Episode 7: Susanna Calkins

FleetI’m thrilled to have my first historical mystery writer! Susanna Calkins’ evocative mysteries feature Lucy Campion, a chambermaid who, amid the social chaos of the Plague and the Great Fire of London, manages to rise to the ranks of printer’s apprentice — an unusual job for a woman at the time. But whether she’s a servant or an apprentice, her quick mind and sense of justice are always at the fore. And they often end up embroiling her in murders.

We talk about Susanna’s extensive research, which include a mention that the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London is this September. We also talked about murder ballads, the inspiration for the first book in the series, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, which I am giving away as part of the May Bundle Of Books, along with Tammy Kaehler’s (signed) Dead Man’s Switch and Amanda Flower’s latest cozy, Crime and Poetry, and a $10 Amazon gift certificate.

I hunted around the Internet to find a good post to share on murder ballads, and the best one I could find was written by Susanna herself!

She also gives a shout out historical mystery writers whose work she loves: Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen. But most notably, she introduced me to the work of Sam Thomas, whose Midwife Mysteries are set 20 years before Susanna’s books. His next book will involve the backstory of one of Susanna’s characters — a literary crossover not to be missed! (And much more to my taste than crossing Jane Austen with zombies. Not that anyone would do that…)

There are four books in Susanna’s series, earning her a slew of nominations for Best Historical Mystery (Agatha, Lefty, Mary Higgins Clark, and the Macavity’s Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award). For those wanting to know what order they should read in, here you go:

1 – A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate

2 – From the Charred Remains

3 – The Masque of a Murderer

4 – A Death Along the River Fleet

Rather read than listen? Here’s the transcript. Enjoy!

Transcript of Interview with Susanna Calkins

Welcome to Destination Mystery, a podcast for readers who love a good mystery. I’m Laura Brennan.

Laura Brennan: Today I have the pleasure of talking to Susanna Calkins. Her historical mysteries feature Lucy Campion, a young woman who rises from chambermaid to printer’s apprentice in the turmoil of 17th century England, surviving both the Plague and the Great Fire of London — and using her observational skills and quick wits to find the answers to more than one suspicious death. Susanna’s books have been nominated for Macavity, Lefty, Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha awards, and her fourth novel, A Death Along the River Fleet, has just been released.

Susanna, thank you for joining me.

Susanna Calkins: Thanks for having me.

LB: So tell me, how did you get started writing fiction?

SC: Well, I started writing, I mean these books, these are my first ones, I started writing them when I was working on my research for my dissertation. And I started getting the ideas for these books while I was doing research for other things, for my academic work. And those ideas just kind of kept staying in my head and I thought, you know, I think I could write this. But further back, I mean, I did write stories all the time when I was pretty little and I was always writing. So I definitely was always interested in writing fiction, but I didn’t really put it, I didn’t make it work until much later in life.

LB: So I have two related questions. One is, why mysteries? So, why mysteries?

SC: I just really like mysteries. I really was one of those kids that did grow up on Nancy Drew and then really more Agatha Christie. I remember when I was 12, I would go home, you know, I would go to the library and I would read another Agatha Christie book. Because they were the kind you could read really fast. And I just really liked them. And then later on I discovered other mystery writers, but I was always, that was a kind story I like. I like ones that raise questions, but I like ones that have answers to those questions. That’s probably the reason I like mysteries so much.

LB: Okay then, why 17th century England? It’s not a booming sub-genre.

SC: Yeah! I mean, you know, you’d like to think, oh, I’ll herald the way towards everyone loving the 17th century. But I just picked that time because I found it really compelling. I really enjoy — you know, it’s funny to say, “I really enjoy the Plague and the Great Fire,” but it was a very dramatic time period. You know, the Puritans had just ended their stronghold on the country. Under King Charles II, there were allowed to be merriments and good things again and theaters were reopened. It was kind of a very lively time. So I thought it was a really interesting time to set my stories.

LB: And Lucy is a really interesting heroine. On the one hand she’s very much a woman of her time, there’s no sense that you kind of plucked Nancy Drew and stuck her back there.

SC: Yeah. Good! Thanks.

LB: But she also has, she’s very relatable. How did you come up with Lucy?

SC: So Lucy, in my first book, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, Lucy is a chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. So back then girls, we didn’t really have, there weren’t really working-class, middle-class, they didn’t have classes back then exactly, but if you were kind of in the servant world it was pretty likely that you would be put into another person’s home. It was just how they did things back then. And I have Lucy, I think, being picked at a servants’ fair, something like that. That’s how they brought her in. But I wanted her to be in a household that was a little more educated, and I wanted her to be in a household where people would actually answer, like be able to ask questions and that she could listen and learn. And I wanted her also to be in house — so this is at a time when the Enlightenment is starting, so this is more progressive thought, ideas of liberalism, the whole, like, John Locke. These are new ideas that are coming and the magistrate is an enlightened thinker. And I wanted him to be the kind of person that would accept an idea on its merit, and it didn’t matter whose idea it was. Because there are times throughout the books where Lucy will suggest something and in any other household, they’d say, ‘Uh, I think you need to go back to cleaning the pots and pans.’ And I didn’t want her to be in that kind of household. And I try to juxtapose that household with other households. Especially in the first book, there are thieves in those households and they’re treated really terribly by the masters, because that’s how they were supposed to be treated. And I wanted my magistrate to be someone who wasn’t just going to beat his servants all the time. Because that was common. And those households, they existed, I didn’t just make his up. I wanted it to be modeled on something real, and that’s what I did.

LB: The research you do for each book is just phenomenal. Each one touches on a different aspect. You have — you have the big moments of the Plague and the Great Fire in your first book, but then all the others also touch, they touch on religion and on health care and mental illness. I mean it’s – – how do you decide what to focus on next?

SC: It’s good question. I think it’s mostly just all the things that interest me. And I just think, Oh, I would like to know more about the science of the time, or the healing of the time. I remember thinking, why did people do bloodletting? What is bloodletting? I remember thinking that. And I was surprised, because I actually thought bloodletting was always opening up veins in the wrists, and then it turns out it’s also in the neck and the head, depending on your malady. And I just found that really interesting, to think about, well, what happens to people who are not well? What are those hospitals like?

And so in the first book, I did focus also on the law system. Because I was really fascinated by the idea that someone would be proven, you have to be proven innocent. You’re considered guilty until proven innocent. Because that transformation doesn’t happen until the 18th century. So I was really interested in law courts and how those kind of things worked. How the community polices. Later books, I was also interested in religion and political tensions. And so, you know, my dissertation was on Quakers, Quaker women in the 17th century, so I knew I had to bring in a murder in a Quaker community, which is the heart of the third book. Just because, you know, I spent a lot of time doing that research, I wanted little bit of it in.

LB: Which comes first, then? Do you come up with the — I guess there are three possibilities that I can see: you come up with the murder first, or you come up with the area of interest first, or you decide what Lucy needs in her life next.

SC: Yes, these are all good questions and they probably were not the same order for every one. But I think, because I did all this research, you know, eight years of research first, because I was working on my dissertation, I had these ideas swirling in my head for a very long time. By the time I sat down to write them, I had kind of thought about which themes I might want to focus on in different books. But as far as the specifics, I mean, I can tell you little bit about the first book, how that specifically came, the image of that one came. All my books come from images that come to me from this research. And the very first one, I was actually researching gender patterns of murder, domestic murder, in 17th century England. So how men murder differently than women. You know. It’s just a thing.

But what I found were these murder ballads. And the same story over and over. Because people used to sing about murder. And the same story was repeated about a young woman who was found stabbed or strangled, and in her pocket was always a note. And the note would say something like, ‘Dear sweetheart, please meet me in the secluded glen at midnight. Your sweetheart,’ and it would sign his name, Jacob or H.R. You know, something like that. And the community would find this note and they would say, hey, we know who Jacob is, or we know who H.R. is. Because there was no police force, and they would just go and find this — they’d say, well, we’ll go to his house, they’d round him up, they’d usually throw him in this terrible prison, Newgate Prison, he’s been arrested. And he comes to trial and usually he’s found guilty and he’s hanged. And you’d see this story over and over. And I always thought, well, who was this? Was this man framed? Didn’t the woman think about this? She’s read these ballads. And I was always — so that became the first book. Because I have Lucy (this is not a spoiler, this is the main premise), her best friend, another chambermaid, another servant, is murdered and then her brother is accused of this crime. And I really wanted that to be the heart of the story.

So that was kind of the opening image that I had. This most recent book, A Death Along the River Fleet, I had this image of a woman who was, who spoke with a noble tongue so she was a noblewoman most likely. But she’s dressed in just her undershift, she doesn’t have her dress on top. She’s barefoot and long hair, and she doesn’t know who she is. And she has blood all over her and it’s not her blood. So that was my opening image. Well, if Lucy finds her, who is this woman? How can we help her reconstruct her memory? And then that gets into like, well, what’s wrong with her? And then, obviously, why does she have blood on her. And then, when a body is found, this woman is accused of a murder.

And so, you know, I just had questions, so the questions just kind of lead to more, kind of lead to the stories. That’s kind of how I think. Like the images and then, what could happen? How did it happen? I guess that’s what it is, I have the image and then I think, well, how did it happen?

LB: Oh, that’s so neat. And Lucy’s story — so, how much in advance have you figured it out? When you were writing the first book, did you know where she’d be in book four?

SC: No! So, that’s the thing about being a very novice writer at the time. I didn’t know that there was this term called ‘series potential.’ So I just wrote it as a standalone. It never occurred to me that this would be something that — I honestly thought, oh, I’ll write my one book, this book inside me and that will be my book. I never really thought, oh, wow, a series. Okay. So I might have done, I might, I learned some things about that. I probably would have spread out my time a little bit more, because I have her — and that book, originally that book was over three years of Lucy’s life. I did trim it to one and a half years.

And then my next book, which I wrote faster, was only over three months. The third book, which I wrote faster still, took place over six weeks, and then this last book took place over maybe a month or something. But each time they took me less time to write. But I realized, that if I’d done it differently, I wouldn’t have gone through both the Plague and the Fire in the first book. I might have just done the Plague and then the Fire would’ve been the next book. We are coming up in the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. I basically put everything I knew in the first book. And I had to like, rethink the next couple of books. But that’s okay. It was fun to write about, for sure.

LB: It’s interesting because you capture not just the historical facts, but you really give us the feel of it. There is an element of romance to it, and I don’t mean romance with Lucy and her life necessarily, what I mean is, there is something magical about historical fiction, isn’t there?

SC: Well, I think so. I think for me, I really, even though I am an educator and I’m an historian, I never wanted to write this as a textbook or anything like that. I didn’t want people to be bored by history, I wanted them, even when I teach, I want people to be excited about it and enjoy, finding interesting details, the fascinating little bits of strangeness that I find interesting. I like to convey that stuff. And so for me, I wanted my characters, especially Lucy, to interact with the historical, the themes and things around her. So that I’m conveying what this world was like through her eyes primarily. And so she can touch the walls and smell the things and see the women with the peaches on their heads, you know, the pears on their heads. I wanted her to experience this world and let the readers kind of experience the world, too. Because it is kind of, it’s almost like being a tour guide. I’m trying to show you the interesting things at this time period. The things that fascinate me, I’m hoping will fascinate you as well. That’s kind of how I approach writing.

And actually it’s been quite nice. I’ve gotten a lot of reader response that say that they learned a lot about a time period that they never knew about, 17th century. And then, I kind of feel like, as an educator, like, wow, I did not intend this, but that’s a nice unintended benefit, to feel like I have taught something to people even though that wasn’t really my intention in writing.

LB: So what’s most fun part about this for you?

SC: About the whole writing…?

LB: About the writing, about releasing the novels.

SC: I mean, all of it’s really fun. It’s just really enjoyable. I love when I connect with readers. I think even now I’m still astonished when people come up to me and they say, ‘Oh, I read your book!’ And I’m like, really? You read it? Thank you! And it’s a very nice feeling. And now with four books out, more people have read more them. And I understand that, too, sometimes people wait a couple of books to start the series because they might — because I know I’m a binge reader. I’m a binge TV watcher. I’ll say, I know she is a couple more, but they’re not out yet so I’ll wait. So I know I’ll read four books at once if I really like a series. And I think people do that, too, and I appreciate that. But I think that’s been really fun.

Another thing that’s been really surprisingly fun to me is how much I’ve gotten to know about where I live in Chicago. Because I’m invited to a lot of book talks and libraries. So I’ve gotten to learn my own city a lot better, like in a way, and I get to meet so many librarians. It’s actually really fun. It’s been neat to know a different part of my community from a different way, and that was really unexpected.

LB: So what is next for you?

SC: So right now, I mean literally right now, I am working on a different series. Lucy’s not over, but I’m just switching things up right now. And it’s set in 1929, 1930 Chicago. So I’m kind of switching things up a little bit. It’s still historical obviously, obviously. But I’m kind of also interested in my adopted hometown. I’m interested in what was happening in 1929 Chicago right before the crash, so you had the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. By I still have a young, female protagonists. She’s kind of half in this world of mobsters, and half on the other side of law. Because she has a lot — her cousins are all cops, and the other cousins are all mobsters, so she has an interesting worldview. So she’ll be different from Lucy. She’s different, but I think she’ll still have heart.

LB: Oh, that sounds so good! Now I can’t wait.

SC: Thank you.

LB: What about some historical mystery writers that you particularly like. Is there anyone you want to give a shout-out to?

SC: The first ones that I read are, you know, Anne Perry. I adore Anne Perry, her books, and also I really like Rhys Bowen. I like Charles Todd quite a bit, and my friend Sam Thomas, do you know Sam? He writes the Midwife Mysteries. So this is great. We’re doing, I think, one of the first — I can’t think of anybody else who has done a crossover novel. But we have, his books feature a midwife who solves mysteries and she’s living in London 20 years before, or right when they’re born, they’re 20 years older than them. So we have it that one of my characters, Sid, is going to be delivered by his midwife. So his next book is called An Orphan’s Tale, and it’s about Sid’s mother. Which I think is kind of fun. Kind of a fun crossover for us.

LB: Oh, that’s awesome. Well, one of the things I like about the mystery community is how friendly everybody is in it.

SC: Oh, it’s the best community! I can’t tell you how shocking it was, my very first Bouchercon, the world mystery convention. I went in, I knew no one, I mean no one. I was meeting my agent for the first time, I was meeting my editor for the first time. But after that, I was just, like I had totally found an amazingly open community that is really a true pleasure to be part of.

LB: Well, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me and good luck on everything.

SC: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. Thank you.