Left Coast Crime 2022 is coming up in Albuquerque, and I’m on a panel called “20th Century Historicals.”
A historical novel is defined as one that has “its setting in a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact.”
Another definition, from the Historical Novel Society, says a historical novel is one set fifty or more years in the past. I moderated a similar panel at an earlier LCC, and one of my panelists had written a mystery set in 1967. That was sobering. I graduated from high school in 1967.
I write a series of historical mysteries featuring Jill McLeod, who is a Zephyrette, or train hostess, working onboard the California Zephyr, a historic train that ran during the 1949-1970 time period. The first book, Death Rides the Zephyr, takes place in December 1952, with subsequent books set in 1953.
Since I’m old enough to have graduated from high school in the sixties, I was certainly alive in the early 1950s. But I was a kid. What I remember is a mixed bag—Captain Kangaroo and Miss Frances and the Ding Dong School on television. I figured out that the days were getting longer in the spring when I realized that it was still light outside when I tuned in to The Mickey Mouse Club.
Ike was president. I don’t remember much about the Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings, and the Rosenbergs. My school was segregated. So were the downtown department stores. I remember seeing signs for segregated rest rooms and water fountains.
In The Ghost in Roomette Four, there’s a scene where Jill and her sister are cleaning up the kitchen after a family dinner. Were they doing those dishes by hand? Or did the McLeod family have a dishwasher? When I was growing up, we did have a dishwasher. But that was later in the Fifties and my dad sold appliances.
That’s when I turn to the Internet. Off I went to my search engine, to find out when dishwasher hit the market. I was surprised to learn that the appliance was available in the Thirties.
An example of what happens when 21st century assumptions bump up against writing 20th century historicals? When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr. I was fortunate to discover two retired Zephyrettes living near me. One evening, I bought them dinner and listened to them talk for over two hours. I asked what the onboard crew of the California Zephyr would have done if they’d found a dead body in a Pullman car, which is what happens to Jill, my Zephyrette protagonist. Would they radio ahead to the next station to contact the authorities?
The Zephyrette who had been riding the rails in the early Fifties shook her head. Back then they could radio from car to car, but not as far as a station or a town. No, the engineer would stop the train, the brakeman would climb a telegraph pole, and send a Morse code message to the next station.
That’s how it was done way back when. Of course, that went into the book. It made the telling more accurate and certainly added layers to the isolation of a train deep in a remote mountain canyon.
If you are attending Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, check out my panel. It’s schedule on Thursday, April 7, at 1:15 PM on Thursday, April 7. The panel is moderated by Susan McDuffie, and fellow panelists are Michael Kurland and Rosemary Lord.