Monday, April 9, 2018

Guest Post! Ann Parker of the Silver Rush Mysteries

Ann Parker is one of my favorite historical mystery authors. Her critically acclaimed and award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series is published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for “editor/writer”). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. 

Needless to say, I was thrilled when she said she would write a guest blog for me. 

Welcome, Ann!

Tell us about A Dying Note.

In this, the sixth book in the Silver Rush historical mystery series, my protagonist Inez Stannert and her 12-year-old ward Antonia have relocated to San Francisco. When the book opens, it is autumn of 1881, about one year after Inez and Antonia departed from Leadville, Colorado. Inez is now managing a music store and is focused on building a new life for herself and her ward. That life threatens to tumble about their ears when the badly beaten body of a young musician washes up on the filthy banks of San Francisco’s Mission Creek canal. Inez and Antonia become entangled in the mystery of his death when the musician turns out to have ties to Leadville, ties that threaten to expose Inez’s notorious past.

Why did you take Inez from Leadville to San Francisco?

It was a natural development for the series, although it took me by surprise. I can’t say I’d planned all along to bring Inez all the way to the West Coast. However, looking back, I realize I had been building toward that possibility from the very first book, Silver Lies.

In Silver Lies and in subsequent books, Inez muses upon how she, her husband, and their business partner ended up settling in Leadville, Colorado. The silver-rush boomtown of Leadville was only supposed to be a “quick stop” along the way to their ultimate destination: San Francisco. But, once Inez’s husband won the Silver Queen Saloon in a high-stakes poker game in Leadville, the three of them decided to stay a while and make money by “mining the miners.” Ensuing events conspired to make that “while” a semi-permanent situation. In What Gold Buys, the fifth of the series, Inez is finally free to do as she wishes. As I wrote the draft of that book, Inez made it very clear to me that she was going to complete that interrupted journey. (Those characters! Sometimes they just insist on going their own way, despite their creators!)

Was it difficult for Inez, or any independent woman, to run a business in San Francisco by herself?

I was surprised (and pleased) to discover in my research that entrepreneurial activity was alive and well amongst the “fairer sex” in historical San Francisco. I found two items of great help in my research into this topic: Edith Sparks’ book Capital Intentions: Female Proprietors in San Francisco, 1850-1920, and Mary Lou Locke’s PhD thesis ‘Like a Machine or an Animal’: Working Women of the Late Nineteenth Century Urban Far West, in San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles. (Ms. Locke also writes the Victorian San Francisco mystery series under the name M. Louisa Locke.) I discovered that San Francisco women took on the roles of hotel and boardinghouse keepers, laundresses, restaurant and saloon keepers, merchants, dealers, peddlers, dressmakers, milliners, seamstresses, bakers, and more.

One thing I hadn’t considered before looking into this book was the role of marital status. According to Sparks, “… for female business owners, the intangible rewards of small-business proprietorship [these rewards included independence and personal fulfillment] drew only certain kinds of women—those never-married women not legally bound to the care of home, husband, or children.” As long as a woman had drive and capital, she had a chance. So, yes, independent women did step out on their own into the business world. Granted, the numbers of women taking this step was not large in the population as a whole: in the 1890 census, only 6% of all single women in the city’s labor force were listed as business proprietors.

When A Dying Note opens, Inez is manager, not an owner, of the D & S House of Music and Curiosities. However, she is angling for a business partnership on equal terms with the owner, violinist Nico Donato, and even muses about perhaps eventually buying the business from him.

Why did you decide to make music such an element of this book?

Music has always been a running thread throughout the series. I love music, it speaks to me although I am no musician! Music runs through my family, though (both parents played piano, one brother is a professional woodwind musician, and another is an accomplished drummer). When I considered what Inez could do in San Francisco, work-wise, I thought about and discarded the idea of her buying/running a saloon—she pretty much fell into that line of work in Leadville, thanks to her husband and his business partner. Coming into a new city, an unknown, she would, I believe have had a rough go in that profession. Too, Inez now has Antonia to consider. Raising a young girl in such an environment would not be to Inez’s liking.

Given that I had made Inez a pianist from the very beginning (partially as a homage to my family roots, and partially so I could enjoy exploring that world through words), it seemed a natural to position her in the music world in some “steady” occupation. The idea of creating a plot focused on the music world arose from that. Also, I was interested in exploring the labor movement in San Francisco during this timeframe, so I wondered: What were the city’s musicians up to, in terms of labor activities and organization in the late 1870s and early 1880s? What I found out intrigued me, so I proceeded from there.

De Bruijn is a fascinating character. How did he approach you as a potential character and why did you agree?

De Bruijn was a surprise. He popped up in the previous book, What Gold Buys, at the end. Where he came from, I truly have no idea (from the subconscious somewhere), but I liked him and his straightforward and considered ways, so I let him “have his say.” He had such a different “voice” from Inez and from Antonia, I felt he was a good counterbalance to them. I’m always up for an experiment, so I decided to give him a prominent role in A Dying Note, and see how it worked out. I was pleased with the results, so he stays… for now! One can never say for certain what the future holds, but at this point I foresee a role for him in subsequent books.

What’s next?

Next, another book set in San Francisco. There’s much to explore! However, I assure Colorado and Leadville fans I have not abandoned them. I already have plans for a future book in which Inez will journey back to the city in the clouds.

How can readers contact you?

The best way is through my website (which has contact information here). You can also find me rattling around on Facebook and Pinterest, and scratching my head over the mysteries of Twitter.Visit http://www.annparker.net for more information. For more about the books in general and A Dying Note in particular, please visit the Poisoned Pen Press website.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Read, Read, Read

For most of my life, I have been an undisciplined, purely impulsive reader. Back in the days of cheap paperbacks, I couldn’t be trusted in a bookstore because I inevitably emerged with a very large bag of “oh, now that looks interesting!” To be even more honest, I spent hours wandering the streets of San Francisco from City Lights Bookstore to Tro Harper to the basement of the City of Paris to a strange little store below the sidewalk on Geary. I should have been studying, but didn’t I choose to major in world literature at San Francisco State so I could read anything I wanted? As one of my later work managers once said to me in an early performance review: “some people major in something useful. Clearly not you.”

But he was wrong. My reading helped me understand some of the problems faced by people without papers proving birth or marriage who had managed to survive WWII because my job was to adjudicate their claims for earned benefits. It also taught me how to write so I could explain, in understandable language, the decisions made on them. It taught me to look beyond the bubble(s) in which I grew up and later lived. It taught me to question, to analyze, to appreciate the creativity of diversity and how it contributes to a more vital world. Do I still have my blind spots, ignorance, and preconceived notions about how the world could be more to my liking? Yes. What reading wantonly does not allow me to do, however, is accept my blind spots, my ignorance, or my preconceived notions as givens. Inevitably, a little voice whispers in my ear: “maybe, just maybe, you should look at that a little differently…”

In an authoritarian society, fact-based education, creative expression, and reading are dangerous things. The arts, in general, have always threatened the fearful, especially those in power. Look at Stalin’s era and Hitler’s regime. So I think I just might raise a glass to toast the ardent, impulsive, and undisciplined reader. They may be our best weapon, besides committed voters, in assuring the continuation of democracy.

Monday, March 12, 2018

History Is a Mystery

For more years than I care to count, I have been fascinated by George Santayana’s comment that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is often paraphrased to suggest that those who can’t learn from history or do not read it are equally doomed. As I am overly fond of repeating, I agree with all of those statements.

But here’s the problem. History rarely repeats itself precisely. Napoleon and Hitler may have chosen to invade in time to enjoy the Russian winter, but that is one of the unusual instances of such blatant historical stupidity. Applying history to modern circumstances is like dropping a pebble in water and trying to see your face clearly in the ripples. How it is useful in understanding our various catastrophes, which we invariably get ourselves into, demands a long book.

This is a blog. I will indulge in simplistic brevity.

The first roadblock to such an application is that primary source survival is accidental. Think of what has been lost during the many accidental fires, deliberate destructions by revolutions and tyrants, as well as modern era bombings, not to mention bad storage techniques or simple rot. Oral tradition stories, unless written down, die with the last storyteller. Volume and popularity also improve survival rates and thus skew our understanding of an era. Just imagine this: 20th century life seen only through the lens of such popular writers as Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel. This is not a comment on their literary quality. I’m just pointing to the volume of those books printed and the author’s chosen portrayal of human behavior.

The other problem is the loss of period detail, how that affected those who lived then, and problematic modern assumptions made because of that loss. Take the frequency of women dying in childbirth in the past after too many pregnancies and the attendant blow to the general health of women who survived. My mother was born before antibiotics and readily available birth control. As a six-year-old, she witnessed the death of her mother from a childbirth gone wrong, from a pregnancy she should not have had at the age of 47, and after previously giving birth to a minimum of eight other children in 20 years, not counting natural miscarriages. In what is commonly called the civilized world, we rarely see the damage done to a child when a mother dies. We have forgotten that maternal death, in particular, made step-parent relationships the most common family pattern in the past. Without question, modern divorce can create problems with children, but that is often far kinder to them than parental death.

So we must consider the limitations of surviving documents and understand that much has been lost. Historical patterns will tell us, for instance, that democracies die. To grasp why, we must study the details of everyone’s life in an era, not just the powerful. Diversity of viewpoint and experience gives a far more complete picture of an era and offers the chance to find better answers to our own dilemmas.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Give Me Love

Valentine’s Day is long past, but the subject of adult love is never ending.

How’s that for a stunning bit of wisdom? But love is an endless discussion topic, no matter what our age, gender, etc. Why? Maybe because we really don’t understand it?

I’ve never fancied the “and they lived happily ever after” books. That happens, but so does “and they lived miserably ever after”. Marriage is often work. Sometimes the passion isn’t mutual or the transitions from initial romance do not occur equally. Sometimes love doesn’t fit the stereotype. Sometimes it just plain terrifies us.

Have I made love sound downright dismal?

Surprise! There are a couple of happy marriages in my books, but I do try to portray the complexity and fluidity of the emotion. We often think adult love should be “a certain way”, permanent and “proper”. We try to fit it into a straightjacket, then get all panic-stricken when it won’t stay in the fool thing. But rather than get into modern debates on divorce, infidelity, or the changing roles of marital partners, I try to stick to the medieval, while acknowledging that psychology hasn’t changed much in a few millennia.

In the upper classes, marriages were usually arranged for family profit. Some of those unions evolved into a mutually satisfying form of love and partnership. Some most certainly did not. In less property-oriented families, people more often did marry for love. That, too, can be either a delight or a disaster.

There were gay people back then, but the concept of a “homosexual” was nonexistent. (In my chosen era, sodomites included anyone who had non-Church approved sex.) Most gay people, as was expected, married the opposite gender and had sexual relations with their spouses for the approved purpose of begetting children. Many of those marriages were companionable. Like heterosexuals, caught in less than satisfying marriages, gays also had lovers outside the approved union. How gay men and women survived emotionally and formed relationships was fascinating research. For this, I thank my character, Brother Thomas.

Contrary to popular opinion, medievals weren’t na├»ve about lust and sex. It was a largely rural society, and, even in urban areas, cats and dogs did it in the streets and never scared the horses. (Hildegard von Bingen, a woman raised by an anchoress, wrote knowledgeably about sex.) So it should come as no surprise that my Prioress Eleanor, although raised in a convent, was fully aware of sex. With a genuine vocation, however, she assumes she can deal with any temptation, but, when she meets Brother Thomas, her feelings about him would make an NC-17 movie rating blush. How does she handle this? Her journey is another look at the complex nature of love, as is his with her.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Welcome!

Welcome to my new blog!

After several years with the delightful group of authors in the LadyKillers, I realized that blogging is not scary. It’s possible to be irreverent, irrelevant, opinionated, curmudgeonly, or just curious about a topic without coming to any conclusions. In short, it can be fun.

So what can you expect here?

I can’t pretend to be an expert about much. Writing is a craft, not a science, so there are as many opinions on what works as there are authors and readers. After 14.5 books, I may have the right to observations but not to state rules. As for medieval history, I am passionate about it, care to get the details right, and believe the study of history is as crucial as math and science. That said, I have no degree in it and must therefore remain an ardent amateur. I did officially study literature, but all that means is I learned to be an observant reader, a habit as addictive as some opioid, perhaps as dangerous in intolerant societies, but rather useful if one opts to write.

What I can do is present my thoughts on stuff. Not all stuff. My mother tried to teach me that there are three things one never discusses in polite company: religion, politics, and money. Like much else, she only partially succeeded in training me properly. What I won’t do is talk about explicit religion or politics (innuendos allowed), but I can promise never to ask how much anyone earns.

For those who have read my Author Notes or any of the blogs I wrote over the years with LadyKillers, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, at least in tone. For others, who might be dropping in for the first time, I offer a warm welcome, maybe a bit of humor, hopefully the rare interesting thought, and a promise to respond to comments left (should you be so inclined).

My plan is to write an entry every other Monday, so, assuming the Fates are in a good mood and I manage to post successfully, the next entry will be on Monday, February 26th.