Edith here, writing on a lovely late summer day from north of Boston.
I am hugely honored to have Delivering the Truth, my first Quaker Midwife mystery, nominated for a Macavity Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Novel this year. The Macavity Award is named for the “mystery cat” of T.S. Eliot. Each year the members of Mystery Readers International nominate and vote for their favorite mysteries in four categories.
A month from today we will already know who among the fabulous group of nominees is the winner (the award winners are announced on October 12 during the opening ceremonies at Bouchercon) – but we’re all winners just to have received the nomination. I wanted to introduce each of the nominees to you today.
I asked Susanna Calkins, Lyndsay Faye, Catriona McPherson, Ann Parker, and James Ziskin to share their favorite/quirkiest historical tidbit they learned while writing their nominated book, where they learned it, and how they worked it in. Going alphabetically, let’s start with Susanna – although she also writes the furthest back in time of any of us.
Susanna Calkins: The first image that came to me, when writing A Death Along the River Fleet, was that of a distraught woman running across a bridge. I didn’t know who she was or where she was going but I wanted her on a bridge. Unfortunately, the London Bridge–the only bridge to cross the Thames in 17th century England—had been rendered virtually inaccessible after the Great Fire of 1666.
After studying 16th century maps with a magnifying glass, I located the Holborn Bridge, which crossed the mysterious “River Fleet,” a river rarely identified on modern maps. The River Fleet—once a river great enough to carry large Roman ships—had become by the 17th century an “uncovered sewer of outrageous filthiness.” Moving through the Smithfield butcher markets, traversing Fleet Street, and emptying into the Thames, the river had become the Londoners’ dumping ground for animal parts, excrement, and household waste. In other words, the perfect backdrop for murder.
Bricked over in early 18th century, the River Fleet today is considered one of the great hidden rivers of London. Try to find it! But hold your nose.
Susanna Calkins writes the award-winning Lucy Campion historical mysteries, featuring a chambermaid-turned-printer’s apprentice (Minotaur/St.Martins). Holding a PhD in history, Susanna currently works at Northwestern University. A native of Philadelphia, Susanna lives outside Chicago now with her husband, two sons and a cat. She is delighted to be nominated for the Macavity alongside Ann, Catriona, Edith, Lyndsay, and James.
I try to hold to a hard and fast rule with my historicals, which is that if the protagonist doesn’t care about the tidbit, that narrator won’t mention it. But sometimes my copyeditors nail me on fascinating subjects just as a way of double checking. Like guess what I learned during editing Jane Steele?
Pet doors have existed from at least the 14th century.
When your copyeditor asks, “Author, please confirm pet doors existed in 1837,” the author feels a momentary rush of overwhelming how in God’s holy Jesus H. Name will I do that followed by at least twenty minutes of ashen existential despair. After those twenty minutes and some serious headdesking are over, however, you find via none other such venerable source as Wikipedia that 14th century author Geoffrey Chaucer referenced pet doors in “The Miller’s Tale.”
An hole he foond, ful lowe upon a bord
Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe,
And at the hole he looked in ful depe,
And at the last he hadde of hym a sighte.
Following a discovery along these lines, your inclination is to laugh your face off because in the Great Jeopardy Game of Life, both you and your copyeditor can now be superstars.
Lyndsay Faye has been nominated for an Edgar Award, a Dilys Winn Award, and is honored to have been selected by the American Library Association’s RUSA Reader’s List for Best Historical. She is an international bestseller and her Timothy Wilde Trilogy has been translated into 14 languages. Lyndsay and her husband Gabriel live in Ridgewood, Queens with their cats, Grendel and Prufrock. During the few hours a day Lyndsay isn’t writing or editing, she is most often cooking, or sampling new kinds of microbrew, or thinking of ways to creatively mismatch her clothing. She is a very proud member of Actor’s Equity Association, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street Babes, the Baker Street Irregulars, Mystery Writers of America, and Girls Write Now. She is hard at work on her next novel…always.
Catriona McPherson: The best historical nugget I discovered writing The Reek of Red Herrings is the best bit I’ve ever discovered in the course of all twelve books.
I was reading about the wedding customs of the Aberdeenshire fisherfolk in the 1930s and I happened on the explanation for the best man and best maid (maid of honour). Get this: the bride and groom, inevitably prominent during their wedding, might well attract the notice of . . . the devil! If Old Nick’s looking for souls to steal, the buzz around a bride makes her tempting. The best man and best maid are decoys.
And, since the devil is – by anyone’s reckoning – a bit of an odd duck, with strange tastes, the herring fisherfolk made doubly sure the happy couple were protected by also including a worst man and worst maid, with dirty hair and sooty faces, dressed in old clothes and odd boots. You can just about see the connection to sacrificial scape-goats, can’t you?
As to how I included the research in the book . . . my female detective and her male counterpart needed to infiltrate the wedding party. Guess what roles they took.
Catriona McPherson is the multi-award-winning author of twelve Dandy Gilver historical mysteries and six contemporary stand-alones. She lives in California.
Ann Parker: One of the tidbits I picked up, fairly late in drafting What Gold Buys, involved who-did-what when it came to preparing a body for burial in 1880.
It all started when I was searching the internet for photos of 1880s-era embalming tools for my fictional undertaker. I stumbled across this news article about mortician James Lowry, who was preserving “the history of embalming”: http://www.wvgazettemail.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140924/DM07/140929575
The article was great, but I needed more. I started digging, tracked Mr. Lowry down on Facebook (yeah, I did), and sent him an out-of-the-blue inquiry, asking if he would be willing to talk about the embalming trade circa 1880. He responded, kindly, graciously, and quickly. In our subsequent phone interview, he explained embalming was refined in the 1860s during the Civil War and medical physicians not undertakers performed embalming until the first embalming school opened in 1883. What?? I had assumed undertakers did the embalming, much like modern morticians. Visions of mad last-minute rewrites set in. However, Mr. Lowry saved me from despair, noting that in the late 1870s, some undertakers began forming “alliances” with embalming surgeons, adding that art to their skills set. I perked right up, thinking I can work with this! And I did. Whew. I’m forever grateful to Mr. Lowry, for saving me from that particular assumption about the past.
Ann Parker pens the award-winning Silver Rush historical series, featuring Leadville, Colorado, saloon-owner Inez Stannert—a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. http://www.annparker.net
James Ziskin: The favorite tidbit I’ve used in my books is the IBM Selectric type ball. And I had to wait five books for it to be invented before I could slip it in. The Selectric came out in late summer 1961, which disqualified the first four Ellie Stone mysteries. They all take place before that date. Patience paid off in the end. Here’s how Ellie puts the type ball to good use in tormenting her nemesis at the paper, Georgie Porgie (CAST THE FIRST STONE, February 1962):
“Since August of the previous year, the IBM Selectric had been the talk of the newsroom back in New Holland. But Georgie Porgie was the only reporter who got one. And that was a waste. He could barely type his name with one finger. I’d exacted my revenge on several occasions, though, through subtle and not-so-subtle means. Whereas in the past I’d had to pry the green plastic letter covers off the different keys and switch them around to create confusion, the Selectric’s “golf ball” type element meant I could simply remove it and hide it. Or drop it from the fifth-floor window into the street to see how high it would bounce. Other tricks included switching the American type ball for a German one that had come with the machine. It usually took George a paragraph or two before he realized ßomething was öff.”
James Ziskin is the author of the Edgar-, Anthony-, Barry-, Lefty-, and Macavity-nominated Ellie Stone Mysteries. Heart of Stone is a finalist for the 2017 Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Novel.
Edith Maxwell: Since I’m a nominee, too, here’s mine. While I was researching the series, I wondered how I could find out about police procedure in 1880s New England. I struck out at the Massachusetts State Police museum, and my local detective didn’t know where I could learn about it.
I reached out to author Frankie Bailey, who is a college professor of criminal justice and also writes killer mysteries. She suggested I look for a book called The Massachusetts Peace Officer: a Manual for Sheriffs, Constables, Police, and Other Civil Officers, published in 1890. Sure enough, I found a reprint on Amazon. The manual includes all kinds of little case studies and all the regulations a twenty-first-century author could ever dream of.
One of my favorites rules, which I have now used in several Quaker Midwife mysteries and short stories, is that an officer making an arrest is required to touch the arm or shoulder of the person he is arresting. Bingo! Such a small thing, but I think it’s the kind of historical detail that brings stories to life. And the sort of detail each of the nominated authors include in their novels.
So, readers: Which of these fantastic authors have you read? Anyone have fun historical tidbits of your own to share?