Friday, August 10, 2012

On Inspiration: Interview with M Louisa Locke

A Smoke Backstage - William Harnett

My guest today is M. Louisa Locke, a retired U.S history professor who has recently published the first two books in a series about Victorian San Francisco, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, both best-selling historical mysteries on Kindle. Locke blogs frequently on self-publishing, is a featured contributor to Publetariat, and is on the Board of Directors of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative. She lives in San Diego with her husband, a dog and two cats, and she is working the third book in her series, Bloody Lessons. You can find more about her work on her website and follow her on twitter and facebook.

What or who inspired you to first write?
I have wanted to be a writer since I was about 12; I even put writing as my career goal in my senior high school yearbook. As a rather shy and solitary child, I found books provided me with solace, widened my understanding of the world, and entertained me, and I couldn't imagine anything better than to do something that would bring the same kind of joy to others. While I eventually pursued a different profession, getting a doctorate in history and becoming a college history professor, I never lost my dream of being a writer. So, when I semi-retired from teaching, I pulled out a draft of a book I had been working on for years and rewrote and published it. This book, Maids of Misfortune, set in 19th century San Francisco, weaves in the details I had learned in writing my doctoral dissertation on working women in the American west into a light romantic historical mystery, and it has been unexpectedly successful. It may have taken me fifty years to realize my dream, but it has certainly been worth the wait.

What is the inspiration for your current book?
Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to Maids of Misfortune, was inspired by my curiosity about 19th century Spiritualism (the belief that the dead--as spirits--could communicate with the living.) While I hadn't written about this phenomena in my dissertation, when doing my research I couldn't help but notice the substantial number of females who advertised in the local San Francisco papers in the 1880s that they were clairvoyants, fortune tellers, and trance or spiritual mediums. In Maids of Misfortune I had already made my series protagonist, Annie Fuller, pretend to be a clairvoyant, so that she could use her business expertise to make money (something Victoria Woodhull and her sister, two radical women of the period, had done successfully.) But I also knew that Spiritualism was a popular 19th century religious belief that was taken seriously by educated middle class Victorians, and, as I researched it, I discovered it was also the route that a number of women used to become active feminists. Yet there were numerous stories of "spirit mediums" who were clearly frauds, using the naive beliefs of many to bilk them of money. I wanted to write a book that would illuminate not just these fraudulent practices (with the fun of rigged séances, etc.) but also would examine the reasons why people embraced these beliefs, leaving it to the reader to answer the question of whether or not any of the spiritualists of the time might be the real deal.

Is there a particular theme you wish to explore in this book?
Because I am dealing with a time period of transition for women, (who were beginning to enter the professions in unprecedented numbers, winning the vote in western states, yet being treated as frail sex objects in ridiculous corsets and bustles), one of the themes for all my stories is the difficulty of being an independent woman in the Victorian era. Most of my female characters are independent because they have to be, they are from the working classes, or widowed, and they must support themselves financially. In the case of Annie Fuller, the disaster of an earlier marriage has led her to be particularly wary of losing her hard won financial independence, but it also has made it difficult for her to ask for help, develop an honest relationship with the man who loves her, and even trust her friends. So throughout my series a common theme is the difficulties for both men and women in balancing individual personal freedom with the demands of friendship and family within the context of rigid social mores. (This sounds so serious-but the truth is this theme lends itself to fun arguments between the two protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, and a good deal of suspense.)

What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
The period that most interests me is the late 19th century and early 20th century (broadly 1870-1920), which encompasses the late Victorian and the early Progressive eras in U.S. history. As mentioned above, this was a period of incredible economic, social, and political change, that included two terrible depressions (1870s and 1890s), the rise of modern industrial monopolies, corrupt politics, and a series of reform movements that became the foundation of many of the institutions we take for granted today in America––kindergartens, a juvenile court system, conservation, women's suffrage, the secret ballot (known back then as the Australian Ballot!) child labour laws, work place safety rules,  etc. 

As a woman who came of age in the period of the 1950s and 1960s and was active in the civil rights and feminist movements, I found this period disconcertingly familiar when I began to study it in graduate school. I was particularly interested in how women of that period, like women of my generation, negotiated the difficult tasks of balancing home, family, and work in a society that was either overtly against the idea of equal rights for women or more subtly undermined it by continuing to expect that women would be the primary care takers of the nation's children and elderly.

What resources do you use to research your book/s?
I am fortunate in that I have a doctoral dissertation that I had researched and wrote for 5 years 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. And, since I don't live in San Francisco, I can also look at google street view to remind me of the terrain my characters would be traveling through as they go from place to place.

Which authors have influenced you?
My earliest influence were the Regency Romances of Georgette Heyer that I began to read in high school, when I ran out of books by Jane Austen. I would hope that people who read my books would recognize my homage to the kind of social commentary mixed with romance and humour that these books had. In graduate school I discovered Dorothy Sayers and her Harriet Vane-Peter Whimsy books, particularly Gaudy Night, and these books became the model for how to write literate, thoughtful mysteries with amateur sleuths who are also romantic leads. Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries set the standard for the historical mystery sub-genre for me, and Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in New Mexico and featuring Native American characters taught me the importance of place and character-driven plots to a successful mystery. There are obviously excellent contemporary authors I could draw on, but these above were my earliest teachers.

What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
 Let it go; it usually comes to me later. I like to rewrite, so there is always another chance to come up with the right one.

Is there a particular photo, piece of art, poetry or quote that strikes a chord with you? Why?
While I don't usually use art as a form of inspiration (besides having a variety of music playing in the background while I write) there was one artist who proved to be an inspiration for a character in my first mystery, Maids of Misfortune. When I wrote the first draft of this book in the late 1980s, I decided that one of my characters (Jeremy Voss the murder victim's son) was going to be a unique but misunderstood painter. For some reason, I recalled several paintings I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City a decade earlier, where the artist had worked in a style of extreme realism. This was before the internet provided a handy way of looking up almost anything, so I didn't even know the name of the artist, or the style, but these paintings (and the monumental box sculptures by Louise Nevelson) were the only works of art I remembered from that visit to the museum. From my vague memory of these realistic still life paintings I created my description of Jeremy Voss's work.

Recently, when I was working on rewriting Maids of Misfortune for publication, I decided to see if I could figure out who the paintings were by, what the name of the style was, and if it was at all realistic that my young artist working in the 1870s would paint in a similar style. What I discovered as I did my research on the internet absolutely delighted me. The style is called Trompe l'oeil, and, while it was a style with a long history, the most famous modern artist to work in the style was a19th century American artist named William Harnett. When I looked up what works of his were in the Metropolitan Museum at the time when I visited, there were the paintings I had remembered. Even more astounding, Harnett had done these paintings in the late 1870s and 1880s, which fit perfectly into my time line! So those paintings I saw almost 40 years ago ended up being an important inspiration for my writing.

By the way, I also searched and found pictures of those Louise Nevelson
that I had remembered so well, and I found that at least one of them had been donated to the Museum just a few years before my visit. Who knows, maybe those boxes will show up in some of my future work as well.

Still Life: Violin and Music - William Harnett

What advice would you give an aspiring author?
My main advice is to write the stories you would want to read. You are going to have to live with the world and characters you create for a long time, so make sure you enjoy the process. Second, make sure you develop a team of people (and this should include 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 next project?
I am just starting to outline my third book, Bloody Lessons, which will continue my series on Victorian San Francisco mysteries. While Maids of Misfortune featured details on the experiences of domestic servants, and Uneasy Spirits explored 19th Century spiritualists, this third book will look into the teaching profession––the most popular profession for middle class women and one of the few that provided a living wage for females in the period. In doing my research I have begun to discover that many of the problems that teachers are facing today were very prevalent in 1880 California (public attacks on teachers' salaries, rising class sizes, inadequate funding, and controversies over text book content and the role of religion in the schools) as well as a number of juicy scandals that have provided me with lots of inspiration as I plot this new book.

In this sequel to Maids of Misfortune, it is the fall of 1879 and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, has a problem. Despite her growing financial success as the clairvoyant Madam Sibyl, Annie doesn’t believe in the astrology and palmistry her clients think are the basis for her advice.

Kathleen Hennessey, Annie Fuller’s young Irish maid, has a plan. When her mistress is asked to expose a fraudulent trance medium, Arabella Frampton, Kathleen is determined to assist in the investigation, just like the Pinkerton detectives she has read about in the dime novels.

Nate Dawson, up-and-coming San Francisco lawyer, has a dilemma. He wants to marry the unconventional Annie Fuller, but he doesn’t feel he can reveal his true feelings until he has a way to make enough money to support her.

In Uneasy Spirits, this cozy, romantic novel of suspense, Annie delves into the intriguing world of 19th century spiritualism, encountering true believers and naïve dupes, clever frauds and unexplained supernatural phenomena.

She will soon find there are as many secrets as there are spirits swirling around the Frampton séance table. Some of those secrets will threaten the foundation of her career as Madam Sibyl and the future of her relationship with Nate Dawson, and, in time, they will threaten her very life itself.

Thanks Mary Louisa for sparing the time to share a little of your life here. You are an inspiration and great support to indie authors. Hurry up and finish Bloody Lessons.

You can buy the first two books in the Victorian San Franscisco Mysteries at Amazon.

Maids of Misfortune Amazon US , Amazon UK
Uneasy Spirits Amazon US, Amazon UK

Images of William Harnett's paintings courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Elisabeth Storrs

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  1. Thanks for the great interview. I enjoyed Maids of Misfortune very much and look forward to reading Uneasy Spirits. Annie Fuller is a strong, intelligent woman who does what she needs to do to survive. Love her cover as a medium to disguise the fact that it is her business acumen that makes her advice valuable, not the spirits. Too bad that many people of her time could believe in the paranormal rather than accept that a woman could be intelligent and well informed without supernatural help.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Kilian. I haven't read Maids yet but really enjoyed Uneasy Spirits. It held up as stand alone book which shows Mary Lou's skill. It also whetted my appetite to read Maids - high on my ballycumber of TBR :)

  3. Dear Killian,

    So glad you like Annie! I think it is interesting that some readers accuse me of not being historically accurate because of her independence. I suspect that they may think that strong professional independent women didn't exist before the 1970s.

    Mary Louisa

  4. Mary Lou - thanks for the great interview - I always find it fascinating to learn of other writers' sources of inspiration. As for the independence of women throughout the ages, I think people forget that the lack of sources about the lives of everyday women result in us ignoring all those widows and single mothers who had to support themselves in the face of overwhelming chauvinism.