Rebecca Chance tells us about the experience that inspired her latest novel, Mile High.
‘And then there was this girl on our cabin crew who accidentally took a banana with her to Australia in her carry-on – customs found it, she got fined $10,000 Australian dollars and the airline sacked her, she had to beg them to fly her home, sobbing, the poor cow… ’
It was at that moment, around midnight, over the fourteenth round of cocktails with a group of gay flight attendant friends, that I realised I was destined to set my next book onboard a plane. I had the most amazing source material - fantastic anecdotes from my glamorous, flamboyant guys, who between them had seen and done everything there was to do at thirty thousand feet. The title was there immediately: MILE HIGH. And as soon as the title popped into my head, so did the concept – the whole book should take place up in the air, on one long flight on which the entire cast of characters would be travelling.
I thought about the route the plane would be taking – it would leave from London, as I knew most about British airports, since my cabin crew friends were all based here. Where could it be going? I needed a long-haul flight, for the amount of drama that would happen on board, and obviously it would have to be a glamorous destination, as my books always feature five-star luxury. I toyed with Tokyo, Hong Kong, but Los Angeles emerged the winner because it offered the possibility of timing the book before the Oscars, and it would be more dynamic to have a big glamorous event awaiting some of the passengers. I could have an actress on board who was Oscar-nominated – no, wait, I had written about actresses before. I’d keep an actress, but she could be the second lead. Who else performed at the Oscars? Singers! There are always stagings of the Best Song nominations.
I was listening to a lot of Latino music, and there’s a whole raft of American singers who come from that background, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and of course the Brazilian Shakira. I really liked the idea of having a Latina heroine – I always want diverse characters – and that was how I came up with Catalina, a child star who had been huge in her own country, Argentina, and then conquered the United States, but had been moving so fast on her career that her personal life got left behind.
So now I had my heroine, travelling to LA to perform at the Oscars – but where was the drama? I come from a crime-writing background, so I imagined a murder on board the flight. But that would be almost too much – when someone dies you need to have the body put somewhere, have an investigation. It would skew more Agatha Christie, and though I love Christie, I’m writing thrillers, not detective novels. The thought of ‘thriller’ made my mind jump to having an ongoing drama on board – not a dead body discovered, but maybe a murder that we would see being planned and attempted? But I had used that device before, a murder plot in progress. Besides, it’s so difficult to kill someone onboard a plane and get away with it – only a crazy person would try that.
Mmn, a crazy person. What if they weren’t a murderer, but a stalker? What if they were after my heroine, who by now I had named Catalina? What if they were determined to, ahem, consummate their love for her aboard the plane that was taking her to LA? I really liked this idea, because if I signalled from the beginning of the book that a stalker was after her, I could trail lots of red herrings in front of the reader to make them think that they had guessed who it was, send them through a lot of twists and turns before, hopefully, pulling the carpet out from their feet with the revelation of the stalker’s true identity.
That was the whole backbone of the plot right there. After that, the rest of the characters fell quickly into place. To make the flight extra-important, it should be the maiden voyage; the first ever in this timeslot for the airline. What if it landed at midnight in LA? That would be inherently dramatic, a race to make sure the plane landed precisely at that time between dusk and dawn. The title for the book actually wavered to Chasing Midnight, prompted by that idea, but swerved back to MILE HIGH – it was much catchier and really summed up everything the book was about.
So, for a maiden flight, maybe the owner of the airline would be onboard – I took some inspiration from a well known entrepreneur for his character – and many of the cabin crew would be characters, as they were the ones who would have most freedom of movement around the plane. I had names I needed to use - someone called Angela Stevin had bid at a charity auction to have her name used in one of my books, so that’s what I called the ingénue flight attendant. My friends Karl Frost and Greg Herren, all current or ex cabin crew, had been amazing sources of information, so their names went in, as did Kevin and Emma Louise, two bloggers who are really supportive of my books. I’ll often run spur-of-the-moment competitions on Facebook and Twitter for readers who want their names in books, if I have a character name I need, and about six other guys ended up with their names being used, including one who volunteered to be a slutty makeup artist who, ahem, liked to service a gorgeous French actor whose looks were modelled on Olivier Martinez.
There would be a big press conference in London, and one when they landed in LA, to bookend the flight, start and end the book on solid ground. And I’d need other celebrities onboard. I had the actress already. I added a celebrity chef, one who couldn’t keep his hands off women – I’d been meaning to satirise one for years and this was the perfect opportunity. And I invented a first class cabin that would be the dream of anyone who wanted total luxury in the air. I called it Luxe, rather than first, to emphasise how spectacular it was, and had great fun inventing all the lovely details of the pod cabins.
Then I plotted out the book! I knew I would need some flashbacks, but I kept those strictly to my two main heroines, Catalina and the actress, now called Jane, and limited them to their love stories. Otherwise I would confuse the readers – and myself – horribly. Because I now had twenty characters to move around a plane. I had to know where they all were at any given time, and what they were doing. If I didn’t keep the flashbacks limited, it would get much too confusing.
It’s probably the tightest-structured book of mine, and I plotted it so tightly that it was a huge pleasure to write – as I progressed, I could see all the pieces slotting one by one neatly into place, and I found it very satisfying! I had especial fun with all the red herrings. Ideally, the reader should suspect almost every character, one by one, of being Catalina’s stalker, and be taken aback by the final revelation of their identity… fingers crossed my cunning plotting all pays off!