A decade or so ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to perform in the ensemble of an actual stage production in an actual theater in Los Angeles.

The show was a narrative ballet based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It could be described as a vanity production, in the sense that the playwright was helping to finance the show. For the cast and crew, though, that was irrelevant: it was a real job, and everyone took it very seriously.

Those of us in the ensemble – all amateur ballroom dancers – did not get paid. None of us cared about that; we were in it for fun. We went through auditions, acting exercises, choreography, rehearsals, costume fittings, a promotional appearance at an embassy, more rehearsals at the theater, and a few nights of performance. Was it fun? Yes, yes it was.

It was also fantastically educational. When we participated in this stage production, I hadn’t yet begun to write The L.A. Stories. But the experience inspired me to write a novel (Million Dollar Death) which is part of the series, and which mostly takes place during the last week of rehearsals of a low-budget musical. I could not have written that particular book without having had the Poe Ballet (not its real title) experience.

I’ve been a fan of musical theater all my life, and a dancer since moving to L.A. This ballet thing was not the first time I’d stepped on stage. But the last time I was in an actual full-scale show, I was thirteen and wasn’t paying attention. This time, I had 10+ years of experience as a dancer as context for the choreography, the placement of cast members on stage, the specificity of movement. I had ample spare time during rehearsals to observe the primary cast. Not to mention the lighting rigs, curtains, sound board, makeup room, dressing rooms, all the props, costumes, and set pieces, etc.

Then there was the crew. They were all young; I think most of them were under 35, as were the primary cast members. The director, costume designer/wardrobe mistress, and builder/stage manager had all worked together before. In fact, they all lived together. I used a similar arrangement for my novel. The composer knew the person running sound, and the person running lights and effects. And that was pretty much everyone. There were more of us in the ensemble than in the crew.

Because Million Dollar Death is set in and around an active theater during the production of a show, I didn’t just sketch out a plot and some characters. I pulled something out of a dusty old file folder – a musical play written years earlier – and made that the in-story production. I cast every fictional part, hired every technical crew member, even designed the sets. It’s not all described in minute detail in the story, but in order to tell the story, I needed to know what the heckity heck was going on, at pretty much every moment, on the stage.

When I realized I was writing a series, I went back to Million Dollar Death and mined it for characters. Having all that background meant that I already knew how those people connected, and a little bit about them.

No romance character exists in a vacuum. There are many, many series in which the characters all orbit around a social location, or around a particular activity. That’s exactly how people meet in real life, and the question of ‘will s/he like my friends’ is often one that decides whether a relationship will proceed. In this case, it was the question of ‘will he arrest one of my friends.’ (Spoiler: he didn’t.)