A groovy new book

By Sally Carpenter

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My new retro-cozy, “Flower Power Fatality,” seems like it’s taken forever to write. I estimate the actual writing time at about 1.5 years but it’s been on my mind for much longer.

The idea originated a number of years ago at a fundraising concert at my parish. A group of ‘60s rockers were performing and I thought a cozy set in the 1960s was a pretty far out idea. I only know of one other mystery series in the ‘60s so the field seemed ripe for exploiting.

I considered a series with a college student as a protagonist (campus unrest was a big topic in the era), one book for each year of school. However, high-achieving students are too busy with classes, homework and extra-curricular activities to have time for sleuthing (except for the Hardy Boys who always seem to be on a school holiday). Writing scenes about someone sitting in lecture classes all day didn’t interest me either (my apologies to those of you who write school mysteries).

I didn’t want to write about a rock musician, because I already had a musician in my Sandy Fairfax series. Hippies are interesting characters, but they make poor sleuths. They don’t want to deal with the cops and frankly, some of them are too strung out much of the time to be of use.

One of my writer acquaintances is a Doris Day fan, so I started watching Doris Day movies. The idea clicked with “The Glass Bottom Boat.” Doris plays a civilian who unwitting gets mixed up with spies. Aha!

The 1960s was the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, with nuclear annihilation of both countries only a button-push away. Everyone knew about CIA and KGB spies, no matter how hard they tried to keep their activities a secret. Mad Magazine made light of this conflict in the wordless “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons.

The spy genre was popular entertainment in the 1960s, kicked off, of course by the James Bond craze. Soon Bond found himself parodied in the Derek Flint and Matt Helm films and in the 1967 “Casino Royale.”

Spies took over TV as well with such shows as “I Spy,” “The Man From UNCLE,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.” One could argue “Batman” followed suit as well, with its many bat-gadgets, droll sense of humor and over-the-top presentation like the Bond movies.

“UNCLE” episodes featured a new “innocent” (guest star) each week, a civilian recruited by the agency to help the spies with the mission, much like the protagonist in my book, an actress who stumbles upon a murder and missing microdots.

But I couldn’t start writing right away. I wanted to crank out another Sandy Fairfax book, so I put the new idea on the back burner. Then I researched a big presentation for my parish. Then I wrote a short story for the “Cozy Cats Shorts” anthology (2017). And along the way I was still writing my monthly Ladies of Mystery post and my newspaper column.

At long last I put everything aside to work on the new idea.

Sometimes letting an idea simmer makes it tastier. I used the time to research my setting and the 1960s in general. Being a kid at the time, much of what was going on went right over my head. I also had to check on every product and piece of music mentioned in the book to make sure it was time-appropriate.

And the book has a pet cat. Well, that one was easy to research. I just looked in my yard.

Retro-dressing my characters

By Sally Carpenter

One of the challenges of writers of historical mysteries is clothing their characters. As fashions change continually, authors must carefully research their time period for accuracy.

My new cozy is set in 1967, a period that should be easy to clothe, right? When I was growing up in the ‘60s I wasn’t interested in fashion. My mother sewed all my clothes and I didn’t buy my own clothing until college. My memory of what people wore at the time is vague and limited.

So I consulted books and learned about Mary Quant and the groovy, hip styles. However, my book is set in the rural Midwest—similar to where I grew up—and the hot fashions of the New York runway never made it west. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone on the streets wearing love beads or Nehru jackets or batik prints or even miniskirts. The ordinary Jane Doe didn’t dress like Emma Peel.

What to do? I found a terrific book titled “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs mid 1960s.” That’s right, the book contains full-color illustrations of the merchandise sold in the mail-order catalogs. It’s a wealth of information of what the common person wore as they shopped at Sears, not high-end boutiques.

Women’s clothes of the ‘60s were less restrictive than the ‘50s. Gone were the girdles and mounds of petticoats holding up poodle skirts. Pantyhose replaced nylon stockings for a practical reason. Individual stockings required garter belts to hold them up, but the stocking clips could be seen under miniskirts. Pantyhose provided a seamless visual line as well as some modesty if the skirt flipped up.

But some ‘50s holdovers remained into the ‘60s. The catalogue book has several pages of women’s hats, and when ladies put on a hat, they wore gloves as well. Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat a must-have at the time. So I will occasionally put my 26-year-old heroine in a hat because it looks far out and while she’s tough, she isn’t a total tomboy.

The Sears book has no miniskirts! The dresses and skirts hit the knee or just below. A black “dance” dress is shorter, with the hem only about two inches above the knee “to allow movement.” Miniskirts were not practical for everyday women working in offices, stores or schoolrooms.

The book also has far more dresses than pants for women. Women in white- and pink-collar jobs generally wore dresses and seldom  pantsuits on a night out. I had to rethink my character’s wardrobe. I’m putting her in more dresses than I anticipated, but that’s OK. She looks groovy in skirts. And she’s in pants for the “action” scenes that require running and climbing.

I found no women’s jeans in the catalog book, although I did spot a denim jacket and skirt outfit. Women’s dungarees (jeans) had been around in the ‘50s, but only for casual wear or factory/farm work. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s jeans were associated with biker gangs, hoods and rowdy rock bands. Only by mid ‘60s did jeans gain popularity. In fact, faded and patched jeans were stylish.

The few shoes in the book are mostly flats, a surprise as I thought most women in dresses wore heels. Flat heels permit more movement and are less painful for the feet. However, the pencil skirts of the time prevented women from taking long strides and forced them to move their hips more when walking.

Watching TV shows and movies of the era is a another great way to do research. One can see not only what women wore but also how they moved in the slim skirts and short hems. One of my heroine’s dresses is based on an outfit Barbara Feldon wore in “Get Smart.”

In the ‘60s, not everyone jumped on the fashion bandwagon. The older generation, i.e., my parents, continued to wear older styles. Few women in my hometown wore pants in public. My mother only put on pants once in her adult life and I thought they looked weird on her.

I’m writing from my experience. No doubt many older women of the ‘60s embraced pants and other hip styles—just not in my neighborhood.

Of course my cozy has hippies. They dressed differently from the “square” townsfolk to express their individually and distain for the “establishment.” The Sears book didn’t have hippie clothes–no surprise there–but I found examples in other books. Surprisingly, hippies shopped at war surplus stores. This seems odd considering their opposition to the war, but perhaps the reason was that the merchandise sold cheap.

Men’s fashions haven’t changed much over the years. The suit-and-tie has remained standard wear forever, although the ‘70s put a spin on that with the huge lapels, wild pastel colors and paisley shirts. The men in my book mostly wear regular shirts and pants except for the occasional denim overalls (this is farm country after all) and suspenders. And maybe a couple of bellbottoms.

In looking through the Sears book, I was struck at the beauty of the clothes. The models look feminine but not girlish, pretty yet confident, stylish but not too dated. Modern women’s clothing has a drab “unisex” look that I dislike. I’d love to wear some of the fashions in the Sears book. Let’s go retro!