Tag Archives: historical

Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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“Spinning Gold from Family Hay” by Nancy Pauline Simpson

Nancy Pauline Simpson is the author of B.O.Q. and Tunnel Vision (an updated edition of which is now available electronically from all e-book retailers). Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “Rough-Hewn Retribution” (from the March/April issue), and the development of the story’s characters, Miss Halzetine Polk and Deputy Sheriff Stickley.

All families come equipped with stories and a lot of those stories include a mystery. Whether those stories get passed on depends more on the number of raconteurs a family produces than the number of babies. In the case of my family, a particular spot in central Alabama and the time popularly known as “The Downton Abbey” era produced a glut of raconteurs. In England, that era represented the lull before the storm of World War I. In the Southern United States, it was the lull between storms, one of which was still rumbling in a lot of people’s living memory. Under seemingly still waters ran a class system based on race. The peculiar interdependency of Blacks and Whites generated family stories that can lead a writer in fictional directions that just wouldn’t be credible in another setting.

One of my family’s stories was the jumping-off point for “Rough-Hewn Retribution.” (Other stories served the same purpose for two earlier AHMM stories with the same setting.) I’d heard the basics—a hotel porter reporting his suspicions about a traveling salesman to his employer, leading to extreme consequences—multiple times. Three generations from the original version, I have no way of knowing what, if any, of it was true. But, since anybody who could verify any part of the story is long dead by now, I felt free to let my imagination fill in the plot details.

The characters of Deputy Sheriff Stickley and county nurse Hazeltine Polk evolved from family members, but their occupations did not. I chose those occupations in order to bring Stickley and Polk into contact with people and situations my real-life kin—especially the respectable female ones—might have been shielded from. Stickley may be uncomfortable allowing Miss Polk to examine a male corpse’s genitalia, but—because she has been trained as a nurse—he defers to her superior knowledge of human anatomy and stifles his squeamishness. He admires the county nurse’s level-headedness almost as much as he admires her auburn hair. And he has his own professional ambitions. Those ambitions naturally mesh with his personal goal of winning Miss Polk’s affection. He hopes she’ll appreciate that the doggedness, integrity and powers-of-observation that make for a good investigator also make for a good husband.

I wanted to make their compatibility—and chemistry—clear. I also wanted to show contrasts. Both are intelligent, but Stickley has had little formal education. His appreciation for art and literature is instinctive, not taught. Stickley’s fractured grammar is distinct from Polk’s more refined English. Miss Polk would never correct his grammar, of course, and not just because it would be ill-bred to do so. Women are assumed to be more particular about such niceties as grammar. In an attractive, sober man, character and good sense can compensate for a few rough edges. In any case, cleverness disguised as folksy simplicity has a long history of its own. When Stickley refers to “the Oracle of Delphinium,” is it a verbal blunder or is he just pulling his own leg? The reader understands from his context that he knows perfectly well what an oracle is.

For me, the most interesting element of a mystery plot is the motive. When the crime involves violence, that motive should be a doozy. The “why?” of crime is more compelling to me than the “how?” In the case of the criminal psychopath, there is no rational “why.” I am relieved when forensic science stops a serial killer in his bloody tracks, of course. But the criminal who responds to emotions everyone has experienced is more intriguing. When Stickley asks the retiring sheriff how he could have committed such a grisly act years earlier, the reader knows that the answer comes from a sane man.

The crime may be poorly-thought-out. It may cost the criminal as much as it costs the victim. But I like the reader to share the feelings that motivated the crime, if not the decision to follow-through. We may argue about which motive pushes Hamlet over the edge (and Hamlet is, after all, a mystery), but the audience empathizes with all of them. “Rough-Hewn Retribution” is no
Hamlet, but there are plenty of motives to pick from. And, maybe, a few of them will rouse a little empathy.

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Strength of Character (March/April 2017)

Crime is character building, at least in crime fiction, because it is characters, their dark psychologies and questionable motivations, that drive compelling stories—as the tales in this issue amply demonstrate.

What compels a model prisoner, in Tony Richards’s “Magpie Man,” to burst out of jail just before he is to be lawfully released? What motivates a desperate woman, in Dale Berry’s graphic story “Dead Air,” to strike up a conversation with a radio DJ? Why does a detective, in Wayne J. Gardiner’s “Bygones,” return home for the funeral of his high-school adversary?

Interpersonal entanglements complicate Charles John Harper’s police procedural “The Echoes.” A man seeking invisibility is driven from the dangerous shadows in Bob Tippee’s “Underground Above Ground.” Susan Oleksiw’s “How Do You Know What You Want” is a poignant story of a teen in foster care and the woman who tries to connect with her, and Martin Limón’s P.I. Il Yong pursues a case that takes him to the remote reaches of the Himalayas, where survival may depend on the uncertain kindness of othes, in “hominid.”

Social institutions and conventions are questioned in Alan E. Foulds’ “Razor’s Edge” when a reporter revisits a long-ago cold case, and in Mitch Alderman’s “Bleak Future” when P.I. Bubba Simms looks into extortion among central Florida’s genteel society. An old injustice gets a fresh look in “Rough-Hewn Retribution,” Nancy Pauline Simpson’s historical set in the early twentieth century South. A homicide detective and suspect match wits in the interview room in Chris Knopf’s “A Little Cariñoso.” And a land dispute is complicated—and deadly—in Gilbert M. Stack’s British historical whodunit “Greed.”

Watch out, these complicated characters will steal your attention—and perhaps your sympathy.

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The Story Behind “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. Here, she talks about the newest tale in her Lady Appleton series, “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night,” in the current issue of AHMM.

I’ve been writing about Lady Appleton and her friends, on and off, for twenty years, ever since she first appeared in Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie, published in 1997. In all those novels and short stories, I’ve tried my best to be accurate in my presentation of life in sixteenth-century England. As much as I enjoy reading a good paranormal tale, I’ve been meticulous about sticking to reality when I write historical mysteries.

Until now.

What can I say? The sixteenth century was a superstitious time. Even a rational woman like Lady Appleton would have been unable to explain everything in the world around her. In Face Down Under the Wych Elm, she helped clear a woman of an accusation of witchcraft, knowing full well that some plants are poisonous and require no supernatural assistance to kill. But witches weren’t the only unnatural beings that were real to people of that time. They also believed in pixies, fairies, and ghosts. In Cornwall, it was thought that tommy-knockers lived in mines and gave warning of cave-ins. To prevent the restless dead from walking, suicides (who had committed the crime of self-murder) were supposed to be buried in a public highway between nine and midnight . . . after a stake had been driven into the body. At least in legend, there were creatures who were only half human, or who could change from human to animal.

Back in 2004, I first had the idea to write about a fictional sixteenth-century English family with a dark secret—they were weres. Not werewolves. There were already too many werewolf stories out there. I was thinking of something in the cat family, maybe a lynx or a Scottish wildcat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a angle that worked. I couldn’t even decide on the decade in which to set the story. One false start (“The King’s Weres”) had members of the Catsby family at the court of Henry VIII early in his reign. Another (“On Little Cat Feet”) let Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth discover their secret and vow to keep it, so long as they would serve her loyally. A separate problem was whether to go all-out paranormal or provide an alternate, rational explanation for everything that happened in my story.

Eventually, “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” began to take shape in my mind. It still took me more than six months to write and when I finished it, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want such an odd little tale. Fortunately, it did find a home. Now I just have to hope that sticklers for historical accuracy will forgive me this little side-trip into the supernatural world, one the Elizabethans believed could exist side by side with their own.

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On “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” by Marianne Wilski Strong

Lecturer and writer Marianne Wilski Strong is the author of over forty published short stories. Here she talks about “Louisa and the Silver Buckle,” from the September 2016 issue of AHMM, the first in a new series.

My inspiration for “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” began in a small bookstore in Massachusetts where I found a treasure. I was scanning the bookshelves in the back of the store when my eye caught a title that arrested my attention: The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott. Within a minute, I had marched up to the register, paid, and left with my treasure. I delayed my visit to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, took the shortcut back to my hotel and settled in to read.

I had, of course, read Little Women years ago, loved it, and like most young girls read it several times, always imagining myself to be Jo. But I had never read Alcott’s short stories. Now I began reading. Within a few days I finished the last of the stories and began hungering for more. Not able to find another edition, I reread my favorites: “Betrayed by a Buckle;” “Ariel: A Legend of the Lighthouse;” “Lost in a Pyramid.” The inspiration for my stories began to take hold in my brain. I would write stories in which the key character would solve mysteries by referring to Alcott’s gothic tales. But I wasn’t sure yet how to handle what I wanted to write. What setting should I use: Concord, where Alcott had lived for many years? I had visited Concord several times, touring the homes of Alcott and her fellow writers: Emerson and Hawthorne. But I knew Concord only as a tourist, not as a resident. In what time period should I set my stories: in the early or mid nineteenth century when Alcott had lived? That wouldn’t work because I wanted my main character to be an avid reader of Alcott’s stories and to have all of them on hand when she needed them.

So the inspiration floated around in my mind, only half formed, until I spent a week in Cape May, New Jersey at the house of my stepdaughter and her friend. Cape May, I realized would be the perfect setting for my stories. Cape May had all the ingredients I wanted. First, Louisa May Alcott herself had vacationed in this Victorian seaside resort. The city abounded in Victorian homes if I wanted such a home in my stories. Cape May had a lighthouse, a lovely beach, a bird sanctuary. It was steeped in history. My inspiration now became a full-blown idea and I began the first of my Louisa stories.

My narrator Amanda owns a condo in Cape May as well as several editions of Alcott’s stories. As with my stepdaughter’s house, the narrator’s condo lies not far from the beach, very near the pedestrian shopping street. Most important of all, the condos, Amanda’s and my stepdaughter’s, are surrounded by homes under renovation. One day, walking along a Cape May Street, I watched workers renovating: knocking down walls, ripping out sagging windows, tearing up old floorboards. Who knew what the workers might find as they demolished parts of the house. Since Alcott had vacationed in Cape May, she could well have visited friends and could well have stayed with them overnight in one of the houses now being renovated. The story took off from there. Louisa wrote a short story for a friend and gave it to her. The manuscript had remained hidden for over a hundred years. Now, it is, of course, valuable and a number of people who suspect the existence of such a manuscript and want it at any cost: even murder.

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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