Ever been in a theme park at night? When it’s dark and deserted? Would that make a great setting for a mystery/suspense novel?
Early in my career I was an ad copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large Southern California theme park. Long before I ever wrote a mystery, I was an avid mystery reader. One evening as the park was closing I strolled down one of the make-believe streets at Knott’s and heard footsteps behind me, the sound echoing off the false-front buildings. I stepped around a corner, paused, and was relieved to see a park employee I knew. It gave me an idea.
Years later, after working for newspapers, writing business books and teaching, I started to write my first mystery. It would be set in a theme park. But what kind? Disneyland has explored so many possibilities already and parks such as Six Flags that just emphasize high-speed rollercoasters didn’t interest me.
Historical villages such as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg had possibilities. You wandered the streets from the 18th century and pretended you were back in time. But what if you could explore recent history, a time some people remembered. The good old days of 1970s rock ’n’ roll, bell bottoms and classic cars? Now there was an idea.
I started building the theme park in my head. It had to be realistic and believable. It would be the setting for a series of novels, the second one of which, Desert Kill Switch, was just released.
I created a former Las Vegas hotel mogul as the developer and set the park in northern Arizona fittingly near a section of old Route 66, the old “Mother Road” of songs and stories. With construction overseen by a Ph.D. in history and culture, Nostalgia City took shape. It became a meticulous re-creation of a 1970s town.
Streets were filled with shops and restaurants such as J.J. Newberry and drive-in burger joints. Visitors could rent classic Mustangs or other muscle cars to drive around the new town. Movie theatres offered titles such as “Jaws” and “The Sting.” Employees wore period clothes are were prohibited from carrying cell phones or anything else that contradicted the dates on the park’s calendars. Park staff, such as cab driver Lyle Deming—one of my protagonists—talked to guests as if it really was 1975 and Gerald Ford was president.
And the music. The Eagles, John Denver, the Carpenters, Linda Ronstadt. All of these artists and more would be heard in record shops and over KBOP, the Nostalgia City radio station.
It all worked. Until someone sabotaged a park ride killing tourists. The mysteries began.