Joys of Research with Guest Skye Alexander

News Flash: Skye’s lucky winner is Liz Milliron!

Edith here, writing from the dark days of northeastern MA in mid-November.

But that doesn’t matter when you have a fun new historical mystery to dive into! Please welcome today’s guest, a former denizen of our region, who shares a few areas of research she enjoyed while writing her newly released Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife. Skye is offering an ebook version as a giveaway to one lucky reader.

Here’s the blurb:

August 1925. Jazz singer Lizzie Crane and her troupe land a plum job that could give them their big break in show biz: a week-long engagement celebration for the daughter of a wealthy industrialist to a Russian count. But before Lizzie can enjoy her good luck––and the amorous attention of her employer’s son––she finds the group’s saxophonist stabbed to death. Police suspect her and her musician friends and place them under house arrest, where they’re at the mercy of the very people who have the most to lose if the murder is solved. As Lizzie delves into her slain colleague’s mysterious past, she discovers secrets worth killing to protect and risks her own life in the process.

The Joy of Doing Research

Writing historical fiction requires doing a lot of research, which may sound tedious to some people. But once I started delving into the Roaring Twenties for the first history-mystery in my Lizzie Crane series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, I was rewarded with all sorts of fascinating facts, fads, and trivia.

For example, I learned that Prohibition didn’t outlaw drinking alcohol or serving it in your home, only making, selling, and distributing it were illegal. In the 1920s, police roamed beaches performing “modesty checks” on women bathers by measuring the distance from the bottoms of their swimsuits to their knees. Charles Lindbergh, before he became famous for flying across the Atlantic Ocean, performed air acrobatics in barnstorming events across the central U.S.––his risky demonstrations earned him the nickname “Daredevil Lindbergh.”

The Devil’s in the Details

Because mystery readers are sticklers for accuracy, I had to make sure I got the information right. To that end, I sought resource materials that would provide the details I needed. I purchased a 1925 Sears catalog that showed what ordinary people wore, the products they used, and how much things cost in those days. I bought old postcards, newspapers, and magazines. I downloaded period menus from restaurants to learn what people ate then––Jell-O, it turns out, was considered a classy dessert because it meant the person who served it owned one of the new refrigerators. I found vintage maps on eBay, including a hand-drawn one of Greenwich Village in 1925 that indicated which ethic and cultural groups lived in which areas, and one of New York in 1926 that showed which elevated railways were being transitioned to subways.

To familiarize myself with Jazz Age slang I turned to slang dictionaries including Tom Dalzell’s Flappers 2 Rappers and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II by Marc McCutcheon. There I learned that the convertible one of my characters drives was known as a “breezer” and that a hot-blooded young woman was called a “bearcat,” which became my protagonist’s nickname.

To augment my Sears catalog, I sought fashion advice from style expert Debbie Sessions at Vintage Dancer, who gave me a course in 1920s clothing. To expand my knowledge of jazz, I listened to old recordings and watched performances of Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, and other jazz greats on YouTube. I read books, stories, and plays, and watched movies from the period. What fun!

The Personal Touch

On a few occasions, I talked with elderly people who shared personal stories. A gentleman in his nineties whose parents had owned a grand resort featured in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife recounted his family’s tales of the good old days spent there. Another man whose father worked in the film industry in Los Angeles in the 1920s explained how early records were made. And a woman centenarian told me how ladies tended to their personal hygiene.

Settings are important to me, and the locations in my books are based on actual places. Crane’s Castle in Ipswich, Massachusetts (former summer home of the plumbing magnate Richard Crane) served as inspiration in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife. The second book in my series, What the Walls Know, takes place in an eerie seaside castle much like the Gothic Revival home of inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. in Gloucester. The Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, Massachusetts, designed by Samuel McIntire in 1782, served as the prototype for the mansion in book three The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors. For the sake of authenticity, I visited every house, restaurant, hotel, museum, train station, store, library, factory building, cemetery, and park I’ve written about, from Boston’s Gardner Museum to Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery, from New York’s Penn Station and Carnegie Hall to the fishing docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts. If it’s mentioned in my books, and if such a place still exists––for sadly some have been destroyed––I’ve been there.

 In the process of writing my Lizzie Crane series, I’ve learned about clipper ships, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, art forgery, pipe organs, bootlegging, Ouija boards, merry-go-rounds, elevators, and many other things I didn’t realize I wanted to know. And every day I discover something else.

Readers: Share your story about the Roaring Twenties or another era in the past. I’ll send one commenter an ebook version of my new book.

Skye Alexander is the author of the Lizzie Crane series of historical mysteries, published by Level Best Books (LBB). In 2003, she cofounded the original version of LBB with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. She has over forty fiction and nonfiction books to her credit, her stories have appeared in anthologies internationally, and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. After spending thirty-one years in Massachusetts, Skye now lives in Texas with her black Manx cat. Visit her at http://www.skyealexander.com.

19 Thoughts

  1. Now I’m fascinated by all the stuff you researched. I do love history, so I think I would really enjoy looking at all that. It would be trying to get it right on the page that were terrify me.

    And your new book sounds like so much fun. Congrats!

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    1. I didn’t know I liked history until I started writing this series. I hope you’ll give it a try. Thanks for your kind words.

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  2. I’m old, but not old enough to have memories of the 1920s. However, I love the Jazz Age and would have definitely been a flapper. I also love all the research you have done. I’m not a writer, but I research all kinds of stuff (including visiting as many places as possible) just for the fun of it. Hammond Castle and the indoor pool area is a gas. I’m not familiar with this series, but would love to win a copy of your latest book. Congrats on book #3.

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  3. SKYE: Thanks so much for sharing your detailed research process into the 1920s for your Lizzie Crane mysteries. I agree that discerning readers can pick up even the most minor errors, so I salute your thoroughness and determination in working so hard to portray the 1920s as accurately as you can.

    I don’t know much about the 1920s, except associating certain words from that era: Prohibition, flappers, jazz and speakeasies. I have a mystery author friend who has just written a new book with historical elements from the 1920s. Her modern-day sleuth, Dr Hope Sze, is taking a romantic getaway at a 1920s inn in Windsor ON where she encounters ghosts, stories of Al Capone and stories of Prohibition mayhem.
    The book, White Lightning, is being released on December 1.

    https://melissayuaninnes.com/books/white-lightning/

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    1. I should have added that Melissa found it very frustrating to do in-person research for this book. She wanted to visit historical buildings/places in Windsor and nearby Detroit MI but the pandemic had the Canada-US land border shut down since 2020. In the end, I think Melissa was able to take some time off from work (she is an ER doctor in eastern Ontario) to go on a research field trip this summer to Windsor (but not Detroit).

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  4. Wow! What a fun trip down history lane. I share your excitement of hunting authentic bits that make the story. The onsite visits coupled with grand cyber excursions generate not only facts, but amazing ideas for future stories. I love the universities with free online archives of high-resolution photos and daily newspapers. Thanks, Skye!

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  5. Welcome, Skye! Since I write a series set in the 40s, I have to chase down that book on slang.

    My dad’s grandmother (would that be my great grandmother?) would go to Canada during Prohibition and smuggle bottles of whiskey back in the door panels of her car. She then sold it for a nickel a shot from her kitchen. One night, so goes the story, there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, it was the Chief of Police from her town and the head of customs at the Peace Bridge. They wanted a drink. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your research sounds fascinating! I love history and learning about how people used to live. Now, it’s funny you mention about jello because I know my nana had had an icebox early on but when we’d go to visit, she’d upgraded to a Frigidaire. She always served us jello with cream, which was something I always found to be odd but a great treat. Now I know she must have considered that quite a fancy dessert!

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  7. Research is wonderful! Now I have to read your books – who could resist.

    While I wasn’t born in the 1920s my father was born in 1917. He was a lifelong jazz aficionado and often told the story of walking from his home in Yonkers to Harlem where he would sneak into the Apollo and listen to the music. One of his childhood friends – Ella Fitzgerald. They would often make the trip together, but only when they both had money for the train!

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  8. Thanks for joining us today, Skye. As you know, I loved the book.

    Historical research is the best! When I started writing my Quaker Midwife mysteries, I had no idea how much I would love becoming an amateur historian.

    I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Crane mansion one year, which went into the places where the servants worked: the kitchen, the luggage elevator, the hidden staircases. It was fascinating, and I used a lot of it in Murder on the Bluffs, my second Lauren Rousseau mystery.

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  9. Welcome, Skye! I love the roaring twenties. My grandparents came into adulthood then and I remember my grandmother’s heavy flapper dresses and ostriche feather fans in the trunk in her basement.

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  10. I had an aunt who was a 1920’s Flapper and could dance the Charleston. She was told by her parents to go to school and agreed that Beauty School was the place for her. She was ahead of her times and always used a purple rinse on her hair. It seemed a little strange to younger me, but then I came to understand that it was just her personality. She made great pies, so was a favorite when we all gathered to have Sunday dinner at my grandparent’s home.

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  11. Here are Skye’s replies to most of you. She’ll try again later!

    Mark: I didn’t know I liked history until I started writing this series. I hope you’ll give it a try. Thanks for you kind words.

    ginnyjc: Thanks, Ginny. I would’ve been a flapper too. I agree, Hammond Castle is pretty amazing.

    Grace: Thanks, Grace. I hope your friend’s book is a big success.

    Grant: It’s been fun for me. I agree, the university and newspaper archives offer a lot of great photos and info.

    Liz: What a great story about your great-grandmother. She must have been a very cool person.
    Kathy: Thanks for sharing your experience with Jell-O and your nana. It’s funny to us now, but I think you’re right that she considered it a treat.

    Kaitcarson: How interesting that your father and Ella Fitzgerald were friends! I wish I could’ve talked to him about jazz–he must have had wonderful stories.

    Barbara: I’d love to see your grandmother’s flapper clothes! I’m trying to find some to wear when I give talks.

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  12. Skye, this series sounds terrific. I love historical mysteries and admire your thorough research into the places and language, jazz and customs of that time. Maybe I’ll visit some of these places, too. This book is going straight onto my TBR list. Glad you visited with The Wickeds today.

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  13. I love historical fiction and stories about that time. I would love to win your book. My parents were just kids on the 20’s and 30’s so don’t have any real stories. My mom did go to NYC and worked as the bottom half of the magic act sawing a woman in half ai Coney Islsnd in about 1931.

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