Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by mystery author Lou Allin.
Writing Historicals: The Addiction That Dare Not Speak Its Name
I confess. I’m a frustrated history graduate who couldn’t get a job in 1966. As decades slid along, I thought the urge for the past had disappeared. After all, I’d given up smoking and drinking without an Intervention.
Then I moved to Victoria, British Columbia. At Bloody Words 2011, our crime-writing conference, I posed as a Gay Nineties hooker along with a cholera victim and a decapitated corpse. We lurked around lampposts on wooden-brick streets at midnight, foghorns moaning in the strait, waiting for Michael Slade, Canada’s King of Horror, to lead his tour our grisly way. One brief sip, and I realized that my addiction had been merely lurking. My trembling research jumpstarted my compulsion to know more and more and more. I couldn’t stop after I began my historical novel, The Woman Who Did.
On the Queen’s birthday celebration in May 1896, an overloaded trolley car collapsed a bridge, killing over fifty people in British Columbia’s capital. That gave me a focus for the period and a whale of an ending. The rest was like diving into a rich, creamy, sweet cappuchino.
Victoria has a rich history beginning with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC=Here Before Christ), the Royal Navy, and a few gold rushes. Hundreds of heritage buildings have been preserved in this Inner Harbour mecca. Because it’s a tourist town capitalizing on this allure, much has been preserved, but an author needs pictures and period maps, the first addiction paraphernalia.
As the new provincial capital, Victoria was razing its old “Birdcages” and building the storybook Parliament that awes spectators today. The iconic Empress Hotel locale was James Bay, a polluted wen with soap-factory effluvium rainbowing the water. Across the harbour was the Songhees Reserve, not million-dollar condos. Sealing ships still plied their shrinking trade. The Navy Pacific Fleet was making the transition from sail as the bluejackets charged into town to raise hell.
The year was pivotal. Horse-drawn traffic kept to the left; cars were on the mainland only. Gaslight had arrived, but electricity was new. Retrofitted plumbing boxed up the outside of older houses. There were call stations for the police and a few hundred wealthier families on the switchboard. Some things never change. Fancy-lady parlours thrived, but poor girls still delivered ten-penny knee tremblers in the alleys.
The police department (first in the West) had moved to the renovated City Hall, but a new prison rose out on Tolmie. As for money, there were fifty-cent pieces as well as twenty-five-cent shinplaster bills and a few American silver Morgan dollars or gold eagles. People were reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Trilby. Name your poison: Cocktails included the Blue Blazer, and soda fountains sold Tin Roof sundaes. The Woman Who Did title came from Kingston author Grant Allen’s bestseller. Just what she “did” might surprise you.
A reprint of an 1897 Sears catalogue served as a bible for clothes, medicine, furniture, timepieces, spectacles, and canned goods. The Daily Colonist, formerly the British Colonist and today’s Times Colonist, was on line, invaluable to provide an eye into the era. Need a maid, a coal delivery, or a share in a copper mine? See page one. I read about the trolley accident and its aftermath, the corpses laid like cordwood on Captain Grant’s lawn and the inquest that night as the jury traipsed from the morgue to an overcrowded funeral parlour. At the page bottom was a tiny but poignant ad for repairing watches soaked in sea water.
For my character’s search on foot, I consulted old phonebooks for businesses in Chinatown. Coloured fire maps recorded even opium factories, legal at the time. I can still walk Fan Tan Alley and Dragon Alley. But not at night. Bastion Square, the old hanging yard, has been preserved.
Fig newtons had arrived, a great snack “When Strolling Through the Park One Day.” Motion pictures in NYC were in the conversation. Sobranie cigarettes and Burberry overcoats made the scene. And the Queen’s daughter, Empress of Germany, was called Vicky, like my murdered prostitute. The telegraph hummed, steamers were passing sailing ships, and it cost a few dollars to go to Seattle or Portland. Bicycles aka “wheels” had just arrived, carrying postmen delivering mail. Slang was a puzzling mixture of British, Canadian, and American words. New York novellas like Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane led me to “out of sight.” People were “chewing the fat,” “going steady,” putting on “glad rags,” and talking about “plutes” and “rats.” Crawling babies were “ankle biters.” I even consulted charts to find out the full moons for April and May that year.
Writing the first book in a historical series is like giving birth to an elephant. Once Jumbo has arrived, everything’s easy and familiar. But once you pick your place and period, know this: it’s like eating those famous chips. You won’t be satisfied with just one. Do you have the nerve enter this forbidden territory? Be warned: There’s no turning back the hands of time once you enter a parallel universe.
Great to have you back. Thank you, Lou.
Born in Toronto, Lou Allin grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her film-booker father relocated. She received a PhD in English Renaissance Literature. In 1977, she returned to Canada, finding herself 400 kilometres north of Toronto in Sudbury at Cambrian College, where she was a professor of English.
With a cottage on a gigantic meteor-crater lake as her inspiration, she published poetry and short stories and began her Belle Palmer series, featuring a realtor and her German shepherd, Freya: Northern Winters Are Murder, Blackflies Are Murder, Bush Poodles Are Murder, Murder, Eh? and Memories Are Murder.
Now retired, Lou has moved to Canada’s Caribbean, Vancouver Island, and lives with Friday the mini-poodle and Zia and Zodie, the agility border collies, in Sooke BC, overlooking the foggy Strait of Juan de Fuca. She is former BCYukon Vice President of the Crime Writers of Canada and received the Derrick Murdoch award in 2011 for her contributions to the organization as well as the Arthur Ellis Best Novella Award in 2013 for Contingency Plan.
Her latest series set near Victoria in Fossil Bay stars RCMP Corporal Holly Martin. And on the Surface Die and She Felt No Pain have been followed by Twilight is Not Good for Maidens. Honour Thy Parents is in the works. Titles come from Victorian poems by Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Arthur Clough.
Lou has two standalones on Kindle: A Little Learning is a Murderous Thing and Man Corn Murders. One is a literary mystery in the Michigan Upper Peninsula and the other takes place in the drop-dead gorgeous but dangerous canyons of the Utah wilderness.
An interest in literacy causes won her a contract with Orca books to write That Dog Won’t Hunt and Contingency Plan, novellas designed to appeal to adults who are reluctant readers. An agent is looking at her historical mystery set in 1896 Victoria, BC. It stars Detective-Sergeant Edwin DesRosiers (The Rozzer) and opens with the murder of a demimondaine who was Edwin’s first love many years ago. At this exciting time in the development of the West, Edwin has the opportunity to meet the young Emily Carr, not yet recognized as one of Canada’s foremost painters. His unique background with a Quebecois father and a Jewish mother gives him many challenges, especially because his father supposedly committed suicide after a number of financial problems.
Blurb of Twilight is Not Good for Maidens
Corporal Holly Martin’s small RCMP detachment on idyllic Vancouver Island is rocked by a midnight attack on a woman camping alone at French Beach. A young boy has seen a “monster” in the park, but his observations are dismissed. Normally only minor thefts and misdemeanours trouble the picturesque seacoast and vacation destination. Then Holly’s constable, Chipper Knox Singh, is accused of sexually assaulting a girl during a routine traffic stop. He’s removed from active duty, but his aggressive female replacement brings more trouble than relief.
As a fatal attack brings public outrage and harsh criticism of local law enforcement, tension rises in the frightened community. How can the assailant move with impunity at night through the dense and dark rainforest to the sheltered beaches? Will young women in Canada’s Caribbean ever feel safe again? As a lowly corporal powerless to conduct the investigation, Holly is frustrated by being on the periphery. After securing each scene and waiting for the inspectors, she must assemble her own clues to the puzzle.
Holly has another more personal concern. In her ongoing search to discover what happened to her long-lost mother, a Coastal Salish lawyer committed to rescuing battered women, Holly claims a familiar family tote bag left on a Washington State ferry. Bonnie Martin disappeared in the wilderness of the central island two hundred miles north. Is Holly being misdirected or one step closer to learning the truth?
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