Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Author Interview #134: Maids of Misfortune by M. Louisa Locke

Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco MysteryOur interview today is with M. Louisa Locke author if several books including Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery (4.2 stars, 146 reviews). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: It’s the summer of 1879, and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, is in trouble. Annie’s husband squandered her fortune before committing suicide five years earlier, and one of his creditors is now threatening to take the boardinghouse she owns to pay off a debt. Annie Fuller also has a secret. She supplements her income by giving domestic and business advice as Madam Sibyl, one of San Francisco’s most exclusive clairvoyants, and one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Matthew Voss, has died. The police believe his death was suicide brought upon by bankruptcy, but Annie believes Voss has been murdered and that his assets have been stolen.
Nate Dawson has a problem. As the Voss family lawyer, he would love to believe that Matthew Voss didn’t leave his grieving family destitute. But that would mean working with Annie Fuller, a woman who alternatively attracts and infuriates him as she shatters every notion he ever had of proper ladylike behavior. Sparks fly as Anne and Nate pursue the truth about the murder of Matthew Voss in this light-hearted historical mystery set in the foggy gas-lit world of Victorian San Francisco.

Author Interview with M. Louisa Locke.

1. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
The inspiration for my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series came from my work on my doctorate in history. I wrote my dissertation on women who worked in San Francisco, Portland and Los Angeles at the end of the 19th century, and I thought it would be fun to eventually write a mystery series that featured the occupations held by women of that period. The inspiration for the first book in the series, Maids of Misfortune, was a diary entry by a servant who complained about not being able to get in the house after her night out to start breakfast. This gave me the idea for a locked door mystery. In Maids of Misfortune, my main protagonist is Annie Fuller, who supplements her income as a boarding house keeper by giving business advice as Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant. Annie Fuller goes under cover as a domestic servant to find out the truth behind the death of one of Madam Sibyl’s client.
2. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
The setting of my books are Victorian San Francisco, 1879-1880, and I have found that readers really respond well to reading about a city that so many people have read about and visited. While much of the city that existed in 1880 was wiped out by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the basic geography and feel of San Francisco, with its hills, cable cars, and fog, remain the same. As a professional historian, I pride myself in recreating the feel of what it was like to live and work and walk around a gas-lit city.
3. What specific themes do you emphasize throughout the novel?

One of the themes for all my stories is the difficulty of being an independent woman in the Victorian era. This time period was on of transition for women, (who were beginning to enter the professions in unprecedented numbers, winning the vote in western states, yet being treated as frail sex objects in ridiculous corsets and bustles). My female characters are independent primarily because they have to be. Annie Fuller, after the disaster of an earlier marriage that left her destitute, is particularly wary of losing her hard won financial independence. This has made it difficult for her to ask for help, develop an honest relationship with the man who loves her, and even trust her friends. So throughout my series a common theme is the difficulties for both men and women in balancing individual personal freedom with the demands of friendship and family within the context of rigid social mores.
4. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to Maids of Misfortune, was inspired by my curiosity about 19th century Spiritualism (the belief that the dead–as spirits–could communicate with the living.) While doing my dissertation research I noticed the substantial number of females who advertised in the local San Francisco papers in the 1880s that they were clairvoyants, fortune tellers, and trance or spiritual mediums. In Maids of Misfortune I had already made my series protagonist, Annie Fuller, pretend to be a clairvoyant, so that she could use her business expertise to make money (something Victoria Woodhull and her sister, two radical women of the period, had done successfully.) But I also knew that Spiritualism was a popular 19th century religious belief that was taken seriously by educated middle class Victorians. Yet there were numerous stories of “spirit mediums” who were clearly frauds, using the naive beliefs of many to bilk them of money. I wanted to write a book that would illuminate not just these fraudulent practices (with the fun of rigged séances, etc.) but also would examine the reasons why people embraced these beliefs, leaving it to the reader to answer the question of whether or not any of the spiritualists of the time might be the real deal.
5. What books have had the strongest influence on your writing?Probably my favorite book as a small child, the one that motivated me to learn to read, and that I have read over and over through adulthood, was a book about WWII, called Chestry Oak, by Kate Seredy. It is possible that my desire to write historical novels was set by the age of 5! Next came the Regency Romances of Georgette Heyer that I began to read in high school, when I ran out of books by Jane Austen. I would hope that people who read my books would recognize my homage to the kind of social commentary mixed with romance and humour that these books had. In graduate school I discovered Dorothy Sayers and her Harriet Vane-Peter Whimsy books, particularly Gaudy Night, and these books became the model for how to write literate, thoughtful mysteries with amateur sleuths who are also romantic leads. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries set the standard for the historical mystery sub-genre for me, and Tony Hillerman’s mysteries set in New Mexico and featuring Native American characters taught me the importance of place and character-driven plots to a successful mystery. There are obviously excellent contemporary authors I could draw on, but these above were my earliest teachers.
6. Why do you think that readers enjoy your books?
While my books do tackle series subjects, like the anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco in the late 19th century, my books are basically cozies. Annie Fuller’s boarding house provides a small cast of secondary characters, much like the village life of an Agatha Christie, and the budding romance between Annie Fuller and local lawyer, Nate Dawson, played out in formal drawing rooms and sedate buggy rides through Golden Gate Park, have an Austenesque style. I even have a small Boston terrier, Dandy, (who has his own short story, Dandy Detects) who provides comic relief. I think that readers find the blend of humor, romance, and mystery entertaining and a nice break from the more graphic sex and violence found in many contemporary mysteries or historical fiction.
7. What is the next book in your series?
I am currently working on the third book in the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, entitled Bloody Lessons, which features the profession of teaching. In the late 19th century teaching was one of the few professions that was respectable enough for young women of the middle classes to hold, and it was one of the few that paid a decent wage. Nevertheless, I am discovering that like teachers today, the women (and few men) who held teaching jobs in 1880 faced similar problems with meddlesome school boards, underfunding, expanding class sizes, controversies over textbook content, and calls for reform. Plenty of material for a mystery plot.
More information about my series can be found at my website; or follow me on facebook; twitter, or GoodReads

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