(Substituting for Robin Agnew)
My name is Mary Ellen Dennis (aka Denise Dietz). I’m addicted to writing books. Reading them, too. Writing and reading and true love and chocolate—life doesn’t get much better than that. Well, maybe watching The Princess Bride or reading a Jeff Cohen mystery while munching crème donuts.
My history-mystery-romance, The Greatest Love on Earth, just made its debut. Despite its romance-y title, there’s a viable mystery within its pages, and, as you may have guessed, it revolves around a circus—an 1875 circus. Here’s a brief description:
Calliope Kelley, star equestrian, has always wanted to be a lady, or, as she calls a lady, a “Mary.” When her circus is torched by a mysterious evildoer, Calliope manages to save the 7-year-old granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Stanhope. She is told that her fiancé, cat tamer Brian O’Connor, was trampled and killed during the fire, so she assumes a new identity: Mary O’Connor. As a ward of the affluent Stanhopes, she becomes engaged to their son, the charismatic black sheep of the family. But she soon discovers the brutality—and vindictiveness—that lurks behind his handsome façade. She is trapped by a deceit of her own making, until she is rescued by Bret Johnson, a.k.a. Jocko the clown, a circus attraction from her past. Bret now owns a gambling establishment, the Cirque de Delices. Unfortunately, Calliope is certain that Bret, as Jocko, was the “evil leprechaun” who torched her circus. Despite that assertion, she agrees to play Cirque Hostess and chair the poker games. Then Brian O’Connor reappears. . .
I can hear you say, “What gave you the idea for a circus historical?”
First, my dad knew famous clown, Emmett Kelley. Emmett would appear with a broom and dustpan in the middle of a huge spotlight. He'd step outside the spotlight and start sweeping it into a smaller circle. Then, smaller. When the spotlight was no bigger than a dinner plate, he'd sweep it into his dustpan. To me, a little kid, it was magic! My heroine, Calliope Kelley, is named for Emmett Kelley.
However, the seed for my circus theme was planted when I researched my saga, Heaven's Thunder (1893 – 1923), and learned that the circus had visited Colorado. A big circus. With elephants! And what was then called a cameleopard (giraffe). Curiosity piqued, I ferreted out background data and found a book with circus dialect. I learned that audience members were called “gillys” and a wee piggy danced a figure eight to the song “Root, Hog or Die.”
During my research I discovered that one circus’s animal act included lions and tigers. I built a whole scene around that. Brian is injured rescuing horses from a train wreck and Calliope is determined to “pirate his act” and perform his role as cat tamer. Later we find out that the perp who killed Calliope’s mum and now wants Calliope dead has pushed a baby carriage—with the circus’s performing pig!—near the cat cage, agitating the cats. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Calliope tucked her shirt more securely into her breeches and her pant legs into her boots. She had bound her breasts and her hair had been stuffed into one of Brian’s caps. Her best idea was to invade Clown Alley and fashion a handlebar mustache beneath her nose. Maybe it wasn’t her best idea. She kept stifling the urge to sneeze.
“I don’t anticipate trouble,” she said. “I’ve known these cats since they were cubs. I’ve fed and watered them.” She wrinkled her nose and adjusted her mustache again. “I’ve even cleaned their cages.”
“It’s different inside the ring,” Brian said.
“I’ve watched you hundreds of times and memorized your every move. I’m not scared.”
“Tigers are the most cunning. Lions give warning, since they have a slow way of turning before they strike. The black panther is a killer.”
“We don’t have a panther. You only mention the word ‘killer’ to frighten me.”
“Will you not agree to either lions or tigers? It’s far less dangerous.”
“No. The posters announced both together.”
Calliope strutted into the ring-sized cage and slammed the door behind her. The chute’s wooden entrance panel opened. The first tawny lion appeared, followed by another. Leo and Duchess. Six tigers entered the cage. Although Calliope had played with them all, even petted their smooth coats, she felt her stomach tighten. The knuckles of the fingers that held her whipstock and hickory club stretched white. She snapped her whip and the beasts settled.
So far, so good.
Not so good. One of the tigers was slinking toward her, his ears flattened, his tail swishing softly. Plato. Sweet, lovable Plato, whose lips were now curled in a nasty snarl.
She snapped her whip.
Plato’s ears twitched forward. His muzzle seemed to expand in a tiger smile as he mounted his pedestal. Calliope could almost hear him purr. Triumphantly, she tossed her head. The cap flew free and her hair tumbled down. At the same time, she sneezed, losing her mustache.
“It’s a girl!” screamed a woman.
Calliope slanted a glance toward the seats. Movement surged like a tidal wave as some women pitched forward in faints while others stood, trying to get a better view. Swooning women outnumbered the avidly curious ones. Clowns climbed the guardrail, carrying vinegar and salts. Damn and blast!
She returned her gaze to the cats. Plato chased his tail, exciting the lions. Calliope could sense the old lion-tiger jungle hatred flare. Sure enough, Leo sprang from his high pedestal, landing within inches of Plato. They both locked together, struggling fiercely for tooth-and-claw advantage.
Calliope brandished her club at the flailing cats then gave Leo a generous clout on the top of his head. The lion let go the tiger’s neck, and Plato scampered through the chute.
Eyes smoldering, Leo turned, glared, and growled.
If you could join a circus, what would your role be?