People are always asking writers where they get their ideas, a question so hard to answer that a few wiseacres just give up and say, “I buy them at Wal-Mart.”
I’m never that snarky, probably because I don’t have to be. Where my Lena Jones mysteries are concerned, I take my ideas straight from the newspaper. Human rights abuses in Kenya? Hey, they’re happening right here in Arizona, too – enough of them that I could write a hundred novels and not cover even half the world’s (and Arizona’s) crimes against humanity.
But it’s a different case with my Gunn Zoo mysteries. For those books, I lean heavily on my volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. Lucy the Giant Anteater lives there (her real name is Jezebel), and so, at one time, did Wanchu the Koala, who was on loan from the San Diego Zoo. But every now and then...
I actually have a photograph of the moment the idea of The Llama of Death came to me. My husband Paul and I were attending the Renaissance Faire, held each year in Apache Junction, Arizona, and as I passed the Queen’s Royal Privies, I made a pit stop. When I emerged, my husband was across the way, grinning at the screen display on his digital camera. He called to me, “Hey, Betty, come see this!”
I did. Thus The Llama of Death was born.
Paul had taken a photograph of a sour-looking young woman, dressed in Renaissance trollop garb, leading around a llama with a toddler on its back. The toddler was thrilled, and so, apparently, was the llama. The llama’s ears were up, and he had a big, smirking grin on his face.
“As I live and breathe,” I said, giggling at the picture. “It’s the Llama of Death!”
When my husband began to laugh, I realized I had just come up with the title of my next Gunn Zoo mystery, a book I couldn’t wait to write. You see, I had a history with llamas.
A couple of years before Paul took that wonderful photograph, I was still a reporter with the Scottsdale Tribune, where every fall, my editor “volunteered” my services at the Arizona State Fair. Usually this meant becoming one of the media contestants in the goat-milking contest, but after submitting to such a humiliating exercise for four years straight, I rebelled. “I’m not milking another goat!” I told him.
“No problem,” my editor replied, almost amiably. “I’ve put you down for the llama race. Wear your running shoes, ‘cause you’re gonna be running an obstacle race while leading a llama.”
I don’t run, and my most strenuous daily exercise is making coffee in the morning, but I know determination when I hear it, and my editor was determined to make me take part in some sort of animal activity at that bloody fair. From what I’d heard about llamas, they were genial creatures (goats aren’t as genial), so when race day arrived, I laced up my new running shoes and headed over to the llama track.
Turns out, some of those llamas were pretty big. I’m not (I have to stretch upwards to make five feet). Intimidated by the giant, hairy quadrupeds, I chose a small brown and white llama as my running partner. The llama wrangler told me the little guy’s name was Lil’ Al, and that he had a sweet, placid temperament.
Deciding it might be wise to make Lil’ Al’s acquaintance before we headed to the track, I walked up to him, held out my hand for him to sniff, and said, “Hi, Sweetie.”
Lil’ Al and I got along like a house afire. After spending a few minutes talking to him and assuring him that we were going to be BFF, he nuzzled my neck said something that sounded like, “Maaaaa!”
Then he tried to eat my hair.
Hair-eating propensity notwithstanding, Lil’ Al ran well. And so did I, surprisingly, mainly because I had a llama hot on my heels, and that little llama had decided to show the big llamas who was who on the llama-racing circuit. Lil’ Al and I jumped over hay bales, waded through a kiddie pool full of water, rushed past a squealing pig, faced down an angry-looking goat (probably the one I’d tried to milk the year before), and we ran and we ran and we ran.
We ran so fast that even on our collection of six short stubby legs we finished second out of a field of twelve. When the “winner” was disqualified for spitting on a competitor, Lil’ Al and I were bumped up to first place.
We were the champions! (Cue Queen song here)
I hadn’t seen Lil’ Al since that day, but as I gazed at the photograph my husband had just taken at the Renaissance Faire, I realized that it was time to immortalize my furry friend.
I started writing The Llama of Death that evening, and six months later, I typed “The End.” In the book, zookeeper Teddy Bentley takes Alejandro, the Gun Zoo llama, to a Renaissance Faire, where the child-loving llama spends a blissful day giving children llama-back rides. All appears to be going well until the local wedding chapel owner playing the part of Henry VIII is found dead in the llama pen, and…
Oops. Better not give away too much. I am in the business of selling books, you know.
I wish I knew where the real life Lil’ Al is now. If I could find him, I’d tell him the critics are as beguiled by him as was I. Publishers Weekly said, “Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil test Teddy’s patience and crime solving in this appealing cozy.” Library Journal wrote, “Webb’s third zoo series entry (after the Koala of Death) winningly melds a strong animal story with an engaging cozy amateur sleuth tale. Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal.” The Llama of Death was a hit.
So wherever you are, Lil’ Al…