Murder and Mayhem: Four Historical Mystery Novels

 

M&M draft final flat

Murder and Mayhem is a boxed set of four historical mysteries written by members of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative that will be only 99 cents between March 22-27.

These four mysteries range in time periods and settings from I. J. Parker’s The Hell Screen, set in Medieval Japan, to Anna Castle’s Murder and Misrule, set in Elizabethan England, to Libi Astaire’s Tempest in the Tea Room, set in Regency England, to M. Louisa Locke’s Maids of Misfortune, set in Victorian San Francisco.

*****

Normally costing you 19.96, this boxed set will be 99 cents until March 27, 2016 and can be found in the following bookstores: KindleKoboiTunesNookScribd and Page Foundry

M. Louisa Locke, March 22, 2016

How realistic must we be when writing historical fiction? Victorian San Francisco Mistresses and Maids

I had planned to write about the social structure of Victorian San Francisco when two recent events got me to thinking about the tension historical fiction authors feels between accurately portraying the past and telling a good story. The first event was a mixed review I got for my most recent mystery, Uneasy Spirits. The reviewer suggested my treatment of the relationship between my protagonist Annie Fuller (who runs a boarding house in addition to being an amateur sleuth) and her staff was “unrealistic” because she treated her servants as friends and permitted them to have a Halloween party. The second event was an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled Nannies––Love, Money, and Other People’s Children, which reminded me how little the has changed between the Nineteenth and the Twenty-first century in terms of the problematic nature of the relationships between employer and employee in the realm of “domestic service.”

As the Times article pointed out, in modern urban America, economic success depends to a large degree on two incomes, which in turn has meant that many families have turned to nannies to care for their children (and I might add, cleaners to clean their houses and gardeners to keep up the yard). In the Nineteenth century, it generally wasn’t women working that increased the demand for servants, rather it was the new urban middle class ideal of gracious living, characterized by a plethora of consumer goods, multiple-course meals, and well-behaved children, Supposedly this was all made possible by an “Angel in the Home,” a middle class wife sitting firmly on her pedestal and making sure that all was quiet and serene when her hard-working entrepreneurial husband came home. This ideal was only possible to achieve if there were servants.

And, as is true today, there was often an uneasy relationship between the middle class women and the people, usually other women, who worked for them. Some of this came from cultural and class differences and some from a sense of guilt on the part of mistresses, who were handing over what is still characterized as “women’s work” to other women and the maids, who were forced by economic necessity to neglect their own families to do the work of other women.

My critical reviewer was therefore, partially correct. Many, maybe even the majority, of Victorian era mistresses would not have had the same friendly relationship with their maids that Annie did. In fact, one of the characteristics of domestic service in that period was the frequency with which servants, usually young and single, left their places of employment-––seldom staying long enough to develop any personal relationships between mistress and maid. The article on modern nannies made it equally clear that the relationship between mothers and the women who take care of their children can still be less than ideal.

But what the critical reviewer said was that the kind of friendly relationship I portrayed in my book would “not be allowed” and was therefore “unrealistic”–ie not real.

But this would only be true if everyone, now and in the past, behaved the way society says they should, and if there were no exceptions to the norm. But there are always exceptions to the norm, and as any professional historian knows, sometimes we can learn as much about the past from looking at the exceptions as we can from looking at what was “typical” behavior. For example, just as the author of the NYTimes article found nannies that had become valued “members of the family,” there is evidence of servants in Nineteenth century households who worked for families for decades, developing bonds of affection and mutual respect. The question an historian would consider is how exceptional were these examples and what factors explain them. But should that be the main question that the author of historical fiction should consider?

Having been both a professional historian and an author of historical fiction, I would argue that, while historical fiction authors are responsible for portraying the past accurately––no motor cars or electric lights before their time­––they are primarily responsible for telling a good story with characters whose behavior the reader can understand and feel sympathy. It is fiction, after all, that we are writing.

I might have given my readers a better idea of the “typical” relationship between mistresses and maids if I had written a story where Annie had a cold and distant relationship with her cook and a story where Kathleen the parlor maid was resentful. However, this would have been an entirely different story, and Annie would have been a completely different character, and I believe the result would not be nearly as entertaining to read.

For example, Annie’s loss of her mother, her odd isolated childhood, her experience with her in-laws as badly treated dependent, all help explain why she would view the motherly cook, Beatrice, as a friend, or feel a sisterly affection for her maid, Kathleen. These relationships help define Annie, make her sympathetic, understandable. In addition, conversations with these servants make the story more dynamic since I can have Annie convey information I want the reader to know through these “friendly” conversations with her staff, rather than have everything come out as interior dialog. Elsewhere I have already addressed why the inclusion of the Halloween Party in Uneasy Spirits was an important plot device. How boring historical fiction would be if it stuck to the narrow confines of what you could prove “actually happened.” I have more than enough footnotes in my past, I don’t need any more.

However, whenever possible I did try to make the information I provided accurate. I made Beatrice and Kathleen Irish, gave the Vosses a Chinese male servant, and had Biddy, a servant in Uneasy Spirits, decide to leave domestic service for a manufacturing job, even though it paid less money, because all these were details based on the facts of San Francisco domestic service (see my blog post on this.)

It also wouldn’t have been historically accurate if I had portrayed every mistress and maid in my books has having had the same kind of relationship. From reading the diaries and memoirs of Nineteenth century domestics I know that some mistresses worked side by side with their servants, sitting down for a cup of tea with them, or asking after the health of their mothers when they came back from a night out, while others didn’t bother to learn their maids’ names, accused them of malingering when they were ill, and exploited them terribly.

In fact, one of the major themes of my first book, Maids of Misfortunes, was the insight Annie got into the life of a domestic servant and how other mistresses behaved (the hard work, the isolation, the snooty up-stairs maid, the uncomfortable intimacy with male members of the household, and the crabby mistress) when she became a domestic servant in order to uncover a murderer. This experience made my protagonist aware of how over-worked her own maid, Kathleen, was and it caused her to hire a laundress to share Kathleen’s workload.

Would a typical mistress be so thoughtful? Probably not. But then how typical was it to have a middle class woman go undercover as a maid? Not very, but that is why it is called fiction. In my choices of how to portray Annie and her relationship with her servants, I kept in mind my audience and the kind of mystery (a cozy––not a gritty explorations of the Victorian underbelly) I was writing.

Interesting side note, twenty years after the period when my protagonist went undercover as a servant, a social worker, Lillian Pettingill did the same thing to investigate domestic service, just as modern day investigative reporter Barbara Ehrenreich did as part of her research for Nickled and Dimed.

Finally, I wonder if authors and readers are holding historical fiction authors to a double standard when they demand complete accuracy, something they seem to do less frequently with contemporary fiction. I say this because the blogs and review comments are filled with discussions of how accurate or realistic historical fiction is or should be, from authors and readers alike. However, I don’t see similar debates over whether or not it is realistic to have circles of cozy quilters all agree to investigate a crime, or have a police detectives solve all her crimes by extracting confessions, or make most fictional private detectives conveniently single without children, so late night stake-outs are no problem. While I suspect that some readers do read contemporary mysteries to learn about the details of police procedures, and I certainly do enjoy learning about places and people and occupations I am unfamiliar with (a small Canadian town with Louise Penny, people living in Alaska with Dana Stabnow, or horse-racing with Dick Francis), I am very willing to suspend my disbelief and assume that they are not writing about those places, people, and occupations with complete accuracy. Yes, as readers we don’t want details to pull us from the fictional world we are inhabiting, but neither should the author agonize that they haven’t made all their characters behave in completely “typical” or “realistic” fashions.

What do you think?

On Second Chances and Role Models: A Tribute to my Father

I just returned from the melancholy task of moving my father into the “memory care” wing of an assisted living facility. My Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about eight years ago, and caring for him has been increasingly difficult for my step-mother. Two weeks ago they both got very ill, my father ending up in the hospital with pneumonia, and the crisis made it clear that something had to change. They live in central Oregon, near one of my step-mother’s daughters, and I live in Southern California. Because my step-mother was so ill herself, when my Dad was ready to be discharged from the hospital, she wasn’t able to take him home, and I flew up to get him settled in the care facility. I spent four days with him, sleeping in his room on an air-mattress, trying to explain to him where he was, and why he was there, and what his life was going to be like. The most difficult part of this task for me, and I think for him, was the fact that he is more highly functioning than most of the residents. This meant that at first he had difficulty interacting with the other residents, but it also meant we were surrounded by vivid examples of what his future might be like with this terrible disease.

My father is a remarkable man. I watched him struggle to find something about his new situation to feel good about. He discovered that if he sang old World War Two songs, almost everyone responded in some fashion, some of the residents actually singing along. When he quoted poetry, people smiled. When he joked with the staff, they laughed and teased him back. He told me the day I left that he thought he could be of help to the staff and other residents, and I know he will be. The staff continues to tell me when I call how much they appreciate him, one saying “He lifts your heart just being around him.”

What I want to write about today in this post is the role model he has been for me, and how he lifts my heart when I think about him.

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Analysis of first quarterly Sales or Can I call myself a real published author yet????

Last year as I was making the decision whether or not to self-publish my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, I read blog after blog post that tried to parse the differences among traditional publishers, small presses, subsidy and/or vanity publishers, and independent or self-published authors. While I found little absolute agreement, I was left with the impression that if you self-published a book that ended up being bought primarily by immediate family and friends, you were probably involved in vanity publishing, no matter what method you used.

This idea was reinforced when I read such statements as those by Jane Smith in her blog How Publishing Really Works that self-published books sold on average “between forty and two hundred copies…”(http://bit.ly/6gvvj2) and that “Despite some highly publicized successes, the average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies–mostly to the authors and to “pocket” markets surrounding them–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order.”(http://bit.ly/LRqxM)

Now to be fair, these numbers for self-published books don’t sound so shabby when compared to the statistics quoted in Chris Anderson’s article, A Bookselling Tail, that, according to the 2004 Nielsen Bookscan, “The average book in America sells about 500 copies” and, in fact, 96% of title sold fewer than 1000 copies.”

Nevertheless, once I published my mystery, I became obsessed with tracking the number of books I had sold, looking for that point when I could tell myself and others that I had safely made it out of the vanity press category. Or, as I put it, I wanted to make sure that writing and publishing Maids of Misfortune wasn’t just an interesting retirement hobby. By the way, the fact that every night I can see how many books I have sold that day by looking at my CreateSpace and Kindle accounts is both a blessing and a curse.

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How to be your own best editor: Part III

This is the third and final post in a series of posts about what I did to ensure that the historical mystery I just published, Maids of Misfortune, was professionally edited. Part I detailed how I worked to develop the skills to be my own best editor. (A necessity for an indie author, but as discussed in numerous blogs, increasingly a necessity for traditionally published authors as well.) Part Two described the actual process I went through as my own developmental editor.

This third post enumerates what steps I followed to substitute for the copy editing that traditional publishing houses provide. Again, I want to thank Alan Rinzler for his definitions that distinguished between the job of developmental editors and copy editors, “who take a manuscript that has already been developed and correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and in some cases fact-checking.” Choosing a freelance editor

In order to ensure I had a clean, well copy-edited final manuscript I followed these steps:

  1. Read my manuscript through, focusing on grammar and punctuation.
  2. Read my manuscript out loud to someone else.
  3. Assembled a team of readers with different strengths to copy-edit for me
  4. Corrected the manuscript after first printing-when new errors were found

Step One

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