By Meredith Allard
M. Louisa Locke is the author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series and a trusted authority on independent publishing. The first book in the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series is Maids of Misfortune, and the sequel is Uneasy Spirits, both bestsellers in the historical mystery category on Kindle. Maids of Misfortune is a 2012 B.R.A.G. MedallionTM Honoree.
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
M. Louisa Locke: I knew I wanted to write historical fiction by the time I reached high school. Books had played an enormously important role in my life growing up, and historical fiction was already my favorite. When I attended college in the late 1960s, however, I realized that if I had to have a day job (I assumed that writing wouldn’t support me) I would rather be a professional historian than a professor of English literature. I went ahead and got a doctorate in history, but while doing the research for my dissertation, I found myself daydreaming about writing a series of mysteries that would feature the different jobs women held in the late Victorian era.
In 1989, between teaching jobs, I decided to give writing a chance as a means of support, and I wrote the first draft of what was to become Maids of Misfortune. Annie Fuller, my protagonist, makes money by running a boarding house (a common occupation for widows like Annie), but she also supplements her income giving business advice as a pretend clairvoyant (again, a frequently held female occupation at the time.) In this first book, Annie also goes undercover to work as a domestic servant, the most prevalent job for women in the nineteenth century.
Soon after I completed this first draft, I not only received a series of rejections from publishers but I also got a full-time job as a history professor at San Diego Mesa College. Writing again took a back seat. Twenty years later, when I semi-retired from college teaching, I picked up the manuscript, rewrote it extensively, and published it as both a print and an ebook. The sales on Maids of Misfortune were so strong that I was able to retire completely to become a full-time writer, publishing Uneasy Spirits, the second book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, in 2011. I plan to publish the third book, Bloody Lessons, in the early Fall, 2013. It may have taken me 50 years, but I finally am realizing my childhood dream of writing historical fiction!
M.A.: On your website you mention that you did your Ph.D. dissertation on the late nineteenth century western working woman. Your historical mystery novels are also set around the same time. What brought about your fascination with the western working woman?
M.L.L.: I think that the late 19th century fascinated me because of the parallels I saw to my own generational experience (I was born in 1950 and grew up squarely in the middle of the sixties social movements.) The Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the demand for political reform that came out of Watergate all had their counterparts in the 19th century. In both eras, there were strong pressures to keep women confined to the role of wife and mother. Yet, in both time periods there were women who challenged those traditional ideals.
In the late 1970s, I was studying to become a history professor when less than 20% of all history professors were women, so I was surprised to learn in my research that women had held a higher proportion of professional jobs a hundred years earlier than they did when I was growing up. I wanted to know about these women and the choices they made, so I did a statistical analysis of women who held income-producing occupations based on the 1880 Federal manuscript census. I chose to study women in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland because I lived on the west coast and most of the research on working women had focused on eastern cities. Naturally, when I started to think about writing fiction, I turned to the women I had been studying. They had become very real to me, and I wanted to make them come alive to others.
M.A.: I love to read mystery novels, but I have yet to try to write one. What are the particular challenges of writing mystery?
M.L.L.: As with most genre novels, there are certain conventions that you need to keep in mind when writing mysteries. Even if you disobey those conventions (for example, don’t have a body in the first chapter) it needs to be for a good reason. Otherwise, you can lose your reader. People who read mysteries expect that there be some sort of puzzle that is going to be solved. The puzzle can be a death or some other crime, and the person who solves the mystery can be a professional or an amateur. But as a mystery author, you need to know what that crime is (what was done), have developed some red herrings (people who might have done the crime, but didn’t), and eventually provide enough clues so that the reader has a chance to guess who actually committed the crime along side the detective. Then, depending on the sub-genre of mystery, you need to balance those basic mystery plot requirements with effective character development, detailed setting, believable romance, sufficient suspense, etc. I would say that achieving that balance is one of the most difficult tasks any mystery writer faces.
M.A.: You mention in your bio that your first historical mystery novel, Maids of Misfortune, was inspired by a diary entry from a domestic servant, and that you found that diary entry while researching your dissertation. How do you go about researching the history in your stories? Have you traveled for research purposes?
M.L.L.: Since I spent years doing research on San Francisco and the women who worked there in the 19th century, I don’t have to do a lot of new research for my novels. However, the internet has made the supplementary research I do for each story much easier. There are websites that tell you when the sun and moon rose on a given day in 1880, what words were in common usage then, and what a Victorian corset feels like. The main problem is not letting the research suck you in so that you don’t get the words onto the page.
Because the sections of San Francisco that I set my novels in were devastated by the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, I do have to spend a good deal of time looking at old maps and pouring over old photographs to make sure my descriptions are accurate. But I also visit San Francisco frequently, trying to come at the same time of year that the current book is set in to get a feel for the weather, where the sun hits buildings, and so forth. I love walking the streets between the different places in my books, imagining….
M.A.: How would you describe your novels to potential readers? What makes your novels different from others about similar eras?
M.L.L.: Many of the other successful Victorian era mysteries tend to portray the violent and sexually exploitative aspects of 19th century urban culture. They are darker in tone than my books and often have more in common with contemporary thrillers. While my books don’t neglect some of the important issues of the day, for example the extreme anti-Chinese sentiment in the west at this time, my goal from the first was to write historical mysteries that were traditional cozies in style.
Annie’s boarding house reflects the kind of small community you find in a cozy, and there is a strong thread of humor and romance throughout my stories as well. The sex and violence is generally off-stage, and there is even a cute dog. On the other hand, I believe that because my historical mysteries are set in real places, with characters facing real issues of the time period, readers can feel a greater connection to the people in my stories than they may do with the quirky characters found in many contemporary cozies.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like? What can you tell us about the joys and the challenges of being an independent author?
M.L.L.: While I pursued my career as a college professor, I watched as my writer friends were treated in the increasingly hostile environment traditional publishing. As a result, when I decided to give publishing another try in 2009, I was open to considering the opportunities that self-publishing and the ebook revolution were providing. One of the major considerations for my decision to become an indie author was how long it took (and still takes) for a book to make it into print the traditional way. I’d conceived of Maids of Misfortune thirty years earlier, I’d written it twenty years earlier, and I didn’t want to wait another 2 years or more to get it into the hands of readers. If no one liked it, so be it. At least I would have given it a try.
Once this decision was made, it only took a few months for me to master how to design, and format ebooks and print books, and it took only 24 hours to upload the Maids of Misfortune. Within a day I had my first sale and my first positive review!
I also enjoyed learning the technical and marketing aspects of self-publishing. I am a life-long student, as well as a social scientist and a teacher, so learning how to publish independently, experiment with different marketing strategies, and then being able to share what I have learned with other authors, has simply added to my satisfaction with the process.
I can say without reservation that my decision to self-publish was the best decision I ever made. Besides the fact that my books have been a financial success, every positive review, every letter from a fan, every comment on my Facebook page is pure gold.
M.A.: I was looking at the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative, and I can’t believe I’m only finding out about it now. It is definitely something readers of Copperfield should know about. How did the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative come about?
M.L.L.: One of the upsides of the ebook/indie author revolution has been that books like Maids of Misfortune that weren’t making it through the gatekeepers/bottlenecks of agents, publishers and booksellers, are getting published and in the hands of readers. However, the question has become: how is a reader going to be able to sift through all those books and find the right one for them, and how is an author going to make sure their books are visible to the right market?
Book review websites like Copperfield Review is one answer and The Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (HFAC) is another. HFAC was formed by a group of independent authors who recognized that there was strength in numbers. Behind the scenes we share information on technical issues (like cover design, formatting, getting books into the various ebooks stores like Kindle and Nook), and we help cross-promote each other’s work. All of this helps elevate the quality of our work and its visibility.
But the most important tasks were to recruit great historical fiction authors and design where readers could find our work. The group started less than three years ago with just a handful of authors, but we now grown to 40 members with 140 separate titles in our catalog, which can be found at HFeBooks.com.
M.A.: What can readers who love historical fiction gain from visiting the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative site?
M.L.L.: A fan of historical fiction can discover on our website high quality historical fiction that they wouldn’t find in traditional bookstores. In some cases the books are out-of-print books our authors have republished, in others, they are new independently published work by authors who are still traditionally published, and in most cases these are books by innovative independent authors.
Because membership in HFAC is by invitation only and we thoroughly vet those members and their work before inviting them, a reader can be assured that the books in our catalog are grounded in accurate historical research, are professionally edited, and well-written. We have listed the books by historical eras, as well, since many fans of historical fiction have favorite periods they like to read about. You can also find out about the author, the other books they have written, and you can read interesting articles by them about their historical research on our blog.
Finally, if you subscribe to the website, you will be alerted every week about discounts and free books that are being offered, as well as when a new book by one of our members is published. Other ways you can be alerted to this information is to follow us on twitter or Facebook.
M.A.: Is there a way historical fiction authors can be considered to be included in the cooperative?
M.L.L.: The vetting process is very slow since at least two members have to read and evaluate an author’s work before extending an invitation. As a result, most of our recruitment comes from recommendations from other members. We also look at those ebooks that are successful in historical fiction categories in ebookstores.
The bottom line is: write high-quality historical fiction, market it well, and, in time, as you gain reader recognition there is a good chance your work will come to our attention.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
M.L.L.: Georgette Heyer was my first inspiration. She was a serious historical scholar, but the light romantic Regency novels she wrote are a continuing delight, and for over fifty years I have turned to her books when I need to escape the painful realities of this world. From Dorothy Sayers, and her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries, I learned how to combine romance and crime solving. From Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico mysteries, I discovered that the importance of setting, and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series gave me the idea of combining historical fiction and mysteries. There are many great contemporary writers who have continued on in these traditions, but these were my first inspirations.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction or mysteries?
M.L.L.: This may seem trite, but it is true. Read. Reread your favorite books in the genres you wish to write in, but do so looking at what worked to make them your favorites. Is it the characters, the plot, the pacing, the background material? Read new books, and here you might find yourself analyzing what doesn’t work for you. Why did you get impatient at some point, never really care for the main character, become confused? Do you seem to like books written in the first person? Third person? Shifting points of view?
If you are pursuing historical fiction, skim through general texts about the period, read autobiographies and contemporary fiction of the time. All of this should give you a general feel for the historical setting. But don’t spend too much time in detailed research until you are actually writing the book. Spending days figuring out what to call the kind of carriage your character might own, before knowing if that carriage will even figure in the story, can be a waste of time. This is the stuff you can fill in later as you go along (or after the first draft is written.)
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
M.L.L.: For those who think they might be interested in my work, do check out my website/blog or my Facebook author page. I also have two short stories that feature minor characters from my full-length novels that you might find amusing. They are Dandy Detects and The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.