March 25th, 2016, will commemorate the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh last year.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect. For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
It’s not easy keeping track of details in a novel that goes back and forth in time. Or any book of fiction, for that matter. What do I mean by details?
Details relative to the characters could mean simple and obvious characteristics such as eye and hair color, height, weight and age, gender, dress style, likes and dislikes, personality quirks, language and speech mannerisms. Believe it or not, it’s not always easy to remember all of these unless your characters re-appear in several books. I keep a list of all these traits for each of my characters. In fact, for each book that my main characters appear, I re-visit the list to make sure I’ve aged them appropriately. Even a year off will throw your readers into a tizzy.
More important, when dealing with generations of families, or when you go back in history to another time period, chart your way through the years, decades, or centuries involved. Ancestry maps can be helpful.
My current work in progress goes back to World War II with the “grandparents.” In modern time, the “parents” and “grandchildren” are featured. It’s vital to have all those years mapped out. How old were the grandparents in the 1940s? How old are the parents now? The grandchildren? When did they marry? Who did they marry? Trust me, it’s confusing if you just wing it. Your reader will definitely notice that the parents could not possibly have been born if the grandparents were already dead.
Another detail to be meticulous about and I must say I have been remiss in an early book, is language and speech. If a character is from Boston, don’t give him a Brooklyn accent or use an expression that is idiomatic to the wrong region. Same goes for dialect, and, by the way, don’t use too much of it. It’s distracting.
If you use foreign language phrases, please, please, make them correct. A Google translation will give you the basic words, but is the phrasing correct? Do the French, Germans, Slavs, Poles, speak like that? Make it authentic. Ask someone who speaks the language.
It takes time to get the details correct, but in the end, your work will be far more authentic. And your reader will thank you for it.
On a trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I ran across a book: “Staking Her Claim – Women Homesteading the West.” http://www.amazon.com/Staking-Her-Claim-Women-Homesteading/dp/0931271908/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404141756&sr=1-1&keywords=staking+her+claim
I picked it up, thumbed through it and bought it. I found it interesting because first, I didn’t know that women staked their own claim to land in the early 20th century, alone, without husbands or families. Second, because a good deal of their experiences were documented by their writings and I found their prose simple and elegant, often considerably better written than much I read today.
One homesteader, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, described a sunset she witnessed: “It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, the great, bare, desolate buttes.”
The protagonist of the stories are usually the women homesteaders themselves. Other characters are represented by family members or friends, other homesteaders she has encountered and even the locals: rattlesnakes, dust, wind, sagebrush.
The settings were often similar in the western regions with the women settling into valleys and basins and plains at the foot of mountain ranges. They were given unproductive land that the government offered to encourage the development of farms and ranches. Thus homesteaders battled flat, arid desert-like plots dotted with sagebrush rather than pine trees. Water had to be trucked in and sand and dirt were an ever-present companion.
But these women kept journals and wrote letters describing the lifestyle they had chosen. In 1916 Metta Loomis penned: “As for myself, I know of no other way by which, in five years’ time, I could have acquired such riotous health, secured much valuable property, experienced so much joy in living, and infused so much of hope and buoyancy into life, and no other way to provide such cheering prospects for my old age.”
These women homesteaders were independent spirits who escaped from their former lives. May Holiday wrote in 1917 of her new found freedom: “In fact I began to feel it in the air while crossing the Rockies and straight away my former ideas of the importance of class distinction and the observance of social conventions seemed to fall from me like a heavy cloak, which had been a burden – and I was free.”
Their prose was lyrical and their words inspirational. I wonder . . . do we still have the same spirit of freedom and independence? Ideas welcome.
Several readers have asked me when my next book will be out. Here’s an update.
Book 5 is titled Time Lapse and it takes place during Victorian times in London and involves the Jack the Ripper murders. With significant twists and turns and, I hope, a shocking ending.
The modern characters include digital photographer, Maggie Thornhill and her best friend, Rosie, a golden retriever. Frank Mead is the smart but surly homicide lieutenant. Add to the mix, Winston Cain, an FBI agent brought into the case because the crimes cross international borders.
The historical characters started their antics during the Civil War (in Time Exposure) and the villains who got away with treason and murder in the 1860s are now alive and well in the 1880s–committing still more heinous crimes.
Time Lapse is currently in the St. Martin’s Press writing competition, Malice Domestic. St. Martin’s generally selects traditional “Whodunits” and even though my books don’t seem to fit that criteria, I was, indeed, a finalist several years ago for The Triangle Murders. In fact, a judge called me, very excited to nominate it.
One of the problems with writing non-traditional mysteries, as my agent once told me, is that publishers don’t know how to market them. Are they history, mystery, technology, science, what? In any case, Time Lapse will not be published before late spring, early summer.
In the meantime, I have started work on a sixth mystery. In this one, I return to World War II and the Nazis. The historic story takes place in Berlin from 1933 to 1945. This time the connection is not art, but music. The rough premise is that, through a number of deviation gyrations, a German musician steals the musical compositions of a Jewish musician. The repercussions are felt generations later amidst murder and mayhem in New York City. The working title: The Final Note.
In the modern story of The Final Note, Maggie Thornhill must figure out how to authenticate music rather than art, as she did in Deadly Provenance. I have to figure it out first, so now, back to research!
I’ve been asked how I come up with ideas for my mysteries. Maybe this will surprise you, but I start with the backdrop, by which I mean the setting for the book. Since I’m into mysteries that take place in the past, I have myriad choices and I develop my plot around the place or places I want to write about.
To help me decide on a place, I scout around for real life events, crimes, tragedies, disasters that happened in those places at different times in history. This helps me settle on a time period. For instance, being a native New Yorker, I always wanted to write about early NYC history. Maybe turn of the 20th century when immigrants were flowing into Ellis Island by the thousands. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the tragic deaths of 146 workers, mostly women, immediately drew me in. The tragedy itself, the stories behind the women’s lives and the horrible injustice of it all made it the perfect backdrop for a mystery.
Plus, the atmosphere of the time became paramount. The wretched tenements and sweat shops, the little pleasure these young women had, trying to help support their families, and the fight for better working conditions made it a perfect milieu for murder.
Guess who? Guess where?
I set another novel during World War II in both Washington, D.C. and France. As a museum professional I was intrigued with the many stories appearing in the news almost weekly about Nazi confiscated art. So, yes, more wrongs to be righted. Plus, I loved both locales and wanted to do research on location.
I lived for a number of years in New England. Not surprising, my most recent book is set in a small town in Massachusetts, a town infamous for prejudice and scandal. Salem, home of the 1692 witch trials. Could I ask for a place more dark and sinister with grim events of real history? Truly a great backdrop with lots of atmosphere.
Books that stand out in my mind have a setting that I personally find intriguing. Stories set in cold places like Sweden or Iceland, even Minnesota. Or just the opposite: books set in the Louisiana bayous or the humid south. Extreme weather conjures up atmosphere and along with that, characters who must deal with these extremes.
Big cities, mean streets, small, rural towns, exotic lands, different cultures and languages. What kind of backdrop do you enjoy reading . . . or writing about?
This is my second blog on this subject and I have substituted new reviews for the ones in the original piece.
Every so often I visit my book pages on Amazon to see if any new reviews have come in. Some of the initial reviews were family and friends, of course, so I knew they’d be pretty positive. But when the new reader reviews started coming in, I was fascinated. Some were funny, some not so.
Just as in writing a book, writing a review reveals a glimpse into the writer’s true identity — on which side of the political aisle s/he stands. How s/he feels about love, hate, money, ethnicity, religion, values and much more. I learned something from all of them so I decided to share a few with you.
TIME EXPOSURE 5 stars: “Excellent Story! This was a fascinating book. I literally couldn’t put it down. I had seen movies about Booth, but none of them impressed me. This book did. I loved the twists and turns. It was well written with no errors at all. It kept me reading it until I finished.”
TIME EXPOSURE 4 stars: “Kennedy has the knack. This was another fun read…a little over-the-top plot wise but it’s an arguable sequence of events and given the constancy of greed and political corruption I found myself sympathetic to the story. The conclusion is less compelling but I do recommend this one. Lots of Civil War info.”
I’m bummed the reader didn’t like the conclusion. This was a real twist . . . or so I thought. Ah well.
DEADLY PROVENANCE 5 stars: “An author who can capture a period in time as well as Rockwell does on canvas. An intriguing display of mystery and perhaps many ways to look at a long held opinion of a time where nothing was sacred.”
I’d love more of these, wouldn’t you? Honest, I don’t know this person. But I’d like to.
DEADLY PROVENANCE 3 stars: “Art Crime and WW2 Easy fun read…. Detectives and art are always an interesting combination, add ww2 to the mix and it’s a hit.”
What made it three rather than 4 stars?
PURE LIES 2 stars: “Not up to Kennedy’s usual standards. This rework of the Salem Witch Trials is heavy-handed and much too long. I saw the ending coming from mid-book — too bad. I’m a fan of Deadly Provenance. This one …not so much.”
I really appreciate comments like this. It’s honest and she says why she rated it low.
PURE LIES 5 stars: “There are two stories in this book – I definitely recommend it – especially for book club folks. I also think it should be made into a movie. Lynne does her research and picks her subject matter carefully. Greed, real estate values, hysterical young, bored maidens and corrupt (Puritan Clergy) men formulated this tragic, true historical period and got away with it for years. Does this sound familiar? History does repeat itself, which needs to be told.”
It’s obvious to me the reader read this book carefully and culled out some of the important motivations for the witch trials. Thank you!
THE TRIANGLE MURDERS 5 stars: “A puzzle within a puzzle. I very much enjoyed Kennedy’s historical fiction with two murders tied 100 years apart to an actual historic event: the Triangle Factory fire of 1911. I am looking forward to reading more books from this author. Her thorough research and engaging story kept me reading faster and faster. An ingenious plot pulled off extraordinarily well.”
I love the “puzzle within a puzzle!” I’m also pleased that the reader felt I had done my research.
I urge you to check out your own book reviews from time to time. What did you learn? Share them with us.