Best Historical Novel Nominees

Edith here, delighted to welcome four awesome colleagues.

This year’s nominees for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel agreed to join me on the blog and answer a couple of questions. I am honored to have Turning the Tide included in this brilliant group! The other authors are Rhys Bowen for Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding, L.A. Chandlar for The Gold Pawn, Sujata Massey for Widows of Malabar Hill, and Victoria Thompson for Murder on Union Square. They are all fabulous, well-researched books and I hope you read every single one of them.

So let’s get started. Ladies (in reverse alphabetical order), what bit of research for this book surprised you the most or was the most fun?

Victoria: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. In this case, I had great research thrust upon me, and the result is the plot of Murder on Union Square!  In a previous book, I had mentioned that when my protagonists, Frank Malloy and Sarah Brandt, finally were able to marry (after only 17 books!), they could adopt Sarah’s ward, Catherine. One of my fans, who is an attorney, sent me a long fan letter explaining why this would not be possible. You see, I had introduced Catherine’s previously-unknown parents in an earlier book, and by the end of that book they were both dead. I thought this cleared the way for adoption, since Catherine was now an orphan. My attorney-fan explained, however, that the law considers a woman’s husband to be the father of her children, no matter any evidence to the contrary. Because Catherine’s mother was married to another man at the time Catherine was conceived, the law considered him the father of her child, and since that man was still alive, Frank and Sarah could not adopt Catherine. In fact, this man had every right to obtain custody of the child. For about thirty seconds, I was in a panic, until I realized that resolving this situation could be the plot of my next book, and so it became.  When Catherine’s legal father turns up dead, Frank is charged with his murder because who had a better motive? So this was both a surprise and a lot of fun to resolve. I love my fans!

Edith: When the timing of Quaker Midwife Mystery #3 logically fell in the fall, I realized 1888 was a presidential election year. I virtually (and maybe actually…) rubbed my hands at the chance to address women’s suffrage. The places research will take you! We’ve all seen suffragists in the next century wearing light blue. In Rose Carroll’s day the sashes they wore were sunflower yellow, the color of hope. Women (even though they couldn’t vote for any office other than School Committee in Massachusetts) baked huge Election Cakes (like a big flat fruitcake) and offered pieces outside the polls to entice voters to their party. Women got the right to vote in Wyoming Territory in 1869. In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state and the first state to have full voting rights for women. And so on. I brought Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Amesbury in the book to rally the women in the protest on Election Day. I don’t know that she actually ever came here – but she easily might have.

Sujata: My favorite part of researching The Widows of Malabar Hill was blending real places in early 20th century Bombay with my fictional narrative. I always start this work at home in Baltimore with photocopies of old maps that have the British street names. I’d arbitrarily placed the fictitious law firm where Perveen works at No. 3 Bruce Street, located a small street once full of law firms, that the city government renamed after independence. When I met up with the Parsi woman lawyer who had kindly offered to take me around to old sites relating to Parsis and the legal professional, she said, “You know, I used to work at a very old family law firm in Homi Modi Street. It’s a very historic building dating from the 19th century. When she led me around the corner and I saw the faint paint lettering that said “Bruce Street,” I got a special tingling in my body. Then she led me straight to No. 3, I nearly passed out. Life continued to imitate art when we had tea on the second floor of the building with the firm’s managing director—a very charming and capable woman lawyer!

L.A.: I have taken tours, read all the books I can get my hands on about Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and I’ve watched and listened to a ton of radio broadcasts and archives about his city hall. But the most interesting and surprising is how many eye witness accounts and stories I get from friends and readers! He was mayor of New York for three terms from 1934-1945. But people from all over the country have fun stories about him including my dad who lived in Michigan as a young child, and he still remembered La Guardia’s screechy voice over the radio when he’d read the funny papers while the newspapers were on strike. Another friend’s mother received an award right from La Guardia when she was about twelve for winning an essay contest on fire prevention. She still had the certificate and medal! I gather those little gems and slip them into my books because that’s the kind of gold that makes an era or a person come alive versus what you might read in history books. Especially the funny stories, La Guardia was a hoot. Sometimes the humor of the Thirties can be overlooked and he was hilarious.

Also, the most FUN I’ve had with research is going to speakeasies around New York City (suffering for the cause;-). My favorite was a monthly party in an old speakeasy in midtown where you had to dress up in the Twenties and Thirties style to get in. It was like going back in time! Everywhere I looked there were suspenders and fedoras, flappers, one gal was wearing a white gown like Ginger Rogers. Everyone was sipping cocktails from white coffee-mugs – Prohibition style – and learning little dance steps to the live band. It was magic. I’m actually hoping to have my next book launch for The Pearl Dagger in August at a speakeasy.

Rhys: This book didn’t actually require much research for me. It takes place mainly at an English stately home, a situation with which I’m quite familiar. My husband comes from an upper class British family and we stay with his sister at her fifteenth century manor house every summer. I have met older family members who told tales about the butler and various scandals. I also used to live in a large, drafty country house so I could easily put myself in Georgie’s place.

What was most fun was making Georgie go through what was required in those days when marrying a Catholic. The pressure to convert, having to agree that children will be raised Catholic and those terrifying priests. It was probably quite realistic that a Polish priest could be bribed by a princess with the offer of a good meal!

Next question: Four of us write in more than one era. How did you pick the other era (or eras) and was it daunting to research a whole new time period? L.A., if you were to write about another time than the 1930s, which would you pick?

Rhys: I have written in several eras. My Molly Murphy books take place in early 1900s New York City. My big stand alone novels take place in WWII and most recently with The Victory Garden, in WWI. Everything in the first half of the Twentieth Century, which is fascinating territory for me. However, I have just completed my next stand-alone novel that will feature Queen Victoria. That was a step outside my comfort zone and  did require a lot of research, (including spending a summer in Nice–such hardships we authors undergo).

L.A.: I would love to research some of the artistic areas of NYC and Paris in the late 1880s and early 1900s. All forms of art are really important to me, and you’ll see art as a backdrop to the Art Deco Mystery books. I’m also tinkering with a stand-alone mystery thriller that is both modern day and the early 1980s. Not so much for the love of researching that era –because I was there, I lived it—but because I have a lot to say through old memories and an idea for a good mystery that popped into my head one day.

Sujata: I started out writing fiction set in my current time and location—1990s Japan. I was a journalist in my twenties who thought I could only write accurately about a place and time I was experiencing. When I got older, it was not so important to me to be in hot spots chronicling youth culture. I was choosing to read a lot more historical fiction, a genre I had fallen in love with as a little girl reading books like A Little Princess and Little House in the Big Woods.  I wanted to continue being a writer of fiction for adults—but I wanted both to escape back in time, and to share things about the past that aren’t widely known (the journalist inside me would not go away!) I decided to write books set in India during the waning years of British rule, when Indians began secretly gathering together to figure out ways to take their country back for themselves. I especially wanted to write about this turbulent, divided country from a woman’s viewpoint.

I fixed on the 1920s because this was a period when there really were two women lawyers at work in India, and they had the challenge of trying to help voiceless people like women and children who really had the laws stacked against them. At the same time, there were delightful cultural elements I could share—the old riding clubs, hotels, furniture, cigarettes and cocktails. India at this time had an interesting mix of local tradition and international pizzaz.

Edith: Ooh. My other series are currently contemporary, so the dauntingness comes only from researching a new topic in the late nineteenth century, which I really enjoy. As for writing in yet another historical period, a new series idea popped into my brain recently. I found a photograph of Ruth, my maternal grandmother (the little smiling teetotalling grandma when I knew her), in her early twenties sitting outside on a rock with a rifle across her lap. I learned from a cousin that Ruth lived in Portland, Oregon before marrying and moving to Oakland, California. I also know that Dorothy, my father’s mother – the taller, more reserved one who enjoyed cocktails and her cigarette in a holder – also passed through Portland at the same time. Don’t be surprised if you see a new set of stories one of these years featuring the DR Agency for Ladies in the post-war, post-flu epidemic, and newly enfranchised West of about 1919. One PI who can shoot and another who can drive and fix automobiles (which Dorothy could), both devoted to helping abused or troubled women! As with the late 1880s, there were SO many changes going on in the culture at that time. Layer on the western US, where I grew up, and I think it’s going to be fun.

Victoria: I’ve told my story many times, so most people know that the staff at my publisher, Berkley, came up with the original concept for the Gaslight Mysteries:  a mystery series set in turn-of-the-century New York City with a midwife for the heroine.  I chose to start the series in 1896 because Theodore Roosevelt was the police commissioner then and many interesting things were happening in the city. When I decided to write a second series, my then-editor, Ginjer Buchanan, suggested I research the early 1900s, which turned out to be just as interesting.  I chose to start the Counterfeit Lady series in 1917 because that was the year the suffragists demonstrated outside the White House every single day for women’s right to vote.  My heroine, a con artist, gets herself arrested with them one day when she is trying to escape from a con gone wrong, so that seemed like an excellent time period.  Although it is only 20 years after my other series, many things have changed. America has just entered World War I and I had to research all of that.  I love the research, so it wasn’t hard to learn about this era. What is really hard, however, is keeping straight what did and did not exist during each of the two time periods.  Sometimes I forget which era I’m writing and have to stop and think, “Did they have this?” But that’s only because I’m old and I forget things.

Please check out everyone’s web sites via the link on their names (I am, of course, at edithmaxwell.com). For those of you going to Malice Domestic later this week, we’ll see you there! We hope you’ve loved all our books even though you can vote for only one.

Readers, what’s your favorite historical era to read books set in and why? In your opinion, how far in the past should a book be set to qualify as historical fiction?

34 Thoughts

  1. I cannot possibly choose between these books – they are all excellent, engrossing reads! Wish there could be a five way tie for the award! Maybe more subcategories….looking forward to being at Malice this weekend.

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  2. Congrats to all of the nominees! What a fantastic group of amazing writers. Wishing you the best of luck at the Agatha Awards!

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  3. What great questions and wonderful answers. I really enjoyed your interview with this year’s Historical Novel Agatha Nominees — thanks, Edith! My favorite historical time periods to read about are anywhere from the late 1850s through the Korean War.

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  4. Love to read books from all eras if they are interestingly speckled with accurate to the time period details. That way you really feel you are living in that time period and experiencing the same things the people in the book are. In other words, I love to step into a book when I’m reading it. 🙂

    I use to say historical meant older than me, which pretty much still stands. After seeing cars I grew up with having antique license plates, I might need to be more specific on that. Enjoy the late 1800’s and early 1900’s because they give me a glimpse into the lives of relatives I actually knew. However, love to read even prior to that just for the fact that it’s always interesting to see how we as a people have evolved whether it’s economically, politically or through inventions to make life easier. It all adds up to make us who we are now.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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  5. I’m more about the local than the time period. I love US history, so I prefer American set historicals. Yet most of the ones I read are set in England. Go figure.

    Congrats, ladies! Have fun at Malice.

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  6. It’s exciting to me that I have read most of these books and enjoyed them all. (The ones I haven’t read yet are on my TBR list.) I would love for all the authors to win!

    Like Kay, I find it a bit unsettling that a lot of historical fiction is now set during the years when I was growing up! Yikes! But I enjoy it because I remember it, although only from a child’s viewpoint. It’s enlightening to read fiction from the viewpoint of adults who lived through those times. Recently some friends and I were talking about living through the Cuban Missile Crisis as children; we can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for our parents.

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  7. I love historicals in general, but recently I’ve been really fascinated with those stories set around WWI. I consider historical to be 1970s & earlier. Not sure why I’ve decided that.

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  8. For all those interested in a five way tie at Malice… Edith will remember I had a funny dream that we ended up in a tie. So the powers-that-be decided to break the tie, we’d have an epic Hide n Seek game, winner take all. 😳😂 I woke up laughing. Edith was really fast. Thanks for all your input above! So fun to hear what you all enjoy!

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  9. What a wonderful post! I love reading historical mysteries and enjoy ALL of yours! Good luck at the Agathas. I wish they could give out five awards because you all deserve them.

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  10. I will read historical mysteries in any time period but I count them as being before I was born. Stories set in the 1950’s to now are good but not historical to me. Sorry, younger people!

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  11. I am unable to choose just one book! But I am certainly looking forward to that new series of yours, Edith – sounds like nothing else I’ve read.

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