Guest Miranda James-Digging Up the Small-town Dirt

Jessie: In New Hampshire where we finally broke down and turned on the heat!

I met Miranda/ Dean James at the Berkley table at the Malice Domestic Agatha Banquet. I was new to the world of Berkley and he was already the super star he is today. I could not have been more fortunate in a dinner companion. He was gracious and welcoming and charming and funny. He put me at my ease without appearing to work at it. He is a total gentleman through and through. It is with great enthusiasm and pleasure I welcome him to the Wickeds today! 

diggingupthedirt_coverSouthern towns are probably no different from towns in other regions in the U.S. They have a distinct social hierarchy – dominated by either (or both) the ancestral aristocracy or the families with the most money. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. Unless your family has lived in the town or its environs for at least three generations, you’re a newcomer. You don’t know why it’s always been done a certain way. And you may not have figured out all the nuances of hierarchy – like who will belong to certain organizations in town, who will get invited to important functions, who stands a chance of getting elected in local elections. If you can’t remember when John Henry Jones’ great-uncle Erasmus Smith was mayor and caused all that mess over the Rotary Club dinner sixty-seven years ago, well, you can’t really claim to be a native, now can you?

What’s really fun in these towns are the clubs, like the Junior League, the Garden Club, and the various men’s groups. Since I’m writing about two sisters from one of the original families in Athena, however, I decided to focus on one of the traditional women’s clubs you find in most towns, the garden club.

Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce, of course, are on the board – as they are on practically every board in Athena. Not everyone on the board has a similar pedigree, but they are women of position and some wealth. Every group has its own dynamics, and if something happens to upset the equilibrium, well, interesting things can happen.

Like having a prodigal son return – a prodigal son who was the most handsome, most charming, and most desired man in Athena forty years ago. What could possibly happen with this particular fox once more amidst the chickens? That was the inspiration for Digging Up the Dirt.

Readers, are you familiar with social hierarchies and nuances like the ones described? Writers, do you use those sorts of structures in your own work?

Miranda James is the New York Times-bestselling author of the “Cat in the Stacks” and the “Southern Ladies” mysteries. By day Miranda (aka Dean James) is a medical librarian in Mississippi. At other times Miranda spends time with two cats and thousands of books while thinking about the next murder (or two) to commit. Only on the page, of course.

23 Thoughts

  1. Welcome to the Wicked Cozys, Dean. I think you and I know at least one person in common in our “real” lives, which is always funny in this business.

    In the small Pennsylvania city where my parents moved when I was an adolescent (note to parents: this is not a good idea) my mother belonged to the “Thursday Club.” Every year a theme would be selected, like “Greece” and then each woman would write a college thesis level paper, complete with footnotes, on a topic related to the theme–for example some aspect of history or literature, art or politics, modern or ancient. On the week you presented your paper, all the women would come to your house and you would haul out the good silver and china and serve tea, little sandwiches and petit fours. I loved when it was at our house because there were always leftovers. I’ve always found the idea of the Thursday club both charming and sad. These were all college educated women, desperate for some way to keep their brains active. The club goes on today, though much changed since most of the women work. And I’m sure the current membership would raise the eyebrows of some of the original founders.

    In my own work, which is about the people in resorts who work their tails off so you can have a wonderful vacation, I struggle constantly with the issue of how to write about class, because I find most Americans are so uncomfortable about it,

    1. Thanks, Barbara. Yes, I think I know whom you mean. 🙂 Writing about class is hard. I try to tread delicately in sensitive areas, but at the same time I want to present something other than a totally idealized picture of the time and place I write about. Some people are okay with the way I do it, others might object.

  2. Welcome to the blog, Dean/Miranda! All my series are about small towns, although one of them is in 1888, and digging up dirt is always part of the fun. Can you tell us why you’re attracted to writing cozies, and do you write under a female name because most readers of that genre are women?

    1. Thanks, Edith. I posted earlier, but evidently it disappeared into the ether… My intro to mysteries was Nancy Drew, and I’ve always liked amateur detectives. Traditional mysteries (of which the modern cozy is a sub-genre, so it seems) are my favorites: Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, for example. Also classic romantic suspense, like Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart. My all-time favorite: Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. The pseudonyms came about for 2 reasons: my own name, which gets up mixed on the internet with that of a dead movie star; also because NY marketing wisdom says that women who prefer books by women are the readers of my books.

  3. My Salem-based Witch City Mysteries do involve social hierarchies – and in Salem it has always been so. My protagonist Lee and her Aunt Ibby come from “old money.” Aunt Ibby serves on the library board and is a member of the garden club. They don’t flaunt it–it’s just part of who they are.

    1. Carol, I read the first book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have the others in my house somewhere…

  4. Welcome to our blog! My husband served in the military and it has it’s own hierarchy among the wives. Some of that is changing — it’s gone from the Officers Wives Club to the Spouses Club which includes men and enlisted spouses — a fabulous change. Back in the day when a general’s wife decided I should be on the board in a position that was usually filled by a colonel’s wife (and I was a lowly captain’s wife) eyebrows were raised and tongues wagged.

  5. Thanks for the warm welcome! And that kind introduction from Jessie! To answer one of Edith’s questions, I write cozies because my favorite mysteries are the traditional kind, along with classic romantic suspense. Golden Age detective story writers like Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, romantic suspense writers like Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart. I was introduced to mysteries through Nancy Drew, who remains one of my all-time favorite characters. I love amateur detectives and writing about how people who aren’t legal or criminal justice professionals get involved in crimes. Now, as to the second question about pseudonyms… my name is Dean James, and I published seven novels and several non-fiction books under my name. Google me, and you get a lot of hits about a dead movie star. So pseudonyms seemed the way to go. Female pseudonyms, because according to NY marketing intelligence, the prime readers for the kind of book I write are women who prefer books written by other women. The pseudonyms are not great secrets, but they’ve proved more effective than my own real byline.

      1. I love re-reading old favorites, like visiting with dear friends I don’t often have time for.

  6. My gosh, Dean. Your first paragraph describes Mobile exactly. Nice post. When i saw Carolyn at Bouchercon, I thought I might run into you, but sadly you weren’t there. All best wishes for great sales and wonderful reviews for “Digging up the Dirt.” Marilyn Johnston (aka cj)

    1. Thanks! Sorry I couldn’t make it to Bouchercon. Just wasn’t in the cards this year.

  7. Yes, I am aware of them. Even in a small city in the Midwest where I was raised it was obvious.

  8. I’ve never been in a small town, but any group of people have their own hierarchy, official or not. I think it’s a bit more obvious in a small town, or at least the small town of the cozies I read.

    I’ve been really enjoying catching up on your books this year, Dean. Keep them coming!

  9. Small towns are where you identify someone by saying, “Mary? You mean the Mary whose cousin used to be married to my ex-husband’s sister’s brother-in-law?”

  10. I live in a town of 18000 and when I moved here in 1953 there where 1800.We now have 2 sets of hierarchy and I just don’t pay any attention to either. Had coffee at Starbucks yesterday with a visiting son and we were talking books and I brought up Dean’s name as my go to person when I need a author’s name from long ago.You never fail. Our small library has gone through a rough time and no one would listen until a Grand Jury finally did. by then he retired , the money is gone and we now own a vacant lot with no money to do anything with it. Reminded me of a Miranda James book.

    1. Ruth, that’s terrible about your library. The corruption can be so damaging. I’m glad I’ve been helpful with re-connecting to older writers.

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