by Barb, in Maine, wishing it would warm up just a tick.
Say Happy Book Birthday to Anna Loan-Wilsey. A Sense of Entitlement, her third book featuring traveling secretary and dilettante detective Hattie Davish, releases today.
I first met Anna when we stood next to each other signing books at the Kensington table at Bouchercon in Albany. We discovered in addition to sharing a publisher, we also shared an agent (John Talbot).
Anna’s historical mysteries are set in the 1890s. A Sense of Entitlement brings Hattie to Newport, Rhode Island–i.e. right into Wicked Cozy territory. So we thought release day was a good time to chat.
Hi Anna. Welcome to Wicked Cozys. Your protagonist Hattie Davish is a traveling secretary. Why did you decide that was the occupation for your amateur sleuth, and what attracted you to Hattie?
I originally thought my amateur sleuth would be a librarian since I was a librarian and was told to “write what you know.” But when I decided I wanted to set each book in a different setting (hoping to satisfy both a need to keep the series fresh and satisfy my love of travel), I needed a viable profession for a woman from the 1890’s that could also move about. When I was researching the era, I discovered that lady “typewriters” in typing or steno pools were becoming common, working mostly for big industry. Making the leap from “typewriter” to private secretary allowed Hattie to travel to or with her wealthy employers and enabled me to throw her into a variety situations that would require more of her than her secretarial skills.
Hattie attracted me because she would have to be exceptional at her job to succeed in an occupation typically performed by men while at the same time having to live within the constraints put on women during the late nineteenth century.
Your latest novel, A Sense of Entitlement, brings Hattie to Newport, Rhode Island. Were you able to visit Newport for your research? What did you discover there that you might not have found if you hadn’t gone?
I definitely visited Newport, RI to research my book. I make sure to visit every location where my novels are set as I never know what part of the local history will find its way into my book. And this was no more true than for Newport! Besides discovering the obvious things like the scent of the air, the practical distances between key locations in town and what walking the Cliff Walk would truly be like, I discovered while reading the archived newspapers at the Newport public library, that a telegraph operator’s strike occurred the very week Hattie would be arriving in the summer of 1893. This little tidbit, which took up less than an inch on the page, ended up inspiring the main plot idea of book– pitting Newport’s elite summer residents against the labor movement that was starting to gain momentum throughout the country.
This month on Wicked Cozy Authors we’re focused on research. I’m fascinated by the research historical mystery writers do. How and when do you do your research? How does it weave into the process of writing the novel?
As I mentioned, a major component of my research is my visit to the book’s location. I usually spend 3-4 days there walking the streets, photographing the architecture, and combing the library’s archives, local book collection, period newspapers and appropriate yearly city directories. I literately spend every waking moment trying to soak up the atmosphere, the attitude and the history of a location for as long as I can. (And for Newport, this was a joy to do. It felt more like vacation than work!) One way I’m able to do as much as I do in a short time is by using my digital camera to capture everything from newspapers on microfilm from the exact dates Hattie will be in Newport, pictures of “cottage” gardens in a turn of the century book available only at Salve Regina University library to all the names of the real millenary shops listed in the 1893 city directory or the exact 1893 city atlas. Not only does it save me time but I also capture historic details that I can use later.
After I return home and start writing is when I discover what actual historic details I need. For my first draft, when I want to include a particular detail, I leave a blank space or a note and return later, as finding or verifying a detail can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. To find those details, I’ll consult what I learned on my site visit or if I find I didn’t gather the necessary data, I use books I ordered through Interlibrary Loan from my public library, the internet or my own library of reference books, which includes a encyclopedia of carriages, a history of dining and food in Victorian America, a dictionary of American furniture, a half-dozen “the meanings of flowers” dictionaries and several Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalogs from the 1890’s.
One excellent internet resource is the NY Times Archives Online. Besides my 1900 dictionary, I use the newspaper archive extensively to verify whether certain words and phrases are historically appropriate. I was lucky in that Newport has a long, well-recorded history. I found lots of wonderful books that I consulted that were very specific about the town and the wealthy that summered there, including a book written around 1915 called, Confessions of a Social Secretary, by a woman who worked for a well-known Newport Socialite. The details that provided were invaluable.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on Hattie’s next adventure, A DECEPTIVE HOMECOMING. Unlike the previous books in the series, Hattie is not preoccupied with work but returns to her hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, home of the Pony Express, and site of Jesse James’ demise, for a funeral. Unfortunately for Hattie, the body in the casket is not the person she expected to see.
Thanks for coming by and telling us about your fascinating books, Anna. Readers, do you have questions or comments for Anna?
About Anna Loan-Wilsey
Anna lives in a Victorian farmhouse in the Iowa countryside with her patient husband, inquisitive four-year-old daughter and her old yellow dog. She was born and raised in Syracuse, NY but has lived in Finland, Canada and Texas. She has a BA in Biology from Wells College in Aurora, NY and a MLIS from McGill University in Montreal. She’s a biologist, librarian, information specialist and now with the Hattie Davish Mysteries Series, a novelist.