Don’t you love starting a new book? A new series? I do. It is the blank page of it all that is both delightful and daunting. As I considered my next series, I asked myself what stories I wanted to tell, why, what I could bring to it, would it be in the present or be about the past. Where and when would it all take place? Its questions like this that drive me down the rabbit hole of research, disappearing for about two weeks then reappearing with either a plan or holding a handful of rabbit fur and spitting dirt. If spitting dirt, I realize I took the wrong tunnel and head back down again.
This time, I emerged from the hole with an idea for a series about a spunky boarding house owner and a newspaperman in a small village in northwestern Illinois. The series begins in 1876 the year a big city company built a boilermaker plant on the wrong side of the tracks.
I was born in such a town, one that happens to have a wonderful Historical Society with a fine website that includes the police logs from the 1870s, select daily newspapers and the 1876 city directory with business advertisements. Wonderful reference materials filled with future plots. The newspaper was a bi-fold sheet that included local news, crimes, socials, births, deaths, and church services. The real story in between the lines is the friction of growth, of newcomers, of illness, of drought, and the pain of unpredictable accidents. To gain an understanding of the times, I researched mining coal walls, building boilermakers, the effects of the railroad on growth, raising and shipping livestock (specifically hogs), the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the country, and how all these effected the tiny, Christian communes clinging to their beliefs and way of life that littered northwestern Illinois.
As the town migrated from farming to building boilers that changed the world, mining coal, and making wagons, men set adrift by the War and families seeking work arrived looking for a place to call home. Mind you, in the 1870s there was no village water, sewer, or other infrastructure to support the growth, not to mention building codes. The law was a Constable riding a circuit that included the burgeoning town. Expecting the growth to continue forever, the village Trustees had big plans for it.
The town in my books has a lot in common with my hometown but isn’t, which in no way negates the responsibility to accurately portray the times. It is bucolic with big park, a growing restlessness, surging growth, and lots of potential for mayhem. I get to pick my plots, research endlessly, check 1876 appropriate word usage (it seems every other sentence), discover (serendipitously) that the Pinkertons had a famous female detective working out of Chicago, that both the Winchester ’73 rifle and the Frontier Colt revolver used .44-40 cartridges, and that every day of the week had a purpose and if skillful a woman might have all day Thursday off from her chores. (Yes, that was one sentence.)
Don’t forget the proper clothing, culture, and morays — if I weren’t a writer, I’d be a research librarian — oops, did that in college, though far too briefly. I conclude that mystery writers need a passion to learn, access to the internet, to donate to Wikipedia from time to time out of guilt, and permission from themselves to order weird books such as Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book and The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1876. Add to the above requirements a brain that plots, conspires, considers motive, and psychology and off you go into the land of the curious and curiouser hopefully to emerge 70,000 or so well plotted, entertaining words later.