What Are We REALLY Talking About?
by Kathleen Marple Kalb
Keep your eyes open when my characters start talking about social issues.
Chances are pretty good I’m slipping in some very important evidence that you’ll want to remember later. One of the wonderful things I’ve learned as an historical mystery writer is that all of that background gives me unique ways to work in key clues while most of the reader’s attention is on other things…for an especially satisfying reveal later in the story.
Here’s an example: in A FATAL FIRST NIGHT, most of the cast is at the main characters’ home for Sunday afternoon tea, and they get into a wonderful discussion of suffrage, women’s role in the world, and whether females can kill. Some extremely important evidence comes out during that talk, and of course, I’m not going to tell you what it is because of the potential spoiler. But that scene is one of my favorites.
I’m far from the first writer to use this trick. Many of my favorites, especially people I grew up reading and wanting to emulate, do the same thing. Elizabeth Peters, probably my all-time favorite, was the sneakiest of them all. Especially in her Amelia Peabody historical series, you’d be thinking about amulets or dead pharaohs, and first thing you knew, the Master Criminal had pulled off some dastardly deed that Amelia would sort out at the end.
Ella’s world is just chock-full of similar opportunities. Not only is there all of the social ferment to fuel heated teatime debates, there are also the worlds of opera, newspapers and sports, all of which contribute bits of the solution to the plot, and provide fun ways to get there. Plus, because this is a series about a performer, classic backstage dramas.
My favorite writers take familiar plots and tropes, and give them a twist just when you think you know what’s going to happen, and that’s what I like to do too. Ella’s relationship with her beau, Gilbert Saint Aubyn, Duke of Leith, is all about upending expectations. In old-school historical romances, a Duke is the ultimate matrimonial prize, usually drawn as a suave fellow who could have any woman he wanted but chose our heroine because she was interesting, and of course, virtuous.
The Barrister (as most of the cast calls him) is in fact a Duke, and easy on the eyes. After that, though, the tropes are out the window. He’s anything but suave, inevitably saying stupid things when he tries to impress Ella, and much more comfortable playing the lawyer he trained to be than the Peer he became. She likes him because he’s open-minded and unpretentious, but still has less than no interest in marrying him and becoming his legal property.
I’d keep my eyes open for clues whenever those two are fencing and courting. You never know where I might hide something…
A FATAL FIRST NIGHT (coming 4/27/21) opens with a murder in Richard III’s dressing room after the premiere of the Ella Shane Opera Company’s new production, The Princes in the Tower. Ella and friends aren’t at all sure about their colleague’s guilt — even though it seems obvious. Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Hetty MacNaughten has finally escaped hats to cover a sensational murder trial. Before it’s over, the cast will have to sort out several interlocking mysteries, welcome an unexpected visitor…and find another Richard III. Will everyone survive to the final curtain?
Kathleen Marple Kalb grew up in front of a microphone and a keyboard. She’s currently a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS Radio in New York, capping a career she started as a teenage DJ in her Western Pennsylvania hometown. She’s the author of the Ella Shane Mystery historical mystery series: A Fatal Finale is out now, A Fatal First Night this spring. She also just began a darkly comic new chapter series on Chanillo.com: On the Side of the Angels.
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Photo source: public domain picture from the NYPL Digital Collections