I'd like to welcome M. Louisa Locke to the blog today. She writes the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series.
Kathy: San Francisco at the end of the 1800's has a unique historical vibrancy. What led you to choose this place and time to set your series?
MLL: I did a dissertation for my doctorate in history on late 19th century working-women, and one of the cities I researched was San Francisco. In 1880, this city was unusual for its rapid growth, ethnic diversity, social fluidity, and the sheer beauty of its hills and the Bay. After a detailed statistical analysis of the 1880 Federal Census and years of research reading diaries, memoirs, and other primary documents of the period, I knew the city well, and it was natural for me to pick it as the setting when I wrote Maids of Misfortune, the first of my historical mysteries. Subsequently, I have found that readers, whether they live in San Francisco, have visited there, or would like to visit, are very excited learn about what the city would have been like in the Victorian era.
Kathy: Historical mysteries require an extra special brand of research. What's your favorite method to research this time period?
MLL: Since I spent years doing primary research on San Francisco, I don't do a lot of new research for my novels. However, the internet has made the supplementary research for each story much easier. For example, there are websites that tell you when the sun and moon rose on a given day in 1880, what words were in common usage then, and what a Victorian corset feels like.
Because the parts of San Francisco my novels are set in were devastated by the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, I do have to spend a good deal of time pouring over old maps and photographs to make sure my descriptions are accurate. But I also visit San Francisco frequently, trying to come at the same time of year that the current book is set in to get a feel for the weather, where the sun hits buildings, and so forth. I guess that is the favorite part of my research!!
Kathy: Spiritualism as a religion began in the mid 1800's in Western New York and was flourishing by the end of the century. It was not uncommon for fashionable members of society to host seances and seek guidance from the spirit world. Annie Fuller is a "reluctant clairvoyant". How does she see herself in this role and the role of Spiritualism in society?
MLL: During my doctoral research, I was intrigued by all the women who advertised themselves as fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and spiritual mediums in the San Francisco newspapers of this period. I knew that many Victorian era women used their supposed connections with the spirit world to justify participation in non-traditional activities like public speaking and giving medical advice—saying that it wasn’t them—but the spirits they were channeling—who were responsible. So it made sense to me that if my protagonist, Annie Fuller, had special economic expertise (having been educated in finance by her father) that she would have to “pretend” to get her advice from some sort of clairvoyance in order to be taken seriously.
However, she doesn’t claim to get these powers from the spirit world because this touched too closely on people’s religious faith for her comfort (and mine). Instead, as Madam Sibyl, she pretends to read her clients’ palms or cast their horoscopes. In Uneasy Spirits, Annie’s discomfort with her pretense is intensified when she is asked to investigate a fraudulent trance medium who is bilking innocent people of their money. At the same time, she also encounters a young woman, Evie May, whose odd clairvoyant talents she can’t explain and an honorable woman whose Spiritualist beliefs are deeply held, leaving her confused about whether Spiritualism was real or not.
Kathy: Bloody Lessons, while a historical cozy mystery, is also described as romantic suspense. I enjoy a bit of romance in my mysteries. What role does romance play in your writings?
MLL: I believe that romance is one of the chief ways to develop important parts of your characters’ personalities. Annie Fuller, a widow who had a disastrous first marriage, is understandably reluctant to get involved again, yet is attracted to Nate Dawson, the lawyer who helps her in her first case in Maids of Misfortune. He, in turn, is alternatively attracted and upset by her independence and flouting of social norms. Their romantic struggles and developing relationship in each book are one way to illuminate the social gender attitudes of the period, and it also provides possibilities for their own personal growth.
However, romance also helps tie the books in the series together. People who read mysteries want the crime to be solved by the end of the book. However, as an author, I want readers to continue onto to the next book—and the mystery of how the romantic relationship between couples is going to develop provides that motivation. Each of my books can be read as a stand-alone, but I would hope that a reader who starts with a later book might be tempted to go back to see how the relationship between Nate and Annie started and then read on to find out what happens next.
Kathy: What first drew you to cozy mysteries?
MLL: As a professional historian, I spent most of my career reading and lecturing about serious and difficult topics like racism, poverty and war. As a result, I wanted to read something lighter for my entertainment. Mysteries in general appeal to me because they provide a puzzle that stimulates my intellect, but I like cozies in particular because they create a world where there is less ambiguity, where the people are generally likeable, and where evil is vanquished. They also have characters and situations that make me laugh. What’s not to like?
Kathy: Do you write in any other genres?
MLL: No. Writing is my second career, embarked upon at the age of 60, and while I like to read in a wide range of genres, I have never had the desire to write anything but historical mysteries. In my senior high school year-book, I wrote that I wanted to write “happy books.” That was 46 years ago, and I can’t think of a happier genre to write in than cozy mysteries!
Kathy: Tell us about your series.
MLL: My Victorian San Francisco Mystery series features Annie Fuller, a young widow who runs a boarding house and supplements her income as Madam Sybil, a pretend clairvoyant. Nate Dawson, a local lawyer and her romantic interest, and the people in her boarding house, aid her in her investigation of crimes. The books are accurate representations of San Francisco in the late 19th century, considering real historical issues like the narrow occupational options for women, the anti-Chinese movement, and the difficulties facing public school, yet the tone is light-hearted and humorous, with a touch of romance.
Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?
MLL: I conceived of my main protagonist, Annie Fuller, over thirty years ago, and I never grow tired of her. I find it amusing that when I first created her, I was just a few years older than she was, and since it took so long for the first book to be published, she is now younger than my own daughter. I suspect Annie Fuller is keeping me young at heart! But I confess, Dandy, the Boston terrier in my books, is my favorite character. I always am happy when I can insert him into a scene, and I even gave him his own short story, Dandy Detects. He reminds me of the two wonderful Boston terriers I had in my life, and he always makes me chuckle.
Kathy: Did you have a specific inspiration for your series?
MLL: While reading a diary by a 19th century San Francisco servant, Anna Harder (who kept getting locked out of the house when she returned from her one night off), I thought about how this was the perfect scenario for a locked door mystery. Then I thought about the fact that very few people would ever read my dissertation about working women, but if I wrote a series historical mysteries, each focusing on a different female occupation, I would be able to educate and entertain at the same time.
Kathy: What made you decide to publish your work?
MLL: Like many authors, I was frustrated by the traditional publishing route. I had no problem getting agents over the years, but never a publishing contract. Then small press I worked with went out of business before the first book ever saw the light of day. I also had friends who had successfully sold books in the 1990s, but a decade later couldn’t even get an agent to look at their work. I decided I didn’t want to spend my retirement years fruitlessly wasting time sending my one book out to agents and editors. So, fascinated by the opportunities that ebooks and independent publishing presented, I took the draft of Maids of Misfortune (written 20 years earlier), and self-published it. It turned out that people liked the book, and at the end of 2 years I was making enough income to retire completely and devote myself full time to writing and marketing my work. Best decision I ever made!
Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?
MLL: Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, and Deborah Crombie.
Kathy: What are you currently reading?
MLL: I am a member of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (you can see website here), and I am currently reading and edition a draft by one of our members, a sweeping Victorian England romance, entitled Gods and Monsters, by V.R. Christensen.
Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?
MLL: Reading has always been my primary hobby, although writing and marketing don’t leave me as much time to read as I would like. Now that I work from home, going out to lunch and talking on the phone with friends fulfills my need for social contact, and I have a water aerobics class 3 times a week that keeps me from becoming ossified wile sitting in front of my lap top.
Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.
MLL: Milk, almond butter, jam, and cheese. My husband gave me a Cheese of the Month Club subscription this year, and boy, am I having fun.
Kathy: Do you have plans for future books either in your current series or a new series?
MLL: My goal from the start was to feature a different female occupation with each of my books. Maids of Misfortune has my protagonist go under cover as a domestic servant. In Uneasy Spirits, it was the world of spiritualists that was described, and in Bloody Lessons, it was public school teaching. In my next novel, I hope to explore the women who made their living as printers and bookbinders. This was one of the oldest skilled trades held by women. In 1880, since the San Francisco Typographical Union barred women, they were forced to form their own associations. I don’t have a plot yet, but as I do research on this group I am sure I will discover some sort of crime for Annie Fuller to investigate!
But first, I am in the process of writing a short story that will feature Mr. Wong, a character from my first book. Wong was the cook in the household where Annie Fuller went undercover as a servant, and so many fans have asked to have him reappear that I thought I should give him a story of his own.
Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?
MLL: I get to inhabit the world of my imagination, filled with men and women (and a dog called Dandy) that I have deep affection for, and then I get to share those people and that world with thousands of other people and actually make money doing so. I loved being a college professor, but I confess…this is better!