Skies of Ash

You’re My Inspiration or How a Normal Friday Night Dinner Takes a Left

Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell HallWritten by Rachel Howzell Hall

Readers often ask me, “How did you come up with that idea?”

Readers also wonder, “How does a nice girl like you create twisted and effed-up situations?”

It’s no special thing.

Okay, yeah, it is a special thing. Writing mysteries takes imagination. Imagination and observation and perseverance. And a pen. And a mind that keeps wondering, “What if…?”

Skies of Ash is about one effed-up family. You know, a family like yours and mine. A deadly fire kills a mom and her two kids. The dad, at work, survives, and is desperate to find the truth about his family’s demise.

Didn’t take much for me to be inspired to write this. You, too, would be inspired if you watched the first three minutes of the six o’clock news.

But this story about the Chatmans. It came to me about five years ago, on a Friday night at dinner. I wrote about this occurrence a while back but it was more of an observation then. Well, that observation became a novel. Here’s what happened.

On that Friday night, my husband David and I took our daughter Maya to dinner to Macaroni Grill, a restaurant a little better than Olive Garden but heh, not really. Friday night in Los Angeles means you’re gonna wait for a table. And so we waited on a patio bench.

Seated on the bench across from us was a forty-ish-year-old man. Let’s call him Seth. Cargo shorts. Vans that never saw dirt. Tanned. Next to him sat his fifteen-year-old daughter—we’ll call her Katie—and an eight year-old boy—we’ll call him Konner. Each held cell-phones: Katie held a pink Razr, Konner a cheapie black block, and Seth, an iPhone. Fingers flew on the phone keyboards. No one talked to the other.

Mom—Khaleesi—joined them in her tired St. John pantsuit and department-store pumps. Her blonde shag had been pulled into an elastic band. She stood over family who barely said ‘hi’ as they remained lost in their cyber worlds. Exasperated, she sighed and squeezed into a small space between Katie and Konner. She frowned, then said, “Is this what we’re gonna do all through dinner?”

[Heck yeah, I was eavesdropping. That’s my job. Stop judging me.]

“How was your day?” Khaleesi asked Konner with forced cheer. Eyes still on his phone, he said, “It was just normal.”

Khaleesi turned to Katie. “I saw your B+ on Gradelink. Good job.” Katie, tapping at the buttons, said, “Yeah, it was easy.”

Seth’s phone chimed. He stood and walked over to the outside patio to take the call. Khaleesi eyed him but said nothing.

The hostess said, “Rachel,” and it was time for mac & cheese bites and create-your-own pasta.

But my writer’s mind stayed with Khaleesi and her family. And as I sipped my glass of Cab, I screwed them up even more.

Katie got that B+ but she also killed her gerbil cuz it was a stupid gerbil anyway and she didn’t want it, Gah, mom is so stoopid.

Konner’s day wasn’t special because he was always in the principal’s office for writing ‘fuckfuckfuckfuck’ and drawing snowmen wielding bloody knives. He boosted an iPad once and sold it to a parent.

That call Seth took was work-related—his co-worker’s name is Andy and they found each other on Grindr, haha, small world, and no, he isn’t busy next week and Santa Barbara is beautiful this time of year not that we’ll leave the hotel room.

And Khaleesi. Well, she knows about Andy and Grindr. She also knows that Seth is deathly allergic to onions. Tomorrow, she’s preparing a frittata for brunch. The recipe calls for shallots.

Every story comes from you, dear reader. So keep screwing up. Keep having those affairs and killing gerbils and being all-out assholes. I need you. We all need you. And on behalf of mystery writers and the wonderful publishers that support us, thanks, friend!

Skies of Ash, the second Detective Elouise Norton novel, is out tomorrow!

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Follow Rachel Howzell Hall on Twitter at @RachelHowzell, on Facebook, or visit her online.