Episode 63: Suzanne Adair

The filmy, gray quality of the smoke column rising to the southwest told Captain Michael Stoddard that they were too late. The residence was gutted. He and his patrol of six redcoats from the Eighty-Second Regiment could render no aid.

He’d seen far too much of arson’s smudge upon the sky during his six months in North Carolina. Nevertheless, he pressed his mare toward the smoke through summer’s swelter. A loyalist financier named Jasper Bellington owned the house… 

— Suzanne Adair, Killer Debt, A Michael Stoddard American Revolution Mystery


If you, like me, enjoy a good historical mystery, you are going to love my guest this week. Suzanne Adair writes mysteries set during the Revolutionary War and told from the point of view of redcoats rather than patriots. The level of research is astonishing, but what really makes these books stand out for me is the humanity she gives to her characters — loyalists, redcoats, patriots, and neutrals alike. War may be at their doorstep, but that doesn’t give anyone a license to murder.

Suzanne has a feature on her blog that I really don’t want you to miss. Called Relevant History, it welcomes experts who bring out an aspect of history not generally taught in schools and makes it relevant to the world today. For instance, my friend and brilliant historical mystery writer S.K. Rizzolo did a post for Suzanne on the subject of mixed-race heiresses in England in the early 1800s. Smart people sharing their knowledge and passion — what more could you ask for?

Well, maybe a murder or two, but Suzanne has that covered in her books. Here is her Michael Stoddard series, in order:

1 – Deadly Occupation

2 – Regulated for Murder

3 – A Hostage to Heritage

4 – Killer Debt (out May 2018)

And here are her standalones:

Paper Woman

The Blacksmith’s Daughter

Camp Follower

In addition to her website, you can check her out on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t miss info on her crowdfunding campaign for Michael Stoddard Book 4, Killer Debt. Oh, and I can’t forget the fangirl squee we gave out to Deep Space Nine!

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura


Transcript of Interview with Suzanne Adair

Laura Brennan: My guest today specializes in bringing history to life — in the midst of murder and intrigue, of course. Suzanne Adair writes mysteries set during the American Revolutionary War and featuring strong characters, intriguing plots, and a riveting look at our nation’s history — from the point of view of loyalist characters.

Suzanne, thank you for joining me.

Suzanne Adair: Thank you for having me, Laura. It’s great to be here.

LB: Before we get into your stories in particular, how did you get into writing mysteries at all? Because you’re an historian, aren’t you?

SA: Well, no, actually, I’m a scientist. That’s my original background. I originally was writing science fiction and had an agent and very close calls at New York City presses, but, you know, didn’t get the publishing contract. And I sat back and I realize, okay, my writing is good enough. But the problem is that science fiction is a really small market. I needed to switch to something that had a larger readership, and that would be mystery. I mean, I could have gone all the way to romance, and that would be a huge readership, but I really like the mystery genre. I read a whole lot more of that. So I decided to start setting fiction in the mystery genre.

LB: At what point did you decide, oh, mysteries aren’t hard enough. I’m going to set them in the distant past.

SA: I started with some paranormal suspense, so that’s sort of, kind of like mystery. And apparently, I wrote three of those, and apparently I was just before the huge paranormal wave. I had several agents were very interested in it, and they were like, we don’t know who we can sell this to. So again, I cast manuscripts aside, put them in the drawer. I had always been interested in Revolutionary War history. It probably comes from having grown up in Florida and had a lot of people, especially the tourists, get Florida’s history wrong and not realize that it did have a revolutionary past.

I had an idea for a mystery and I decided to see if I could set it in the Revolutionary war and the South, which has not been adequately represented in Revolutionary war fiction. I started writing a series and very soon into the first draft I said, okay, here I am in the 21st century and these people are in the 18th century and I’m not inside anybody’s head. I could realize that in the first draft, that I had a problem. So I had to find a way, if I was can make this mystery, this piece of crime fiction, work in the 18th century I had to find a way to connect to what these people in the 18th century viewed as day-to-day challenges, what do they struggle with on a day-to-day basis. Were talking about middle class and lower class people.

So that is what got me into Revolutionary War reenacting. I brought myself and my children into Revolutionary War reenacting for about 10 years and that gave me the sights and the sounds and the smells and the feels and the tastes, what it would’ve been like to be out following an army as like a relative of somebody who is in combat. I imbued my fiction with that. One of the results of that is people, readers telling me, I feel like I’m there. The 21st century goes away and I’m there in the 18th century.

LB: On your website, one of the reasons you say you are interested in the American Revolution was that you actually hated the way history was taught in high school.

SA: Oh, it was terrible! It was so dry and I couldn’t even be bothered to get an A or a B in the class, I just scraped by with Cs because it was so boring. It was your classic ‘memorize the date, memorize the battle,’ and there was no bigger connection to the world back then or even worse no connection to the modern world.

LB: So what you did is, you took all the good stuff and you put it in your books.

SA: Yes, I put it back in there, and I put the stuff that they edited out, the stuff that would’ve been controversial. Like, if you ask the average American, they think that people during the American Revolution here in North America were all predominantly Protestant. And after seeing a movie like The Patriot, which was terribly inaccurate, they’ll say, well, they were all fundamentalist Protestants. But that wasn’t the case at all. You had Jews here, you had Muslims here, you had people that — including the founding fathers — a number of them didn’t declare any religion. You had some Catholics here. There were a bunch of Native Americans who had their religion. There were people who had come over from Europe who had folk religions. It was a big melting pot. And that’s one of the articles that I wrote about on my blog, was the religious diversity in America during the Revolutionary War. So things like that, putting the good stuff back into history, making that piece of history a lot more interesting. Because when we think of the American Revolution, unfortunately we think of these boring guys with white wigs and they spout this unintelligible political philosophy.

LB: And that is not what it was like in every day life for the people going through the war.

SA: No. Most people weren’t even, they weren’t that wealthy planter class that predominantly were the people, the 56 signers and so forth. Most of the people were just ordinary people like us. And they, a lot of times, wound up having to do extraordinary things and find a lot of courage within themselves to carry on when war came to their doorsteps. It was really quite incredible.

LB: So first I want to talk about your stand-alones. The first three novels that you wrote were all written from the perspective of women.

SA: Right. Paper Woman, The Blacksmith’s Daughter and Camp Follower. And I decided start with women, middle-class women, because we just had never heard their voice. When you think of what it is you usually hear from the Revolutionary War, it’s usually a man’s voice and then usually that of a soldier. So I decided to, I wanted to hear a woman’s voice and that’s write a lot of the research. And I found out it was really no romance at all. And I thought it was crucial getting that out there on the page.

LB: Right. It was not a fun time.

SA: Nope.

LB: So your women aren’t just dealing with the war, there also dealing with mysteries and in some cases the murder of someone they love.

SA: Right.

LB: How did you get women in a position to be able to conceivably solve mysteries in a world in which they were particularly valued?

SA: In the first place, when the men went off to war, the women ran the business or the farm. In many cases, they did a much better job than the man did. So the women were totally capable and competent at doing this work, it’s just what society and the culture said — you know, no, your man is supposed to be the ruler of the house and so forth. So these women had the innate ability. In the case of Paper Woman, The Blacksmith’s Daughter, and Camp Follower, it was a matter of putting them each in a different position where they have supporting men. You know, men who are supportive of them using their intelligence and so forth to get to the root of the mystery.

LB: Right. One of the things I really like about that is that it does remind us that even though culturally women might have been seen as second-class citizens, that practically speaking everybody relied on each other especially to get through particular tough time.

SA: That’s absolutely true. And one thing I had to be careful about was to not let 21st century thoughts about what women are doing here in America creep into the personalities of these women in the 18th century. I couldn’t make them superduper independent and feminists and so forth, like we have now, because that would have been anachronistic. And sometimes you will read historical fiction with women are like that and they’re always spunky and doing things all by themselves, and that really would not have been the case.

LB: So then you went from these three interrelated but standalone novels, and you created a series. And this time you did choose to have a man and a soldier, but Michael Stoddard, your hero, is not one of the patriots. He’s actually a British Redcoat. How did you develop him?

SA: Well, I’d sort of been sneaking up on that point. Paper Woman, the main character there is a neutral, and neutrals during the American Revolution comprised between one-third and one-half of the civilian population. And it’s kind of about the same numbers around the world during war anyway. And then I took more of a plunge in Camp Follower, and I made that woman, the main character, I made her an actual loyalist. And Michael Stoddard, in all three of those books was a small character. He just came in for like one scene, and he was a Redcoat in all of them.

What happened was, in those first three books and in the Stoddard series, I have an overriding villain. That’s Dunstan Fairfax. And the three women couldn’t get rid of him. And I kept hearing from readers going, “When are you going to kill that son of a [bleep].” So I had to figure out, alright, these women couldn’t bump him off and I need to get rid of him to make America safe again. So I looked at Michael Stoddard and I said this has got to be done by another Redcoat like Dunstan Fairfax.

At the same time, I was also looking at North Carolina’s history. In 1781, in January 1781, I found out that redcoats of the 82nd Regiment sailed out of Charleston and sailed up to Wilmington, North Carolina and occupied the city. They were there from the end of January through mid November, so almost an entire year they occupied Wilmington. And I was amazed when I found this information because I had never learned this in history. And I thought, why? Why were we never taught this in history?

And then I researched it some more and I realized why we don’t teach our kids about the British occupation of Wilmington. Number one, while the British were there, they did a really good job. They essentially teamed up with the Loyalists in North Carolina that stopped the Continental Army from being able to move troops and supplies through North Carolina between South Carolina and Virginia. And the continentals were absolutely stymied by this.

And then the second reason was that the patriots in North Carolina did a terrible job. They did not have their act together when the British came in in January. In fact, they had actually received at least two warnings that the British were coming and they blew them off. So they scattered. They left the civilians in Wilmington to march out and meet the redcoats as they came in and the civilians peacefully surrendered and put their weapons at the feet of the British. And I thought this was an amazing piece of history. It’s very important that we understand not just our victories, but where we fall on our faces in history. That’s the only way we’re going to get this big picture and be able to learn from history.

And I thought, okay, I’m going to make Michael Stoddard, I’m going to take him out of that first trilogy and put him into the 82nd. And he’s going to go to North Carolina. He’s going to be part of that expedition that goes and occupies North Carolina. So I will make the series 6 books and explore the year 1781 from the point of a Redcoat. It’s not been done before, and I wanted people to understand that the redcoats were not all these knuckle dragging thugs. They were intelligent and they were part of an army that was basically the best army in the world at the time.

Then Major Craig, the actual, real Major Craig, James Henry Craig, was the commander of the 82nd Wilmington. I have a scene in Deadly Occupation, the first Michael Stoddard book, where he calls Michael in and he says, okay, well, we have some complaints from civilians here in town. I’ve checked your record and I think you’d be a good person to do some criminal investigation. So at that point Major Craig dubs Michael the criminal investigator and Michael’s career as a detective is off at that point. There he goes, he’s off and running.

LB: So how much of the forensics was there at the time? Was that just good common sense?

SA: Yeah, there was almost no forensics. If somebody was really with the program, they could look at blood spatter and they could give you an idea of, I think this was from 20 feet up versus 1 foot up. They could say something like that. But there were no fingerprints, definitely no DNA. In Regulated for Murder, I do something very interesting. There’s a really cool character named Noah and he’s very, very deaf. But he’s very good at sketching pictures of people. And so Michael winds up using Noah as his illustrator because Noah actually saw the criminal. Noah winds up making a pretty good likeness of this guy. So I use little things like that that might’ve happened, something like that might’ve happened. No, it’s not a professional police illustrator, but he gets the job done.

LB: One of the things I really like about these mysteries is that you do not, you don’t hesitate to go into moral quagmires. You know, it’s wartime; everybody’s lying about something. And everybody’s focused on their own survival. So the question is, how do you remain true to your own ideals when survival depends on sometimes making a deal with the devil?

SA: Well, as the series progresses, Michael makes more and more deals with the devil. That’s one of the things I wanted to explore in this series: how far can I make him dig a hole and put himself in it and still have a sense of self-worth? And it’s become very, very interesting. Readers certainly saw that in the third book, A Hostage to Heritage. And they’re seeing it even more in this fourth book, which is due out on 9 May, Killer Debt.

And Michael has to find his way through all these moral dilemmas because, for example, the Army says this is what you’re supposed to do in this case. But of course the person that wrote those rules, or the entities that wrote those rules are way off there somewhere. They’re not in Michael’s situation. And there’s extenuating circumstances. And then over here are the rules, and he has to make this uneasy marriage between the two of them. And people who read the series like Michael Stoddard a lot because he’s honorable. And I think at the end of Killer Debt he is still honorable. They like the way he struggles through the moral dilemmas.

LB: I think it’s so interesting, and especially because you are digging into a whole community that is trying to survive a war that they don’t really want.

SA: That’s right. And when the 82nd came to Wilmington, they didn’t necessarily provide — there was no court system going on. They didn’t have time to run courts while they were there occupying, you know, it was military stuff. So you’re having to make decisions and judgments about things there on the spot.

And I’ll tell you where that particular type of dilemma, where I got the inspiration for it: one of the Star Trek spinoffs, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, in the 1990s. So they had a similar situation where you had a federation group that’s off — way, way off — way out into sort of a hostile territory. And of course the Federation is way back home, light years and light years away. And the folks that are on the space station, Deep Space Nine, have to make their own judgments about things and balance — there’s a religion on the planet that they’re orbiting with hostiles that want to take over the planet for its resources and all kind of things that are going on like that. Who do we side with? What’s the right way to come out of this?

I like those kinds of dilemmas that those characters went through, and that’s one of the things that I tried to bring into the Stoddard series, too.

LB: Well, Deep Space Nine is by far my favorite of the Star Treks, actually.

SA: Yay! It’s mine, too.

LB: Big Deep Space Nine fan here. So your blog, Relevant History, it’s really interesting because it features bits of history that we don’t think about, and they’re all from the point of view of a different writer or historian — or both — just talking about something they’re passionate about and experts on. How did you decide to do Relevant History?

SA: So, back in 2011, I wasn’t getting any traction with my blog and I was about ready to give up on it and not sink any more work into it, and I decided to ask my readers what would make you come back to this blog over and over again? What would make you tune in on a regular basis to something that was there? And they said, history. It doesn’t matter what time period, just some interesting thing in history.

I thought, well, that’s interesting. I thought they were only keen on the American Revolution. And at the same time I had been searching for a way to make history fun, exciting, show the pieces that were cut out in our boring history classes. And I kept encountering these historical fiction authors who weren’t getting any visibility. And I thought, why don’t I kill several birds with one stone here? I set up a feature on my blog called Relevant History. And the key there is an author will write an essay and talk about a piece of history that’s relevant to 21st-century life. Why is it relevant? This is some unknown thing that we’ve never heard about in history and show how it’s relevant.

LB: I think we all want to be connected to the fun parts of the past and skip the dates in the tests.

SA: You know, but it’s not always the fun stuff in the past. Because that was another thing that was taken from us in history class, they didn’t want to tell us about the really horrible things, too. So every now and then somebody talks about stuff that’s really uncomfortable, like massacres and so forth. And that’s in there, too. There have been a few times when I’ve received an essay and just kind of cringed when I read it. It’s like, should I really publish this? And then I thought, no, it goes out there. People need to read this, I shouldn’t be editing like that. I should let this go out because it’s true history.

LB: What is next for you?

SA: Well, of course, I have a crowdfunding campaign that starts on March 1 and it runs through the 31st. [Here’s the link]

LB: Excellent. I will definitely link to that in the show notes.

SA: Anybody who wants to touch base with me, you can check out my website that’s SuzanneAdair.net. I have information about the crowdfunding and the book release there. So that crowdfunding campaign is coming up in March and I’m doing that to cover the publishing expenses, or some of the publishing expenses in Killer Debt. So what I really want to do in this campaign is to get eyeballs on the history and North Carolina’s history. We’re coming up on the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution and it’s not just about July 4, 2026. It’s about the years before that and the years after it, because this was a long war, it was long and drawn out. And the signing of the Declaration of Independence and ratifying it and everything was just sort of in the middle of everything. I want to bring attention to that entire war, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing the crowdfunding campaign. I want visibility on the war.

And I want visibility of course on the series which is a fictionalization of a little sliver of that war.

LB: So your crowdfunding is in March and then you have a book release coming up.

SA: Right. So then, Killer Debt will actually be released on the 9 of May of this year and I already have a bunch of author events around May in that time period and as well as this coming month, in March.

LB: Where can people find you online?

SA: My website, which is SuzanneAdair.net. You can also find me on Facebook, and there I’m Suzanne.Adair.author, and then I’m also on Twitter and that’s Suzanne_Adair.

LB: Fantastic. I’m so excited to see the book come out and for everything you’re doing. Thank you so much for joining me today.

SA: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here. I really appreciate this opportunity.

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