If you visit Lily Dale, New York, the 19th century birthplace of Spiritualism, that’s one of the first concepts you’ll grasp. It took me awhile to do so, though I grew up a few miles away from the timeworn village of gingerbread cottages populated entirely by people whose religion and livelihood involve channeling Spirit—a.k.a. speaking to the dead.
In my close-knit Roman Catholic family, you didn’t mess around with (insert whisper) psychic mediums. But the scenic lakeside colony was the perfect place for Sunday drives. After mass and a weekly spaghetti dinner with extended family, my parents would take us to a nearby ice cream parlor. Then we’d drive past the gatehouse, shuttered off-season, and into the Dale. Licking soft-serve cones, we’d cruise the gravelly lanes, past homes with signposts that announced the resident medium’s specialty: “Clairvoyant,” “Healer,” “Past Life Regressionist,” etc.
An aspiring author from age nine, I decided Lily Dale would be a great place to set a mystery. About 25 years later, I did.
Many of the Dale’s mediums helped me when I researched my psychological suspense In the Blink of An Eye. Getting to know them, I realized that while many are not without quirks, they’re not warlocks and sorcerers, either. In my Lily Dale fiction, I’ve tried to capture them: caring people who believe that we never die; people who genuinely want to help others grasp that message and connect them to their loved ones in spirit.
I revisited the setting a decade ago for a young adult paranormal mystery series that was an immediate success and optioned by a major producer. But the market was changing and after four titles, the series, like many others, and bookstores, too, became a casualty of industry upheaval.
My career, which includes 80 published novels and many New York Times bestsellers, survived the shakeup, but there were stalls and setbacks along the way.
By 2014, sales were dropping, deadlines were mounting, and I had my hands full with a seriously ill loved one. An editor, Matt, had approached my agent, wanting to take us to lunch to discuss my developing a new traditional mystery series for Crooked Lane Publishing. Off I went, though I cautioned him I wouldn’t have the time or energy or inspiration for a new project for quite some time.
That night, my husband and sons picked me up from the train. When we pulled into our driveway, we spotted a tabby cat sitting on our doorstep. I expected her to run, but she sat there looking at us as if she belonged. I realized she was enormously pregnant. The boys and I gave her milk as my deathly allergic husband sneezed and fled.
The next morning, she was still there, affectionate and meowing. We fed her tuna, and she presented us with a dead mouse. Even my husband was impressed. My sons named her Chance. My husband sneezed. A lot.
I asked Facebook friends if anyone was missing a cat. Nope. I called animal control, but they only dealt with stray dogs. I called rescues. One finally called me back, so overloaded with cats and kittens that it would be a few days before they could help.
Half a dozen healthy newborn kittens later, the new mama developed a life-threatening bacterial infection. I rushed the feline family to the emergency vet in the wee hours, where I learned that the infection would pass to the nursing babies, and Chance probably wouldn’t make it through the night without emergency surgery…which would cost between four and five thousand dollars.
What? Who has a spare five grand lying around? I couldn’t spend that kind of money on a stray cat. Why hadn’t she shown up on some rich person’s doorstep instead?
But there was Chance, dutifully nursing and grooming six newborn kittens even as she was bleeding, gazing up at me like she trusted me to save her.
I asked the ER vet if there was any other option. He said they could try an IV (for a little less than two thousand dollars). If she pulled through the night and kept the infection at bay—very big Ifs–she could have regular surgery on Monday at the vet’s office, which would be considerably less expensive. The staff was sympathetic, and dubious about my decision to go with that option. They kept commenting about the fact that she was a stray. Well, yes—but she was OUR stray. And there were seven lives at stake at that point, not just hers.
I handed over a credit card, drove home, and cried. My husband agreed that if we could save Chance, she would be ours, allergies and all.
I slept three hours, got up at four a.m., and called the hospital. All the kitties were still alive. The nurse said that everyone there had fallen in love with them. “I can see why you went to such great lengths for a stray. There’s something really special and unusual about this one.”
I went to the gym before dawn to swim laps, trying to find peace and meaning amid the chaos. As I swam, clarity seeped over me—along with an idea for a mystery series for Matt. It would begin with a slightly mystical, more-than-slightly pregnant stray cat named Chance who lands in the heroine’s path at the worst possible moment in her life, and leads her…where else? To Lily Dale.
In the end, all seven lives survived, and Nine Lives, the first in my new Lily Dale series, was born. I resurrected my readers’ most loved characters from my YA Lily Dale series, including its heroine, Calla, who makes an appearance in this month’s Something Buried, Something Blue, the second title. Chance and her kittens are back in Book Two, along with Chappy—based on a real life Russian Blue orphaned kitten we rescued last year.
Chappy now lives happily ever after with Chance in our house. Yes, my husband is still sneezing. But taking a chance on Chance was the right thing to do–not just because she was meant to be ours, but because I was meant to write about her, and because there are no coincidences.