Mary, please tell us about your book, Maids of Misfortune.
Maids of Misfortune is the first in a series of historical mysteries and short stories I have written set in Victorian San Francisco. Maids of Misfortune introduces Annie Fuller, a San Francisco widow who owns a boarding house and supplements her income as Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant, giving business and domestic advice. As the book opens in the summer of 1879, a creditor threatens to take away her home, and one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Mr. Voss, dies suddenly. Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, the Voss family lawyer and romantic interest, try to find out the truth about Voss’s death in order to save his family and Annie from financial ruin. In order to do so, Annie goes undercover as a domestic servant in the murdered man’s house. This is a light, romantic, cozy mystery that takes the protagonists from formal parlors to a Charity Ball and a buggy ride through Golden Gate Park to the sea shore, but it also deals with some of the more serious social and economic problems people faced in San Francisco in the late Victorian era.
Was there any research involved for your story? Please explain.
From the beginning, one of my goals in writing, besides providing an entertaining series of mysteries, was to examine the kinds of jobs that women held in the late 19th century. I am fortunate in that I have a dissertation that I researched and wrote for my doctorate in history entitled “‘Like a Machine or an Animal’: Working Women of the Far West at the end of the Nineteenth Century” to fall back on when I need details about my time period or San Francisco. I also have the books I accumulated while writing that dissertation and later when I began to teach U. S. Women’s history as a college professor. However, what I love about writing now is the resources that exist on the internet. Materials that I had had to get through inter-library loan, or go to archives to read in person (1880 San Francisco Chronicle, memoirs and diaries, historical maps, etc) are now often accessible on line. I also love being able to call up Google’s “street view” for modern day San Francisco so I can zip up and down the city’s hills, recreating the terrain of the city in the past.
What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing novels set in the past?
I think the biggest challenge is weaving the historical details so thoroughly into the storyline that it just enhances rather than distracts. People usually read historical fiction because they want to learn about the past, but they also want to be entertained, and too much detail for the sake of demonstrating that the author knows his or her stuff can bring a reader out of the reading experience, which you never want to do.
In addition, readers bring their own ideas about that past to the book, and those ideas don’t always fit the reality of the past. For example, because I am a professional historian who has thoroughly researched my subject, I know that women like Annie Fuller existed, widows who worked as clairvoyants, women who chafed against the constraints of Victorian gender roles. Yet someone who believes that Annie’s ideas are “too modern” and therefore historically inaccurate is going to be taken out of that story, whether they are correct in their notions or not. In my second book in the series, Uneasy Spirits, I actually included chapter quotes from ads for mediums and clairvoyants from the 1880 San Francisco Chronicle as a subtle way of reassuring readers that my fictional character was grounded in real fact.
One of the ways I have tried to handle these problems is also to develop a series of posts to my blog that provide historical details about the people and places found in my books. This way a reader who wants to know more about places like Golden Gate Park in the 1870s, or the economic and social structure of the city, or the relationship between the Irish immigrant and Halloween as an American holiday can do so in my Victorian San Francisco posts.
Have you ever read or seen yourself as a character in a book?
I think that in terms of basic personality, my protagonist, Annie Fuller, reflects my sense of self. Obviously our life histories are completely different, but out general outlook in life is similar. What I find amusing is that when I conceived of the plot for Maids of Misfortune (while working on my dissertation), I was just a few years older than my protagonist, but when I completed the book, so much time had passed that I was now older than Mrs. O’Rourke, Annie’s cook and housekeeper, who I had thought of as quite old when I first created her.
How long did it take you to write Maids of Misfortune?
I wrote the first draft in 1989 in a brief period between teaching jobs, but then I got a very demanding full-time position teaching at a community college, and, except for occasional rewrites, it lay unpublished for 20 years. Once I had semi-retired in 2009, I did a final rewrite and self-published the book as a paperback and an ebook. At the time I just wanted to give the story I had lived with so long a chance to be read beyond my close circle of friends. Since then I have sold over 40,000 copies of the book, making enough income to retire completely and write full-time, a level of success I never expected.
Who designed your book cover?
Michelle Huffaker, who is a personal friend and a graphic designer. She has designed the covers for both of my novels and my two short stories. I loved working with her because I had a very distinct vision for my covers. I wanted authentic Victorian wallpaper as the background and 19th century illustrations for the centerpieces. Michelle gave me exactly what I wanted.
What is your next book project?
I am working on the third book of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, entitled Bloody Lessons. Maids of Misfortune featured domestic service, probably the most prevalent occupation for women in the 19th century, Uneasy Spirits featured Spiritualists, one of the most exotic occupations, and Bloody Lessons will feature teaching, one of the few white-collar professions open to women of the period.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
My main advice is to write the stories you would want to read because you are going to have to live with the world and characters you create for a long time and because if you don’t care about your characters it is a good bet that your readers won’t either.
Second, read. Read in the genre you want to write in, and out of it. Read books about writing and the writer’s life, read blogs about the publishing industry so that you can make informed decisions about your career. There never have been so many options available to writers before, and the business of publishing is changing so rapidly that you need to keep up. If I hadn’t done my research, read the blogs of people like J.A. Konrath, or followed the self-publishing website Publetariat.com, I would never have taken the plunge to be a self-published author.
Third, make sure you develop a team of people (and if possible they should include other professional writers-perhaps as part of a writers group) who will be willing to read your work and comment on it honestly as you begin the process of rewriting and editing. Whether you are planning on submitting to an agent or editor to go the traditional publishing route or you are planning to self-publish, your work is going to have to be a mature and polished as it can if it is going to bring you success.
What is your favorite quote?
”Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 1872.
You asked, and this is what immediately sprang to mind!
M. Louisa Locke is a retired professor of U.S. and Women’s History, who has embarked on a second career as an historical fiction writer. The first two published books in her series of historical mysteries set in Victorian San Francisco, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits,feature Annie Fuller, a boardinghouse owner and clairvoyant, and Nate Dawson, a San Francisco lawyer, who together investigate murders and other crimes, while her short stories, Dandy Detects and The Miss Moffets Mend a Marriage, give secondary characters from this series a chance to get involved in their own minor mysteries. Dr. Locke is currently living in San Diego, where she is working on Bloody Lessons, the next full-length installment of her Annie Fuller/Nate Dawson series. For more about M. Louisa Locke and her work, see http://mlouisalocke.com/or follow her on twitter and facebook.
Maids of Misfortune is free on the Kindle today and tomorrow, August 20 &21.
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Mary Louisa Locke who is the author of Maids of Misfortune, one of our medallion honorees at http://www.bragmedallion.com. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as Maids of Misfortune merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.