Melissa Yi is a Canadian ER doctor who writes medical thriller novels starring doctor-sleuth Hope Sze. One of the books in the series, Stockholm Syndrome, was named one of the best crime novels of its season by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Melissa is also the author of many short stories, for which she has received Arthur Ellis and Derringer nominations. Her story in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2021), entitled “Flamingo Flamenco,” features series sleuth Hope Sze, but takes a step back in time, to before Hope had qualified as a doctor. Location is a critical element in the crafting of a short story and in this post we get a detailed look at how a colorful location inspired a plot. —Janet Hutchings
When I landed at the Las Vegas airport in September 2019, I expected the slot machines flashing at me.
I also expected the all-you-can-eat buffet and the Elvis impersonator checking his phone outside the in-hotel chapel.
But one aspect blew me away.
I’d come to Las Vegas for a romance-writing workshop with Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Halfway through, she brought us to the Springs Preserve and told us to write a short story that had to be inspired by the setting. She said that writing is “150 percent” about setting.
I wandered through the area, and what really struck me was the original Big Spring. Did you know that Las Vegas was originally the site of sacred springs? Me neither.
I considered Las Vegas a desert town with gambling and crooners. But for more than 15,000 years, springs bubbled through the desert floor, providing water to the people, animals, and vegetation. Grassy meadows formed, and Mexican explorers later called the meadows “las vegas.”
I stood quietly at the site where Native Americans had once made annual pilgrimages. They would swim in the springs. It was considered a holy place. Even now, I could see the remains of the waterhouse that once shielded the spring, while the birds tweeted above me. I hadn’t noticed nature anywhere else in the city, but here, I could feel it. It still felt spiritual to me.
The “settlers” came, drove out the indigenous people, and drilled. They’d leave the water exploding into the air, laughing at the water spurting out of the desert.
Of course the giant spring ran dry. Water conservation became a serious issue. They’ve had to drill a lower channel into the aquifer, and the whole region is at risk of future drought.
What should I write for my workshop story? I wanted to know more about the indigenous people—the Pueblo Peoples, the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiutes), and Patayan (ancestors fo the Yuman tribes), but I couldn’t find much information on them.
Okay. Refocus. My story had to be inspired by the Springs Preserve. What about my character?
I wanted to centre around Dr. Hope Sze, my main crime series’ protagonist. But when would Hope go to Las Vegas? She doesn’t have time to sleep properly during her family-medicine residency, let alone party in Vegas.
And how could she fall in love while solving a mystery inspired by the Springs Preserve?
I researched the water supply in Vegas and around the world. There is ample opportunity for crime. “Water is the new oil,” as one of my travel companions pointed out as we travelled together in Egypt.
However, governments and private water companies don’t exactly advertise vulnerabilities in their systems. It’s not something they want to encourage terrorists to target. Plus, I only had a few precious days to write the story while also attending lectures and reading other people’s work. I couldn’t spend all my time on research.
How was I going to make sure everything was entertaining, as well as geographically, legally, and scientifically accurate, solve a crime in 3,000 to 7,000 words, and get Hope a man?
I spun Hope back in time. High-school graduation, to be precise, although I later ended up having to advance that another 2 years to be consistent with her universe.
Hope makes me laugh. Just the way she thinks and talks, and her mother’s fanny pack and father’s chitchat. As writer Kari Kilgore pointed out after reading my story, it’s so hard to be cool when your family is UNcool. So writing Hope was tremendous fun, as well as the romance (Sigh. Love.) and the humour.
Everything was grist for the mill. I wore a black dress to the preserve and was feeling cute, but my friend and author Sean Young greeted me by saying, “I can see sunscreen, especially there.” He pointed at my hairline.
Well, that’s the sort of thing that happens to me. I’m perpetually in a rush, and I mostly make sure that I eat, write, and exercise on top of working as a doctor and trying not to neglect my family . . . but that means I don’t look in the mirror much. Once, I ran out of the ER to eat lunch and bolted back, and a nurse told me I had cheese on my mouth.
Again, no problem! I gave Hope some potential blobs of sunscreen near her hairline too.
But what crime would she solve?
I switched from researching water to the twittering birds in Las Vegas. They exist. I saw and heard them. Someone else must love birds here.
First I found “the hummingbird lady,” Marion Brady-Hamilton. I liked hummingbirds, but no crime story formed in my mind. Her only conflict seemed to be with wildlife regulations.
Then I discovered the story of Turk, a fourteen-year-old helmeted guinea fowl in the wildlife preserve at a resort-casino on the Strip. Three drunken law students were captured on security camera chasing Turk around a corner. I won’t describe what they did to him, but there were witnesses.
Wow. I’d just found my bad guys. I hate people who abuse defenceless creatures.
Writing at a feverish pitch, I also penned the title. “Flamingo Flamenco” popped in my head, so I had to slide in a dance reference between Hope and her love interest, Ryan.
I’m so happy that “Flamingo Flamenco” appears in EQMM. During the pandemic, I’ve reread it a few times, partly to cheer myself up and remind myself of brighter times. We all need love and justice and peace right now.
In real life, I can’t control what happened to Turk, or the minimal repercussions for the law students. I can’t bring back the sacred springs and the grassy meadows.
However, my fiction is my safe zone. Drunken law students may enter, but they will never win.
In “Flamingo Flamenco,” justice prevails. Buck, my fictional helmeted guinea fowl—and Hope and Rya—receive a much happier ending.
After I finished writing, I celebrated by taking the hotel water slide through the shark tank. I’m so myopic, I could barely see the fish and sharks without my glasses.
I slid through the shark tank anyway. Six times.
Viva Las Vegas.