The Irish are renowned for their storytelling, and our guest today is one of the finest. Barbara Ross has created a doozy of a novella called Perked Up. What do you do when you’re snowed in, and the lights go out? You tell a ghost story with your pals … and if the story is a real-life one that may not have been solved … ? Oh, my! The author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries, Barb has been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and has won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from Key West! As you can imagine, Saint Patrick’s is a popular holiday here. But I’m here today to tell you about a murder and a mystery in Maine.
My publisher, Kensington, has released several novella collections, all themed around holidays. I’ve participated in five of these anthologies, along with fellow authors Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis.
The latest anthology, released this January 24th, is Irish Coffee Murder, and the holiday is … you guessed it, Saint Patrick’s Day.
My novella is always third in these collections, so I feel I need to come at the subject a little sideways. I know that by the time the reader gets to my contribution, the obvious thing, someone being poisoned by Irish coffee in this case, will have been done. I love the freedom this third position gives me and the creativity I must employ to meet the challenge.
For my Saint Patrick’s novella, I decided I would have a group of regular characters from my Maine Clambake Mystery series, sit around a fireplace on a cold March night, telling and retelling the story of the oldest unsolved murder in my fictional town of Busman’s Harbor. In the novella, each speaker has a different take on what the motive was and who the killer might be, based on stories passed down to them, and their own biases about the past.
But what was the oldest unsolved murder in Busman’s Harbor? For inspiration, I turned to the History of Boothbay, Southport and Boothbay Harbor, Maine. 1623-1905 by Francis Byron Greene, a book I’ve used a lot in the creation of Busman’s Harbor’s history, and the real-life story of the murder of William Kenniston and his wife, Octavia, in 1888.
The real murder took place in a large house that stood as a gateway to the Boothbay region for over a hundred and twenty years. It now sits derelict, a hundred yards or so from its original site, a victim of progress — i.e. a multi-millionaire who wanted a nicer entrance to his golf course. To be clear, there never was more than one suspect in the real murder. He was immediately identified, and there was never any dispute. (Though there are aspects of the story I’ve always found hinky.) Every other suspect and version of the story in my novella I made up.
For my own purposes, I moved the murder back from 1888 to 1867 — and that’s when the challenges began. I knew enough to research lots of things, like what was the state of photography in rural Maine in 1867? We know there were photographs of the Civil War, but were there photographers taking pictures in rural places? Yes, thank goodness. What was the state of the transcontinental railroad in 1867? It was completed in 1869, but that means there must have been a lot of it done by 1867, right? The suspect in the real murder attended reform school in Portland, Maine. But was reform school a thing twenty years earlier? Yes! The first building in the Maine State Reform School was completed in 1853. I’ve been going in and out of its administrative building for years, unknowing, as it is now the offices of a medical practice.
I thought I had it all handled. Until I woke up in the middle of the night late in the process — after copyedits, after page proofs — thinking, “The matches!”
In the real murder, the suspect moves around the dark house at night, lighting matches to see the things he wants to steal, leaving a trail of the burnt matches behind, smelling of phosphorous. I used this clue in every version of the tale in my novella. But when did phosphorous matches come into use in rural places? Had I made a major error? I careened around the internet, my heart beating wildly. No, I hadn’t. The first phosphorous matches in the U.S. were patented in 1836, and though information about distribution was hard to come by, they at least could have been common enough in rural Maine by 30 years later that the thief would waste them as he did.
The whole matches near-debacle gave me a renewed and profound appreciation for writers of historical fiction. It’s the detail that you don’t think to question that can get you in the end.
Dear Rogue Readers: What kind of historical novels do you particularly enjoy? Just leave your answer in a comment. We’d love to know!
Barb, this was a wonderful post! I never imagined that the author of a traditional mystery would have to do historical research! Thanks – John Sheldon
Thanks, John! I’ve done historical research before, (a mystery in the past informs a mystery in the present type of thing), but i’ve never had my sleuth try to solve a 150 year-old murder. it was fun!
I really loved the detailed explanation of how you researched Perked Up, ending with the phosphorous match conundrum. I’m a research hound myself, so reading what you went through (and probably enjoyed a lot) brought back wonderful memories! What a story you created!
I try only to write about things I want to learn about in order to keep the research fun. Left out of this particular post, because the post was about moving a story from 1888 to 1867, was the really fun research I got to do about the history of the Irish in Maine. Everyone knows about famine-driven immigration to big cities like New York and Boston, but the history of Irish immigration to rural areas is equally interesting. I totally recommend the book They Change Their Sky: The Irish in Maine, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Michael C. Connolly.
I never would have thought about matches! I just figured they’ve been around forever. But, if there’s time to do it, I always think you can fudge any detail you want as long as you admit it in the acknowledgment section. That’s why I put mine at the back of the book! You’ll find my notes such as “Fiestaware wasn’t put on the market until 9 months after this book takes place” or “the [super great piece of analytical database] doesn’t really exist.”
I have done this, too! And it’s probably smart to do it every time.
I love how you used the word hinky! I wonder if any of your younger readers will scratch their heads wondering what it means. I use it a lot at work, and all the young people there laugh at me and say they can tell I’m old.
Susie–I keep wondering how many of our grandparents and parents expressions I managed to pass down to my kids and thus to their kids. Not enough I think.
Ooh I love a good rural murder mystery, esp one set in this locale! And I appreciate the explanation of what being third does for the reader–and the story.
it’s counter-intuitive, but I love being third in these anthologies!
I’m really intrigued, Barb. I love ghost stories. And I love all sort of true crime, especially unsolved murders and mysteries. You got lucky with the matches–and I’m so glad you did. Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. You breakdown of how you chose what to research, when and why is a good reminder to cover your bases but not lose oneself in the weeds. Looking forward to reading this anthology.
Hi Chris! So glad you’re intrigued. In general, and if time and deadlines allow, i like doing two rounds of research. Big, general reading on the front end as I figure out the story, and then specific things between my first and second drafts when I make my list of Specific Things. However, in this case I missed one!