Since I’ve been writing my murder mysteries, which take place in the 1950s, it has required some research of that era.
If you’re one of the lucky ones to be part of the Baby Boomers, perhaps, you will feel as if you are walking down memory lane when you read the Dana Greer, PI Mystery Series.
When Dana finds herself on Cape Peril, Maine, on a freezing winter day, she wishes she had purchased that coat from the Penney’s catalog…the cashmere one with the mutton fur collar, but eleven dollars seemed too much!
Or, when Opal, the Tarot card reader, introduces herself to Dana, she’s wearing a flowered housedress…not a term you hear people using today but a popular style for women of the day.
While solving the murder of a young school girl, Dana stays in a beautiful Victorian home. Its kitchen is furnished with a chrome table and chairs upholstered in bright, yellow vinyl, truly a décor of the 50s.
Those were the days when leaving a ten-cent tip for a toast and egg breakfast was considered more than adequate, and a five-and-ten store, referred to as a “dime store” was a common sight on the main street in town.
It was a time when telegrams were a common way to communicate important information over the miles, and people did handwork, such as crocheting fancy edges on pillowcases, making doilies for every table, and embroidering designs on linens.
Segregation was all part of the era, and it was not uncommon to find separate water fountains for the black and white folk. The South harbored the Ku Klux Klan, who were known for their ruthless, intolerant ways.
For humor, people were reading comic books, such as Casper the Ghost or Little Lulu. For the latest gossip, people were reading Motion Picture, Modern Screen, or Movie Stars or getting the latest updates from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
And oh for the Hollywood stars of the times whose names were household words: Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn….
Writing mystery novels set in the 50s, such as Unholy Secrets or Silent Betrayal, as well as reading them truly is a walk down memory lane.
Don’t we all love nostalgia, thinking of the good ol’ days when we were kids no matter what era you grew-up in? The 1950s are, to some, a remembrance of a better time, an easier lifestyle.
A gallon of gas cost 18 cents, a loaf of bread 30 cents, and a cup of coffee 5-10 cents! And a United States average income was merely $4,237.
There were no computers, only typewriters, and extra copies were made with sheets of carbon paper. There were no cell phones, and most families could only afford a home telephone with a party line.
Colored TVs were made by attaching a sheet of three-colored plastic to the screen.
Typical children’s toys were potato heads, Tiny Tear dolls, and green Army men.
Most school children walked to school as there were no school buses or carpools. Instead of backpacks, children carried their supplies in school bags.
World War II was over and the Great Depression had passed. Because people knew what bad times were like, they were more cautious with spending, more hard-working to support their lifestyles. Conservatism was more a theme of life than an idea.
My Dana Greer Mystery Series takes place in this exact timeframe. Dana is a traveling investigator, one of the only women of her time to pursue this career; whereas, most women her age stayed at home and raised their families. What better way to travel than by the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe Railroad.
Dana goes wherever there is a murder involving any aspect of the Catholic Church. This is the Church Pre-Vatican II, where children memorized their catechisms, sang in Latin, and treasured their Missals at daily Mass.
The 50s were a time of racial segregation; gender biases; and religious intolerance, such as that shown by the Ku Klux Klan.
The 50s were a time of sexual orthodoxy where going steady was considered a sin by the Church, marriage was a life-time commitment, and having a child out of wedlock was shunned.
This was a time long before DNA and data-based offenders, which made solving a crime that much more difficult.
I chose the 50s as the perfect of times for a murder-mystery series.
Where Do Ideas Come From?
If you’re like me, I’m always interested in learning where author’s ideas come from. The plot for my soon-to-be-released second novel Silent Betrayal came from an experience I had while an undergraduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit.
It was during a criminology course that my fellow students and I visited a boys’ prison. Although I can no longer remember the name of the place or if it still exists, I do remember it well. Young boys, no more than six- or seven-years of age lined single file with their arms crossed behind their backs as they marched through the corridors.
Then, and now for that matter, I still wonder what crimes these children could possibly have committed. Their faces cleanly scrubbed, their cheeks rosy, they appeared more like innocent cherubs than convicted prisoners.
Hence, from this memory, came the idea for my book. What if a young boy, convicted of a horrendous crime, was found murdered in his cell?
Dana Greer, P.I. is called onto the case by the Archbishop of Dallas. Her efforts to solve the young boy’s murder are thwarted at every turn by the corruption, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness of the town of Punkerton, Texas. Silent Betrayal takes you behind the damp, dark walls of a boy’s prison run by an order of Catholic monks, where no one is quite who they appear to be.
Coming soon…Silent Betrayal
Oftentimes, readers like to ask authors questions about their book, such as, “Where do you get your ideas?” Lee Murray, award-winning New Zealand author, asked me the following questions about my debut novel Unholy Secrets:
Tell us briefly about Unholy Secrets. What inspired it?
Unholy Secrets actually was inspired by an actual event that occurred when I was a child. A second-grade student from my elementary school was kidnapped and murdered, and the story stayed with me. It was the first time I became aware of evil in the world. I was so frightened I had my mother walk me to school every day until I was in sixth grade!
Your heroine, Dana Greer, is a police investigator with a former female mentor. A Catholic coming to grips with her recent divorce, and a woman with her own childhood secrets, she is nevertheless, portrayed as independent, intelligent, and likeable, even while navigating a male-dominated environment in 1950s society. So, in your view, is Unholy Secrets a feminist novel?
I never set out to create Dana Greer as a feminist but, rather, I wanted the plot to be told from a woman’s perspective…a woman’s voice. Then, the idea occurred to me that in 1950, she really was a woman ahead of her time. I wanted to make her edgy, confident, and strong yet at the same time to question how life might have played out differently had she chosen the typical housewife role of the 50s.
If you were to shelve Unholy Secrets in the bookstore, would you put it under cozy mystery or gritty police procedural, or some other genre?
I would place Unholy Secrets under the genre of crime detective.
Tell us about the literary references in the story: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, and Robert Frost’s poetry, and their significance to the story. How have these literary works influenced your work?
I researched Catholic books written in the 50s and came upon Robinson’s novel the Cardinal. Since my characters “speak to me,” Dana chose to read it. As for Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Dana so often could relate to the “many miles” she had to go in order to finally solve the crime.
The story is set in Cape Peril, an imaginary island off the coast of Maine. What was your inspiration for this setting, and why did you feel compelled to create a your own, rather than base the story in a real place?
Yes, Cape Peril is an imaginary island off the coast of Maine. I visited Maine once and, at one time, lived in Massachusetts, near Salem. There’s something definitely foreboding about islands…their isolation, their separateness from the mainland. As for Maine, I liked the idea of the harsh winters…I guess, the motif of coldness.
The historic aspect of the story reminds me a little of the UK’s George Gently TV series. If there were a film version of the Dana Greer mysteries, what modern-day actress would you like to see playing the heroine and why?
Of course, I’d be thrilled to see Unholy Secrets become a film. I would choose the French actress Marion Cotillard for the lead role. There’s something about the role she played in “Allied” with Brad Pitt that made me a fan. She would need a blond wig, however.
In Unholy Secrets, some of the female characters, such as Carmelina Artinelli while set up as villains, could also be seen as victims. Would you agree?
I would definitely agree with this statement. At times, the reader will find her heartless, ruthless and at other time, she evokes sympathy.
Unholy Secrets, at its core, deals with the horror of the death of a child. I see from the excerpt included at the end of the book that the next mystery, Silent Betrayal, releasing in October of this year, also involves the loss of a child. Why this morbid fascination with horrors inflicted on children?
I hope my readers won’t see the loss of a child in my books as a morbid fascination. As mentioned, Unholy Secrets was loosely based on an actual event from my own childhood. There is something to be said about children who lack a knowledge of evil in much the same way that I as a child, was abruptly forced to face the harsh reality of a sinful world. Suddenly, fear was introduced into my life. As for future books in the series, there will be three key elements: Dana will travel to wherever there is a crime involving a child and the Catholic Church. Also, the overall theme will be that even the godly can fall into the depths of sin. As for the Church, it is part of my fiber, my love. Even in the face of evil, it has withstood the test of time.
And finally, do you have a favorite spindled porch somewhere? (don’t worry if you don’t have one – we can leave this question out).
Interesting question! I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, the house I grew-up in was not a Victorian, but it did have a spindled porch!
When I signed a book contract about two and a half years ago, I thought, and rightly so, that I had stepped into the glamourous lights of publishing. Like an actress in New York or a movie star in Hollywood, my day had finally come to put my star in the Walk of Fame. Now true, I had signed with a small publisher, but the benefits of the contract made it financially better than any of the big three houses.
All of the excitement, the glory, and the anticipation were to come crashing down, however, when the red flags of impending doom surfaced.
First, the editor-in-chief who had been the original person to like and accept my manuscript left the house. Now, although this is not all that uncommon, the reason behind the departure revolved around some not-so-nice interpersonal reasons at the press.
Secondly, not all editors are created equal. Assigned to a woman who provided no plan of action and, worse yet, no means of contact, caused weeks to whittle by with no communication and no forward movement on the book.
After the manuscript was edited, which basically became a line edit rather than a content one, I reassured myself that just maybe the manuscript needed no more major revisions.
Every time I would ask where the manuscript stood in terms of publication dates, I was given red flag number four: “We want to put out the best work possible for our authors and will not go to publication until everything is the best it can be.” Although not sure exactly what this meant, I heard the laments over and over for months.
With my patience waning and finding myself two years into the contract, I asked to be given a date. Red flag number five came as a major surprise: the book would be on Amazon in two weeks, but only if I signed a written agreement to pass on any final proofs of the book. As a side note, I learned that this is something never to do. No matter how perfect the manuscript might appear in its final revision, there is always the possibility of spacing errors, chapter and page heading errors, etc. at the last minute. Pdf copies should always be proofed and more than once!
From there, red flags flew wildly. The rush to get cover art for the book became nothing merely than a clipart. Oh, and the photos I had in my book would have to be removed as there was not time to get copyright authorization.
The staff who had originally been respectful turned from Jekyll to Hyde. Suddenly the publication of my book became the press’s rush to get the book out in their determined time frame of two weeks! I became the source of the stress and pressure in the hurriedness to publish. But, I might add, I never asked for the this deadline.
One of my published writer friends mentioned getting previews on the book before the book went “live” on Amazon. In less than two weeks, who could I possibly expect to read the pdf of my book and write a review? No one.
Of course with this being my debut novel, I had no idea what pre-readers even were.
One morning, a few days before I was to be a published novelist, an email popped in my box, saying that due to my lack of faith in the press, they were terminating my contract.
Almost two and a half years later, many red flags along the way, and I’m finally happy to say my mystery novel will be coming out next month…thanks to self-publishing.
Think it’s almost time to polish my star!
There are many reasons for celebration: to announce a graduation, an engagement, a wedding, a new baby. . . . Then, there are the times to cheer when dreams come true: a sailor returns from deployment, a sick relative recovers, a job becomes available. . . . The latter may not have a Hallmark card to send, yet the occasions are special and memorable.
On July 20, I had reason to shout my joy to the world – a dream comes true kind of day. After having written six novels and having been fortunate enough to have at least a dozen of my short stories published, I received a book contract for my seventh novel! No, there are no specific greeting cards for such a dream; in fact, I’m not even sure someone won’t wake me up and tell me it was just that, only a dream. I’m not even sure quite how I should feel or act. Am I an official writer now called author? Should I be practicing my signature for upcoming book signings? Is it safe to start on book two in the series? For now at least, I prefer to call July 20 one of the happiest days of my life. And, as for when the book finally comes out sometime in 2016, well, I hope to have another one of those dream comes true kind of days!
When people ask what I write, I always answer fiction; then, I mumble a caveat, “I’m also working on a memoir.” Why I do this, I don’t know. Is there any writer’s law against writing nonfiction as well as fiction? Is it permissible to write in two entirely different genres?
No doubt, there are major differences in writing a memoir from, say, a short story or a novel. For one thing, a memoir is a reflection on a part or time of one’s life. It focuses on how the narrator was changed from the circumstances incurred. It deals with strong emotions. . .sometimes, even painful feelings that the writer experienced then and, perhaps, even now. Unlike fiction, the events are those that actually happened, the dialogue written from memory, the details recollected as best as they can be.
Yet, like fiction, writing memoir also involves disassociation, where the writer mentally drifts to a different time, a different place. Here is where a writer momentarily saunters into another sphere. . .a place where only the author is allowed to trespass. In this spot, a writer either relives a past life or existence, as in memoir, or visits a place of one’s own created making as in fiction.
Life has a way of calling to writers like a light breeze swaying a pine tree. When a story needs to be told, whether fiction or nonfiction, a true writer will pay heed, will listen closely. The beckoning seems to linger until the call is answered.
At least, this is what happened to me. For several years, I heard that voice, telling me I needed to put my story to paper. Why? Multiple reasons, I say. I needed a physical closure that only a completed memoir could bring. I longed to tell others my story, so that they might benefit from its words. It was time for me to openly and publicly express how my life was changed because of what I had faced.
Certainly, this does not, by any means, mean I will never return to my made-up worlds and created characters. As a writer, I know one thing for sure. I am obligated to listen to life’s call and to follow in whatever genre that might be.
I’ve been thinking lately why it is that I love writing fiction so much. Without a doubt, there is enjoyment in the whole creation process. Developing characters, designing a setting, escalating the tensions that lead to the ultimate conflict. . .all play a part in writing the short story or novel.
But contemplating the question even further, I came to the conclusion that there is no greater “high” then being your own creator. And who better to create then someone who also knows how to control.
Although I like to think that my characters come alive and lead their own lives on the page, if it were not for me, they would never even exist. Perhaps, this is why I sometimes feel a sense of guilt when I put a manuscript-in-process aside for whatever reason. I have the ability to control these lives. . . stop them short if I so desire. Why, I even have the ability to cut out a character if I find he or she just doesn’t quite hack what I’m looking for any longer.
Yes, indeed, it takes a creator to be a fiction writer, but just as importantly, it takes someone who likes being in control.
One characteristic a writer must possess is tenacity. Yes, we have all heard that great writing and being in the right place at the right time helps in getting one’s work published but so, too, does persistence.
My dystopian novel called After Shocks has been in the “works” off-and-on for almost two years. A special thanks to all of those who have encouraged me to complete it. My feverish determination once again has paid off.
Not only has a chapter excerpt from my book been published in the anthology “Perfect Flaw,” but today I have heard news that another chapter excerpt has been accepted for publication. The twenty chosen stories will be collected and published as a dystopian narrative. In addition, the book will be performed as a stage production.
As writers, we all need to have our faith restored in the work we do. I have just experienced that magical moment.
“To sit patiently with a yearning that has not yet been fulfilled, and to trust that, that fulfillment will come, is quite possibly one of the most powerful “magic skills” that human beings are capable of.”
Elizabeth Gilbert (born 1969);
“What’s a nice girl like you doing writing horror short stories?” I’m asked, many times. The answer is as difficult to formulate as it is easy.
Well, let’s see. . . . The binary opposite of good is evil, and the binary opposite of light is dark. If we are to agree that one can’t exist unless the other does, it might come closer to explaining my interest in horror.
I caution to add that just because my characters choose the dark and often frightening paths, it does not imply that their writer must do the same. Maybe another way of putting this is I allow my characters total free will. Ah, there we go again with the so-called good–the ability to choose right from wrong, virtue from sin.
The latter is true in my recently published short story “The Pack” published in the anthology Ugly Babies 2, where Hannah chooses to go into the woods after six p.m., looking for her run-away dog. This is a choice she makes against the better judgment of her husband and the security guard at Timber Lodge. Is it any wonder then that she must pay the consequence?
Other times, it’s only a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as when the gargoyle in my short story “In the Shadow of the Square” (the Were Traveler) suddenly and unexpected falls from his pinnacle atop the cathedral and lands in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
Life is life. We hear the expression, “Bad things happen to good people,” meaning that often things are out of our control. Life isn’t always fair for us or for characters.
The world is far from a perfect place, and until it is, horror will continue to take place both realistically and in fiction.