Time-Tripping to 1902: The Mary MacDougall Mysteries

By Richard Audry

When I first saw the movie adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, I immediately fell in love with the passionate, rebellious Lucy Honeychurch character.  At that same time, my wife and I had become big fans of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock Holmes series, with Jeremy Brett playing the coldly logical, unemotional detective. I had been toying with the idea of writing a mystery for a while, and I had an inspiration: What would you get if you mashed up Lucy Honeychurch with Sherlock Holmes? And that is the origin story of Mary MacDougall.

My Mary MacDougall series takes place in the Upper Midwest c. 1900 and stars the eponymous 18-year-old heiress, whose unlikely and socially inappropriate dream is to become a consulting detective. I wrote the first book a number of years ago, in period style. And that’s when I stumbled across my first principle of historical mystery writing:

Begin with primary historical source material, if it’s available.

For that original Mary MacDougall novel, I spent weeks in a university library hunched over a microfilm machine, reading newspapers from that period. I immersed myself in the real news and life of the early 1900s. I learned what people were thinking back then, how they were behaving, what the news of the day was at a granular level. Occasionally, serendipity struck, such as the time I stumbled across a full-page feature story titled “Women As Detectives.” The thousands of advertisements were another valuable window on that era.

I also obtained two sources from the period that have proven to be vital. One, which I found in the back recesses of a used bookstore, is a world almanac from 1904, packed with general information—nearly a thousand tissuey pages. Another is my reproduction copy of the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog, now close to falling to pieces.

(Wishbook Web.com is a great source for writers who need details about clothing and products from the mid-20th century and later. It has every Sears catalog of that era. Even if you don’t need it for research, it can also be nostalgic trip back in time. Project Gutenberg is a great place to find thousands of free public domain books from the 19th and early 20th century, including travelogs and non-fiction.)

Doing research for a historical mytery can actually be quite enjoyable, especially if you’re a history buff. We booked a trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island a couple years ago, to flesh out scenes for Mary’s vacation there in A Daughter’s Doubt (Book 3 in the series). The island was a popular tourist destination at the turn of the 20th century, with notables such as Mark Twain booked in for lectures and presentations.

More difficult than doing the research, I think, is deciding what to use. How much is too much? Some readers love rich immersion in historical detail. This seems especially true if you’re writing straight historical fiction. But I think with the historical mystery genre, readers’ expectations are a bit different. When I decide what to include, I have one clear guideline:

The research has to serve my characters and their stories, not the other way around.

In other words, I don’t want to be showing off my research and bogging down the plot. I’ve seen it happen too often. By oversharing research, you run the risk of boring readers and losing them. But determining what to include and what to exclude isn’t easy. For my mysteries, I find that watercolor brush strokes of history work better than photographic specificity. Still, on my second or third reads through the manuscripts, I’ll end up cutting descriptive sections that I know are slowing down the tempo of the narrative.

When I finished my first Mary MacDougall, I received compliments about its authentic voice but the book failed to sell—to agents, publishers, or readers. Discouraged, I set it aside and concentrated on a couple of new contemporary mysteries and an alternative history sci-fi ghost trilogy. A few years back, I revisited that first Mary MacDougall story. I realized my main character was not very likable—more Sherlock Holmes than Lucy Honeychurch.

I decided to give her a personality makeover. And to loosen the restraints that would have actually been put on a young, wealthy woman back in 1901. Which leads me to my next rule of thumb:

I am willing to fudge some historical outlooks and prejudices for the sake of a good story.

That meant, for example, that Mary’s father, a wealthy businessman, needed to be a bit more accepting than might be expected when his headstrong daughter seeks a career in detecting. True, he disapproves and complains and threatens a lot. But he allows Mary to set up shop with her cousin Jeanette, as secretary/chaperone—trusting that the daily grind of business will wear her down. Then, he hopes, she’ll see the sense in marrying some solid man of business. He even grudgingly tolerates Mary’s infatuation with an unsuitable fellow who happens to be an artist—trusting she’ll grow out of it.

And what about Mary’s corset? Where is the lady’s maid to help her put it on? My heiress/sleuth is no hoity-toity duke’s daughter or snooty Manhattan debutante. She’s a practical Midwestern girl who can take care of herself. And she’s also something else that I think is essential in a historical mystery.

Mary is the modern reader’s agent in a tale from the past. Her point of view is closer to ours than to that of a real heiress of 1902.

I want to be able to identify with any protagonist I write, and I want the reader to feel the same. That requires Mary to be kind of a version of you or me. If you or I were in her shoes, we might attempt the same things, which would be in tune with modern sensibilities.

For instance, in the new book, Mary takes up the cause of a street urchin whose most prized possession, a valuable pocket watch, has been stolen. The matter seems trivial, on its face. But her concern is an expression of her awakening notion that homeless children are deserving of justice just as much as anyone. In fact, it’s this particular epiphany that gets Mary in the gravest peril of her career. I believe it’s that sort of thing that makes her resonate with readers in 2020. She is our champion.

Writing about the bawdy, brilliant historical comedy The Favourite, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put his finger right on it: “…all historical reconstruction is a game, and to pretend otherwise—to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own—is merest folly, so why not relish the sport?”

I certainly have relished putting Mary through her paces in her first four adventures. And I have many more plots in mind than time to write them. I’d love to bring her out to the Carmel/Monterey artist colony to try and talk some sense into Edmond Roy, the man she loves who refuses to follow her advice and stay in Duluth. And then there’s the possibility she may go spying in Europe for the State Department—imagine how much fun that story would be to research. There could even be some cloak and dagger during the Atlantic crossing. (A tip of the hat to Jackie for that idea.)

 

RichardAudry (1)In closing, I have a request for writers in this group.

I’m starting work on a non-mystery novel about two young nurses who travel from the Midwest to work in California right after WWII. I’m looking for sources that would give me a flavor of what life in Santa Barbara was like in that period. Any suggestions for books (fiction or nonfiction), articles, websites, or libraries would be much appreciated. You can contact me at drmar120@netscape.net.

 

Here are the Mary MacDougall Mysteries in order, in their Kindle editions. The first three titles are currently available from other booksellers such as Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. A Fatal Fondness will be available in Epub versions later in February.

A Pretty Plot  A Pretty Little Plot

Stolen Star  The Stolen Star

DaughtersDoubt  A Daughter’s Doubt

A FATAL FONDNESS   A Fatal Fondness

Also, please consider visiting my website  and liking my Facebook author page.

 

This article was posted for Richard Audry by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

For a preview of Richard Audry’s A Fatal Fondness, please check out my FIVE STAR REVIEW on my:  Here’s How It Happened – A Fatal Fondness

 

Starting a New Series

by Elise M. Stone

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I put that dream on hold for decades while I got married, had a family, and built a career. It was one of the many things on my “someday” list. Then 9/11 happened, and I realized that “someday” might never happen. If I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get started.

I’ve written nine cozy mysteries in two different series over the past few years. Cozies generally have a romantic subplot, and mine are no different. While writing the last book, I realized I was enjoying writing the romance more than the mystery. What if my next book was a romance novel instead of a mystery? An intriguing question, which I decided to answer.

I began 2019 by starting on a sweet historical western romance series for a change of pace. This has been coming for a long time. Years, in fact, although I didn’t realize it myself at the time.

I have trouble sleeping. In the quiet, my brain is like a hamster on one of those spinning wheels. It thinks of all kinds of things it should not be worrying about at midnight. I have to distract it in order to fall asleep.

OTRW-TotTROne of the things that helps is listening to a podcast of Old Time Radio Westerns. Before most of the classic western series of the 1950s and 1960s were on television, they were on radio. I grew up with those TV series, so the stories, while different, are very familiar. Now I fall asleep to the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke or the less-familiar Frontier Gentleman.

I’ve been absorbing these stories in my dreams for at least two years.

I find the time between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, when cowboys and outlaws and marshals were in their heyday, fascinating. The legends in themselves are romantic.

But I’d forgotten how hard it is to start a new series in a new genre. There are new characters in a new place in a new time.  The people are like cartoon outlines with indistinguishable features. They’re not even wearing any clothes. They’re white blobs like the Pillsbury Doughboy. This is quite a change from going back to my senior citizens in the fictional town of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona, characters I love who live in places I’ve visualized dozens of times.

Another stumbling block is the historical aspect of this series. I often find myself stopped with questions like when did the railroad arrive in Tucson? (1880, which means I can’t use it because my story takes place in 1872.) Or did Philadelphia have mass transit in 1872? (It did: a horse-drawn streetcar.) Or handling issues of diversity for today’s sensitive audience.

The biggest threat to the settling of southern Arizona was Apache raiders. The attitude of most back then was that the only way to solve the problem was to exterminate the Apache. This was the opinion of not only whites, but Mexicans and the Papago, an Indian tribe now known as the Tohono O’odham. In fact, these three groups banded together and massacred a group of over ninety Apaches, mostly women and children, in a peaceful settlement outside Camp Grant in 1871. But not all Apaches were peaceful, and they were a serious problem for the ranchers and miners and homesteaders in the late nineteenth century.

And then there’s the romance plot itself. I bought several books on how to write a romance novel because—ahem—I’d only read one or two of them prior to this year. Unlike cozy mysteries, where I’d read hundreds over the years before I tried to write one, I had no gut feel about how a romance needs to work. A lot of times, I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark.

I know, eventually, the whole story will start playing itself out in my head faster than I can type. I’m looking forward to that stage because that’s when the magic happens. In fact, it happened for a time his past week as I was writing a scene and the characters started interacting in a way I’d never thought they would. I love when that happens. So I’ll keep pushing forward, stumbles and all, because I’m addicted to that magic.

And I love a happily ever after.

 

 

Elise StoneBest Photo Reduced Size Lavender Background 2Brief Bio:

Elise M. Stone was born and raised in New York, went to college in Michigan, and lived in the Boston area for eight years. Ten years ago she moved to sunny Tucson, Arizona, where she doesn’t have to shovel snow. With a fondness for cowboys and westerns, Arizona is the perfect place for her to live.

Like the sleuth in her African Violet Club mysteries, she raises African violets, although not with as much success as Lilliana, who has been known to win the occasional prize ribbon. Elise likes a bit of romance with her mysteries. And mystery with her romance. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while she writes.

Elise StoneAVC Series Six Books
Elise M. Stone
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Elise M. Stone’s article was posted by The Writers In Residence member Jackie Houchin.