When I was in high school, my second favorite subject after English was History. Many a time, I’d imagine what it would have been like to live in a different time period and, accordingly, it was a natural step in my wordsmithing to invite my characters to cross paths, rub shoulders and even exchange in snappy banter with people who actually called those time periods “home.” Discovering fellow authors who share that same passion for the past is always a delight, even more so when it’s not just a stand-alone novel but, in fact, an exciting series. Our feature author this time around is Anita Davison, whose latest release, A Knightsbridge Scandal, is Book 3 of her Flora Maguire Mysteries.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer and when you first knew that penning stories of history and mystery was what you wanted to do?
A: Being a published author was not something I ever aspired to. Ordinary people like me didn’t get books published. Those with Master’s degrees in journalism and English literature who have put years of practical work experience into their apprenticeship – those people write books.
In my early 20s I lived and worked in central London, where the National Portrait Gallery was a favourite haunt. In the 17th century room hung a painting of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of 12 illegitimate children of Charles II who tried to seize the throne on his father’s death by raising a rebellion in the West Country. Inspired by his tragic story, and reading Cynthia Harrod Eagles’ The Long Shadow, at the time, I began to create a story about a family caught up on the wrong side of the rebellion. I enjoyed the process, but became aware that I was a novice where novel writing was concerned. However the idea of putting my work ‘out there’ for others to comment on terrified me, but I decided I might as well find out whether or not I could do something with it, or if I had no discernible talent.
I found an online critique group made up of both published and aspiring writers to whom I submitted my first chapters. I would like to say my submission came back covered in compliments – it didn’t! The group pretty much trashed it! Nicely though. They didn’t attack the plot or the characters, more my sentence structure and my head-hopping prose. Do I hurl the manuscript into a corner and never touched it again, or hunker down and try again? I did the latter, and that’s when I began to learn rules which aren’t taught in schools – how to use active voice as opposed to passive, putting a scene into one point of view, showing not telling, how to write effective dialogue etc. I also discovered my epic saga of over 200k words would never be accepted as a debut novel, so I split it into two and it a series; now available as The Woulfes of Loxsbeare. One day I will finish Volume 3.
I was accepted by the Kate Nash Literary Agency, who, after a brief flirtation with Victorian romance, they secured a contract for Royalist Rebel, my biographical novel about Elizabeth Murray who was a teenager during the English Civil War. I now have a five book deal for my Edwardian Cosy Mystery series with Aria Fiction. The agency’s list of authors represented is pretty impressive these days, and I would like to say my career has taken off in the same way– but that hasn’t happened – yet.
Q: Who are some of the authors whose wordsmithing structure, plots and characters have had the most influence on your own style?
A: Cynthia Harrod-Eagles ‘Dynasty’ series about a Yorkshire family inspired me to begin writing.
Q: If we could travel back in time, what are some of the books we might find on the nightstand of your 10-year-old self? How about as a teenager? And now, as a successfully published author?
A: The book I clearly remember reading at aged 10 was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury which fascinated me. In my teens I started reading Jean Plaidy, Dennis Wheatley, Agatha Christie. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor cemented my love of the 17th Century. Lately I tend to read for research but for pleasure I enjoyed Tasha Alexander’s historical mysteries, Erin Morganstern’s Night Circus, and C S Sansom’s stories of the Tudor lawyer, Matthew Shardlake.
Q: Speaking of different time periods, what was the attraction for you to Edwardian England as the backdrop for heroine Flora Maguire’s adventures?
A: I was given a subscription to a genealogy site as a gift and became fascinated with my own family history. My family were Prussian immigrants who came to London in 1880, which led me to reading all I could about London during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. With all the photographs of London at that time, as well as a store of vintage videos on the web, I soon became hooked. Less than a hundred years ago, life and attitudes were vastly different to today. It’s accepted that the Regency period was a male dominated world, but these attitudes were still firmly in place in the early 20th Century. Women did not eat out in public unless they had a male escort, and many restaurants had male only dining rooms. Simpsons restaurant in the Strand didn’t allow women in their downstairs dining room at all until 1984.
Q: A college professor of mine once said that if one is going to write mysteries in which a broad spectrum of skullduggery is afoot (including dead bodies), it’s easier to do it in an earlier century when technology was not a prevalent tool for crime-fighting. Do you find that to be the case with your own work?
A: In some ways that’s true because the clues have to be more prosaic; an overheard conversation, a document, etc., and the villain revealed without the use of forensic science. In the first book, Flora finds blood on a knife, but in 1900 there was no test to tell whose it was as blood grouping had been thought of but not perfected. Also, fingerprints weren’t used for identification until a landmark case in 1902 – but were still not considered conclusive. And poisons were easier to obtain, arsenic being an ingredient in all sorts of products. Cocaine was used in cough linctus until then 1950s.
It was easier to change identities and information was much harder to find, you had to know where to look. The SS Minneapolis was one of the first ships to carry wireless telegraphy, so my character was able send a telegram to an associate on land to find out certain facts about a suspect.
Q: Writing out-of-your-time-zone, of course, requires a lot of research in order for the storyline to feel both plausible and authentic to your readers. There’s always a danger, though, of getting so carried away by these vintage details that they can easily overwhelm—and detract—from the plot. What governed your choices regarding which research should be included and which could/should be left out?
A: Absolutely – and this is a major problem for historical writers. Personally I get so immersed in historical events that I always put too much into my stories, assuming the reader will be as fascinated as I am. Editing tends to illustrate these ‘info dumps’ though and I do follow advice and remove most of it by reminding myself I am not writing a history book. Anything which doesn’t drive the story forward or fit seamlessly into the narrative without jarring – or boring the reader – must go!
Q: When and where did the fictional Flora Maguire first step into your imagination and demand your attention?
A: I was writing a Victorian romance which began with my female character travelling between New York and London on a steamship I had researched extensively right down to the patterns on the stateroom curtains and bed covers. When the book was contracted, my editor said the novel should begin when my character steps off the boat onto English soil – thus all my intricate research and writing was dumped. However, I kept my meticulous research. I had worked too hard to consign it to the bin – and when Flora Maguire needed a crime to solve, I wanted a ‘closed room’ environment with a limited number of suspects, my steamship was ideal.
Q: Did you always intend to turn that first Flora Maguire story into a series?
A: No I didn’t. As my first try at mystery writing, I wasn’t sure if it would be credible, but the critique group and my agent said mysteries did better as a series as readers like to be familiar with the main character. When the critiquing process ended, the group asked me what was going to happen to Flora when she got off the ship. It was while I was writing Books 2, 3 and 4 that my agent secured a five-book deal for the whole series from Aria Fiction. Thus, I am currently writing Book 5. Books 1 to 3 are available and Book 4 will be released in November 2017 with Book 5 scheduled for next year.
Q: Series fiction is not without its own set of challenges; specifically, if there’s an expectation or hope that readers will read these books chronologically. But what about someone who jumps in and reads the most recent book first? How do you handle that fine line of giving them just enough background teaser to want to go back and see what they missed without giving away too much information on how the prior “episodes” were resolved?
A: I have suggested to readers that they are best read chronologically as Flora’s personal life changes, although the murder mysteries are complete stories. Flora has a mystery in her own life, which develops a little more with each book.
Q: Flora starts out her career as a governess. Given the circles in which she moves as crimes unfold, wouldn’t she be more effective as a wealthy, titled lady or an actress?
A: Flora’s station in life was a major consideration before I began. I don’t know anything about the thespian world, either now or the Edwardian era, so didn’t feel I could portray it with any conviction. The aristocracy, unless they baulked the system and existed on the fringe of fashionable society, led restrictive lives. Unmarried girls in 1900 had to do what their parents told them, while married ones had to obey their husbands. Unless I made Flora a widow, like Tasha Alexander’s heroine, Lady Emily Ashton, Flora couldn’t gad about town on her own, which is why I introduced Sally Pond, her maid and sometime sidekick. I felt that as a governess, Flora would be intelligent by nature and discreet by necessity. As an upper servant, she moves between the two worlds with ease with an ability to be invisible, so people tend to talk in front of her, forgetting she is there.
The first story is set in 1900, the beginning of a new millennium where great changes in science, medicine and society were taking place in the run up to WWI. She ventures into some unsavoury areas at times which no titled lady would enter, and with more freedom.
Q: You make mention of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in this novel. Is Flora herself a Suffragist?
A: She’s a non-militant Suffragist and an admirer of Millicent Fawcett who worked for years to have women’s rights acknowledged by the government, and succeeded to a point with the Liberal Party. Flora’s status was gained by her marriage, and had she remained a governess, the movement wouldn’t have represented her at all as they were fighting for women who owned property. One aspect people forget about the ‘Votes for Women’ fight was that the majority of working class men didn’t have the vote either. Thus, Flora has mixed feelings about the aims of the Suffragists. Flora also believes that the WSPU- Christabel Pankhurst’s breakaway militant group with their campaign for vandalism and public protest was not representative of most women who wouldn’t dream of destroying works of art or throwing bricks though windows.
Q: What does her husband think of her stance on equal rights for women?
A: He admires her and holds similar views. He’s a solicitor from a wealthy background who has fallen on leaner times and has to make his own living, so he is sympathetic to the struggles of the working man – and woman, but he also has the ability to function in both societies.
Q: Do you have a favorite character in this series?
A: Flora is my favourite as the stories are written from her point of view, so hers is the head I am inside most of the time. I do like her young charge, Eddy, though, who enters the stories as a 13-year-old boy. My editor says he is one of her favourites, so Eddy is making an appearance in Book 5 as an 18-year-old university student. He gets into trouble and runs to Flora and Bunny for help.
Q: So what’s in store for Flora in future novels in this series?
A: No 4 is at first editing stage where a murder leads her into the shady world of child trafficking. This ties in with the International Agreement for the Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic Act” which was ratified that year in the UK.
Q: Do you start with an outline or make up the plot as you go along?
A: Plotter every time. I research specific historical events which I would like to include, then work out the crime, the villain and the clues and misdirection. Then I sketch out each scene synopsis, its goal, content and conclusion– I need to know exactly where the story is going or I get lost.
Q: Does anyone get to read your work in progress or do you make them wait until the very last page?
A: I am still a member of the Historical Fiction Critique Group to which I submit my draft chapters for feedback. We have been working together for some years and trust each other’s opinion. If they tell me a character is hollow or not credible in the first draft, I do something about it.
Q: Have your characters ever surprised you and gone off the path in dialogue or action that you hadn’t originally fashioned?
A: On occasion, a character I had given a cameo role to has developed into a major one because the group really liked them and wanted more. Bunny’s mother was going to be a shadowy figure who made an occasional appearance, but now she is Flora’s nemesis. Beatrice Harrington is the archetypical Victorian widow with unbending principles and an opinion on everything. Naturally she doesn’t believe any woman is good enough for her only son, especially a governess brought up below stairs by a Scotsman. I thought she could be one character readers could love to hate and I allow Flora to score the odd point against her to assert herself.
Q: Are your previous novels Edwardian-themed as well?
A: I have written two Victorian Romances, but my first love was the 17th Century. The Woulfes of Loxsbeare are about an Exeter family caught up in the political chaos of the late 17th Century. Royalist Rebel is a biographical novel about Elizabeth Murray, who became Duchess of Lauderdale. A friend of Charles II, she was also one of his spies during the Interregnum, and was published by Pen and Sword Books
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I am happiest at home with my writing and only venture out when absolutely necessary or when bullied by my family. I don’t even like eating outside! I’ve been accused of everything from being an agoraphobic to a vampire, but I just like the indoors!
Q: What do you think is the best thing about being a writer?
A: That I can manage my own time and workload and create my stories from any premise I like, when I like. The autonomy is very important.
Q: And the worst thing?
A: Those times when I sit in front of the computer, a coffee at my side and fingers poised over the screen – and nothing comes. It doesn’t happen too often but when it does it can be soul destroying. Writers are insecure at the best of times [well, maybe not all] and when your mind is as blank as the screen, it’s hard to accept you will feel differently tomorrow, or maybe the next day. You think it’s over – forever!
Q: What’s your best advice to an aspiring author who is just starting out?
- Find your author voice and have confidence in it.
- If you write, you are an author – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- The story is the thing. A steadily moving plot, plenty of conflict and a satisfying ending is more important than flowery descriptions and a ton of woven in research. No one recalls what the heroine was wearing when she finally wins the battle or falls into her hero’s arms.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: My social media links:
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Other than promoting my current book? No, I don’t I think so, I have gone on long enough.