On Pointe Fiction: Nothing But the Truth (Except for the Parts I Invented)

Dec 28, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Lori Robbins

Life as a ballerina isn’t all tutus and tiaras. By the end of each day, a typical dancer has sweated off her makeup, starved her way through hours of rehearsals, and fended off challenges by rivals young and old. The world of dance is one that’s filled with inherent drama, and the fragility of a dancer’s life lends urgency to the most mundane details. This all makes great copy for a crime fiction writer. A ballerina’s career is brutally short, even without three dead bodies thrown into the mix, so the stakes are always high, both professionally and personally. Realistic details anchor the characters and setting of my On Pointe mysteries, but the plots are pure invention.

The inspiration for the On Pointe series as a whole was a real-life homicide that occurred many years ago at Lincoln Center. I was in the audience when it happened, and although I didn’t find out about it until the next day, the drama of that true crime stayed with me and later found expression in my fiction. The events were a springboard but not a blueprint.

A different, less deadly episode informed my latest book, Murder in Third Position. When The Metropolitan Opera commissioned a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the reimagined set design stirred up a storm of controversy. The singers were terrified of the many moving parts of the set, and even the extras were wary of performing on it. Transported and translated into a murder mystery that’s set in a ballet company, instead of an opera company, made a great backdrop for murder. It also worked as a powerful metaphor for the protagonist, who’s literally dancing on a most dangerous precipice.

I began writing the On Pointe mysteries long after I retired from the stage, and this might be why I wasn’t interested in telling a 42 St. kind of story, about an ingenue who dreams of becoming a star and has her big moment at the very end. In fact, my characters make fun of that trope, even as they can’t help buying into it. Leah, the protagonist, is on the wrong side of thirty, and she’s suffered from what could have been career-ending injuries. Putting her in such a fraught professional situation opened up all kinds of interesting possibilities that work in tandem with the murder investigation.

An added element of tension is embedded in the fact that dancers aren’t simply in competition with each other. They’re also in competition with themselves: their own bodies and their own frailties. The emotions are real, even if the plot is invented, although the line between reality and fiction isn’t always a clear one. Leah’s fraught relationships with food, with her own body, and with her fellow dancers are all grounded in reality. I’ve read and watched many fictionalized accounts of life in a professional dance company, and it really bothers me when the details aren’t accurate. Those elements are something I very much wanted to get right in my books.

Lori Robbins

Nonetheless, writing amateur sleuth mysteries poses a creative challenge of no small proportion. The only way to credibly place a ballerina at the heart of a murder investigation is to somehow make the improbable seem inevitable. For me, the best way to solve the problem is to imagine myself in the protagonist’s place. A deliberate narrowing of Leah’s choices enables her to take the kind of action in Chapter Twenty-seven that would have been implausible in Chapter One.

The narrative arc of each book doesn’t simply rest upon the murder investigation. It also follows Leah’s growth as a human being as she navigates a perilous path in an unforgiving environment. In the end, she learns there’s more to life, and to her, than being onstage. That’s a lesson, and a challenge, that’s part of the fabric of everyday life. Post-pandemic, many have had to rebuild their lives in ways they never imagined they could do. Leah’s story is pure invention. Leah’s life is real.

I enjoy crime fiction that features more typical detectives. There’s something very compelling about an ex-cop, who has a tortured past and a Glock pistol. And there’s undeniable appeal in books and movies that follow the adventures of detectives who possess tech skills an MIT grad would envy. It’s thrilling to watch these pros successfully thwart a global conspiracy.

But that’s just not me, or anyone I know. I’ve never been tempted to get into a high-speed car chase. I still get nervous every time I’m stuck in New York City traffic. But the urge to take bold action, and to be the hero of our own story, is within us all.


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Lori Robbins is the author of the On Pointe and Master Class mystery series. Her work has garnered multiple awards, including the Indie Award for Best Mystery and the Silver Falchion for Best Cozy Mystery. She’s currently a finalist in the Mystery and Mayhem Book Award. Short stories include “Accidents Happen” in Mystery Most Diabolical and “Leading Ladies” in Justice for All. Lori is also a contributor to The Secret Ingredient: A Mystery Writers Cookbook. Her most recent work, Murder in Third Position, released on November 22.
A former dancer, Lori performed with a number of modern and ballet companies, among them, Ballet Hispanico and the St. Louis Ballet. Her commercial work included featured ads for Pavlova Perfume and Macy’s. After ten very lean years onstage, she became an English teacher and now writes full time. As a dancer, teacher, and mother of six, Lori is an expert in the homicidal impulses everyday life inspires.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases.



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