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November 14, 2019

Donis Casey on the Genesis of THE WRONG GIRL: The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode I


Donis Casey is the author of the award-winning series of mysteries featuring Alafair Tucker, the sleuthing mother of 10 children, which is set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. In her latest novel, THE WRONG GIRL, Donis shifts her attention to one of those children, Blanche, who makes it to Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties and transforms into the celebrated Bianca LaBelle, a major star of the silent screen. A new series set in a new location and era presented many challenges for Donis, as she explains in this insightful piece.


After Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize, Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes” asked him where he came up with his ideas. Dylan told him they just came to him, rather like magic. I can’t argue with that. When it comes to art, sometimes you simply achieve the right state of consciousness, and the ideas are bestowed upon you out of the ether.

I had spent a dozen years writing a series about Alafair Tucker, who raised 10 rambunctious children with her on a farm in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. The 10th book in that series was set in 1919, and as I began to ponder ideas for my next novel, I realized that the kids were mostly raised now. I started to wonder what was going to happen to each of them in the future. The world is about to undergo a radical change. World War I had changed the face of Europe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 had devastated the planet, and for the first time, the United States had emerged as a great global power, as well as a center of popular culture.

I’ve settled Alafair’s older offspring with spouses and children of their own, but the younger ones are going to be coming of age in a new era. Besides, children don't necessarily grow into the people you wish they would. What would happen to someone who was raised in a secure, loving environment, but grew to lust after adventure and excitement?

So, in order to satisfy my own curiosity and shake things up a bit, I decided to follow one of the children into the Roaring Twenties and see what became of her. As it turns out, she left Oklahoma altogether and had a really exciting life.

A new series set in a new location and era means lots of research. One great resource for learning about the world of 1920s America is silent movies. Besides reading old newspapers and doing historical research, I must have watched dozens of silent movies. Until... eureka! The magic happened, and I realized that the new book should be fashioned like a silent movie, with inter-title cards rather than chapter headings, full of peril and ending on a cliffhanger.

My new time and place necessitated a new tone for the novel, as well. I went from the leisurely twang of rural Oklahoma to the gum-popping rat-a-tat of the East Coasters who populated Hollywood in the early 20th century. When I write the Alafairs, I hear the gentle cadence of my grandmother’s voice. When I write the Biancas, I hear Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

A new series also means that I have to get to know a whole new cast of characters. And what a cast it turned out to be! Mobsters, pimps and movie stars. Ruthless users and kind strangers ready to help a girl in trouble. When an author creates new characters, either for a series or a stand-alone, she may feel a bit like God, making people behave like this or that and causing all sorts of unpleasant things to happen to them. But no matter how much an author thinks she’s in control, eventually the characters develop wills of their own and don't listen to their creator anymore.

What would I be thinking if I were Blanche Tucker, a teenaged girl who had grown up on a remote farm in the middle of nowhere, the eighth of 10 children, who saw her mother and older sisters settled happily into domestic life when, according to the movies and the magazines, the whole world is exploding with glamour and adventure --- just not here in my little hometown of Boynton, Oklahoma?

I didn’t have to imagine how she feels. I remember how I felt as a teen, watching my 1950s-era mother’s life revolve around her children and husband to the exclusion of all else, including her own talents and desires. I loved my mother, but I was desperate not to be her. And I wasn’t.

But guess what? The alternatives didn’t turn out to be all they were cracked up to be, either.

So just like 1960s Donis, 1920s Blanche totally rejects her family’s old-fashioned values and recklessly plunges headlong into the brave new world of the Jazz Age.

Blanche is longing to escape her drop-dead dull life when dashing Graham Peyton roars into town and convinces the ambitious but naive teenager to run away with him to a glamorous new life. Instead, Graham uses her as cruelly as a silent picture villain. Yet by luck and by pluck, taking charge of her life, she makes it to Hollywood, eventually transforming herself into Bianca LaBelle, a major star of the silent screen.

Bianca LaBelle is cocksure, headstrong and headlong. She's also disappointed, wounded and angry. But no matter how much you reject the values you were raised with, you are shaped by them whether you know it or not. Bianca goes from being a sheltered farm girl to one of the most famous and admired women in the world, but she doesn't do it without a whole lot of help, her own creativity, and the bootstrap self-reliance she learned by growing up on a farm in early 20th-century Oklahoma.