents knew all about Sid, and he "lives" in an attic, which is way roomier than a closet.
Dana replied with even more awesome information about the care and feeding of skeletons and a story about a professor who kept the skeletal remains of her cats. Dana knows some very interesting people.
So with that email exchange as grist for my mental mill, I went back to noodling about what the story would look like.
My thought, or perhaps theme, is that Sid came to life to protect the young woman when she was a little girl. Maybe her bratty big brother locked her in a room with him at Halloween, and she was scared. Or, should I want to make it more serious, she was being menaced by a child molester and Sid rescued her by scaring away the molester. I'm guessing bratty brother obtained Sid, in his pre-ambulatory state, but it was the girl who brought him to life.
Why is this appropriate? I'm thinking Sid died to protect a little girl, or at least, in trying to protect her. From a killer or rapist, perhaps, though that's pretty dark for a story about a skeleton. I'm thinking he was a grad student, and found out that a professor was up to something. I think we've got to have something pretty serious to make Sid come back to life. Maybe even a threat that the girl never realized.
What do Gloria's parents think of Sid. Yes, I just named her Gloria, and I have no idea why. It's easy enough to change if I decide to, but I've grown tired of calling her "the girl." I've got three thoughts. One, they're hippies out of time and just went with the flow. This would work for New Agers, too. The second, that they don't know Sid is ambulatory but figured him as an imaginary friend at first and just let Gloria keep him. And third, they're generally pretty normal, but are willing to accept a skeleton if he saved their little girl. They could be Southerners, used to dowsing and such. Though then you get the whole Bible Belt thing.
If they know about Sid, I think they'd try to do more about trying to figure out where he came from and such. Nah, too rational. Let's make them New Agers who go with the flow, which leads to Bratty Brother being aggresively "normal" in reaction, and he hates that Gloria still has him around. He's worried about publicity messing up his aggressively normal life. Think of him as a somewhat nicer Dursley, or a Darren type.
Yes, Georgia was originally Gloria. She went through a lot of names before I settled on Georgia. I remember Garnet being a favorite for a while. Also, her New Age parents morphed into English professors somewhere along the way.
Because this whole idea is kind of informed by those bizarre sit-coms of the sixties, like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.
Funny how those old shows come back to haunt me. I guess I kind of always wanted a gimmick like that of my own, something to make me special and magical. Then again, with the success of Harry Potter, there must be a lot of people who feel that way.
I loved those bit o' magic sitcoms movies. I could throw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Spirit is Willing, and Blackbeard's Ghost in as influences, too.
Here's a bit of business to kind of introduce the story:
It was a dark and stormy night, and it was nearly as dark in the room, the only light the eerie glow from the computer screen. A young woman was intently watching the screen as her fingers flew over the keyboard, so she didn't see the door to the closet slowly drift open, and the noise of her typing masked the sound of movement as the skeletal figure emerged from the gaping blackness.
Had the worn oriental carpet not been there to muffle the measured footsteps, surely she would have heard the feet tapping and creaking against the floor as it stepped into the room, even though the feet were bare. In fact, those feet couldn't have been any more bare--bare of clothing, bare of skin, bare of anything--there was only bleached white bone from head to toe. Or rather, from skull to metatarcals. Like something out of a nightmare, the skeleton moved across the floor.
It stepped toward the woman's unprotected back, one fleshless arm raising and reaching for her. An instant before that mockery of a human hand touched her shoulder, Georgia spoke. "Sid, I'm working here."
"How did you know?" the skeleton demanded.
She sighed, not even bothering to turn to look at him. "Because you haven't tried to jump me all day."
"Hey, can you blame me for wanting to jump your bones? Get it? Jump your bones?"
"I got it the other thousand times you said it, Sid, and it hasn't been funny since the first five. Now, if you don't mind, I've got work to do."
"Let me help," he said. He deftly removed his skull from atop his shoulders, and placed it next to her more normally fleshed version. "You know what they say? Two heads are better than one."
Gloria realized that every family had its secrets. From her friends, she'd heard stories of family bootleggers, draft-dodgers, strippers, even Republicans. In her case, the skeleton in the closet was actually a skeleton in the closet. A skeleton named Sid, who refused to stay in his closet.
The name Georgia appears in this paragraph but just as quickly, switches back to Gloria. Other than that, and a shift to first person, the first appearance of Sid appears pretty much as is in the completed book. I wrote a few more bits and pieces, intending to put them in somewhere. Unlike many writers, I don't necessarily write in chronological order. I write a bunch of scenes, then rearrange them. A lot. It's not efficient, so I don't recommend it.
"Jeez, Glory, when are you going to get rid of that bag of bones?" Craig said.
"Hey!" Sid said indignantly. "Why don't you ever ask me when I'm going to get rid of that bag of meat?"
Craig ignored him, as usual. Glory didn't think she'd seen her brother directly address Sid since he went off to college, where he'd apparently decided that Sid's existence was impossible and therefore not worthy of conversation.
"Craig, he's not a fairy," Glory said. "He's not going to disappear if you don't believe in him."
"Yeah? If he's not a fairy, then why does he stay in the closet?"
Glory blinked, then grinned. "Oh my God, you made a joke! Sid, put a gold star on the calendar."
"I can't," Sid grumbled, "you got the kind you have to lick."
"Right. Sorry." With no tongue, Sid wasn't any good at licking stamps either.
Now Gloria/Georgia is Glory. I had a hard time making up my mind. Craig because Deborah, and switched from a stuffed shirt businessman to a locksmith. And I lost the fairy joke, because it's offensive and even though it was Craig saying it when he was still a jerk of a character, I just couldn't leave it in. Besides, Deborah would have have said it. (I'm a little embarrassed even to have ever written it, honestly.)
"Craig? Sid's gone."
"Good. I hoped you'd come to your senses and dump him out someday."
"He left? Did anybody see him leave your place? Could he be traced back to you and me?"
"He didn't leave, you incredible asshole! Somebody took him!"
"Why would anybody be stupid enough to steal a skeleton?"
"You did!" Glory reminded him. "But I don't think it was some stupid prank this time." She told him what she and Sid had learned since that encounter on Halloween. "I think that bastard QQQ has him. Sid's the only evidence that he's a killer--I think he's going to try to kill him."
"Glory, Sid's already dead. How is he going to kill him again?"
"Don't give me your damned logic! He can crush him with a sledgehammer, put him in a garbage disposal, give him to the dog pound--I don't know what he's planning and I don't care. All I know is that Sid is in trouble and I'm going to save him!"
"Sis, I know you're fond of the old... You're fond of Sid, but don't you think this is for the best?"
An icy cold came over Glory then. "Sid saved me, Craig, back when I was a kid."
"Hey now, QQQ was just trying to scare you--"
"Bullshit. QQQ was a child molester. I Googled him a couple of years ago, and found out that he was caught going after kids in his neighborhood, and after he was arrested, more victims came out of the woodwork. So you tell me why he locked him in his basement!"
There was an endless silence on the line. "You're saying Sid knew that somehow."
"I don't know, Craig, but I know he died trying to protect a little girl. Maybe he came back to life for the same reason."
There was a much shorter pause. "What do you want me to do?"
This scene kind of made it into the final version in that there was an emotional confrontation between Georgia and her sister about whether Sid should be rescued. But the stuff about child molesting was too dark for the story, so that got softened a lot, and the story of how and where Sid came to "life" changed. Plus Craig was much less of a jerk when he became Deborah.
Georgia used to swear a lot! That's not the right thing for a cozy, particularly a light-hearted cozy, which is why Sid and Georgia don't use traditional cuss words.
That's all I wrote that day. The next few weeks were the same: notes and ideas, some of which made it into the book and many that did not. One scene got cut but eventually made it into Book 3, The Skeleton Haunts a House. And at some point, I did settle on Georgia's name.
So I still can't pinpoint the day or moment when I said, "Huh. I think I'll write a book about a skeleton." But this is a sample of the process that goes into taking an idea and making it into a book. At least it my process--I suspect most writers are considerably more methodical but I'm sticking with mine.