Every writer is subject to the influences of their time, influences that shape their work in some way. From Stephan King’s brand of horror—which he’s said was influenced by the pervasive fears of the cold war — to the oh so mannerly and delicately choreographed plots of Regency era literature, a reader can feel the spirit of the author’s era. I think that’s why I love H. G. Wells and his manly adventurers whose waistcoats and stiff collars are never out of place despite the monsters and hazards that beset them, and they always have time for a full service tea.
Covid is the strongest influence on us at present, changing behavior at a really basic social level, and I am eagerly anticipating how that will be reflected in contemporary fiction. Each genre presents a host of different affects to play with. How will full dress PPE impact the mystery and crime genre? With my mask in place, my sunglasses on my nose and a cap on my head, I am hard to recognize. Add gloves to that, and I don’t have to sweat over fingerprints. And if you’re not short and a touch chubby like me, it would be easy to quickly blend in with the (6 feet apart) crowd and make a smooth getaway. Does anyone want to get near enough to grab a suspect?
Science fiction, viewed through this lens, might use the long-lasting effects of a worldwide pandemic in interesting ways. The population has been decimated, but the disease is at last eradicated. Does the population retain a fear of personal distance? Does it become ritualized? Do they formalize ways of washing their food, like futuristic raccoons? Has public dining or public attendance at an event become distasteful, and if it is replaced, what with? That could be really fun.
Fantasy always gets a lovely reality pass. That’s part of why we love it. Fantasy isn’t required to reflect anything about the real world. But again, every writer is working through the lens of their own reality and all these new behaviors and social concerns are bound to be reflected somehow. Maybe it’s a race of creatures that are forever shunned—The Cooties. You can’t ever get close to them or they will sicken you, but the hero requires the help of those outcasts and so the taboo has to be overcome. It could be that a virus has been locked in a magic cave and as the ultimate weapon, it must be guarded by the heart of a dragon. The influence of this pandemic will be in there somewhere.
Then there’s Romance! I am especially eager to see how this genre deals with our current reality. One of the hallmarks of Romance fiction is its timeliness. We never tire of boy meets girl stories set in the shared here and now. These are tales that reflect our contemporary social and moral norms with the clarity of a mirror image. How will masks and gloves and 6 feet apart influence a love story? How will a chance meeting play out? Is love at first sight possible?
I have complete faith in Romance authors to create inventive and realistic approaches to this current social reality. I haven’t come across any yet. I may not have looked hard enough, but if you know of a romance in the time of Covid, I hope you’ll share it with me. I can’t wait to read it.
We’re here today with author, Alice Duncan, or should I say author Emma Craig, Rachel Wilson, Anne Robins or Jon Sharp. A woman who started her prolific writing career in 1995.
In an effort to avoid what she knew she should be doing, Alice folk-danced professionally until her writing muse finally had its way. Now a resident of Roswell, New Mexico, Alice enjoys saying “no” to smog, “no” to crowds, and “yes” to loving her herd of wild dachshunds.
Handy Links for Alice:
Jann: Alice, what can you tell us about your writing career and your life in New Mexico.
Alice: I began writing when I still lived in Pasadena, CA. I remember the moment well, actually. My daughter Robin and I were visiting my folks in Roswell, and we decided to drive to Fort Stanton and visit Billy the Kid’s grave (hey, you take your thrills where you find ‘em). As Robin drove, I looked at the bleak landscape, and a scene suddenly leapt into my mind. So I withdrew a pad of paper and a pencil from my purse and wrote it down. This was, I think, in August of 1993. From then on, I wrote down snippets and scraps and, in October of that year, I started to write my first book. It stank, but I kept going. I was mega into historical romances at the time, so I wrote historical romances. My first book, ONE BRIGHT MORNING, set in New Mexico in the late 1800s, sold to Harper on the day of the Northridge Earthquake in January of 1994. It was published in January of 1995. I thought I was on the road to success.
Silly me. However, as I’ve always possessed more determination than sense, I’ve been writing ever since. Once I moved to Roswell (Pasadena being too expensive to live in anymore) my infatuation for the old west gradually faded, and I became nostalgic for good old Pasadena. As the mere notion of writing anything contemporary gives me the willies, I decided to write historical cozy mysteries. So that’s what I’ve been doing for nearly twenty years now. All of them, except for three books in a series called The Pecos Valley books are set in Southern California. Daisy Gumm Majesty, my favorite character of all time, lives in Pasadena.
Jann: Your Daisy Gumm Majesty and Mercy Allcutt mysteries are set in the 1920’s. Why did you select this particular time period?
Alice: The 1920s is a fascinating decade. The War to End All Wars (which, unfortunately, wasn’t) had ended in 1918; the Spanish flu pandemic (which started in a fort in Kansas, but never mind that) wiped out a third or more of the world’s population (in other words, of those remaining after the War) in 1918-1919; the automobile had been invented and was becoming a way of life; young people started to believe their lives meant nothing so they might as well drink, smoke and party; parents were freaked about their children’s loose morals; hemlines were rising; the flickers were drawing people in by the boatload and showing them lives nobody really lived but wanted to live; and, basically, the world, it was a’changing.
Jann: ePublishing Works is republishing your Mercy Allcutt historical cozy mystery series. How wonderful! Who is Mercy Allcutt? Tell us about the world you have created for this series.
Alice: Mercy Allcutt came into being when I thought Daisy Gumm Majesty was floating belly-up in the goldfish bowl of publishing. You see, My publisher at the time, Kensington, said there wasn’t enough mystery in the first Daisy book (in which conclusion they were probably correct), and decided I should take out the dead bodies, add a subsidiary romance since the heroine was already married, and they marketed them as romances. This decision flopped magisterially, which fits the name, but didn’t do the books any good. The first two Daisy book tanked, as so many of my books do, and I had to move on to another name and another historical romance series (my Titanic books which, while perfectly good romances, weren’t what I wanted to write). So there I was, stuck in 19th century romance, when I wanted to be in a good, cozy, roaring-twenties’ mystery!
Thus was born Mercy Allcutt, a Boston Brahmin who longs to live “among the people,” an opportunity for which didn’t exist in her family’s estate on Beacon Hill in Boston. She bucks family pressure, moves to Los Angeles to live with her sister Chloe and Chloe’s movie-mogul husband, and gets a job, something no other female in her family has ever done before. She wants to become a member of the worker proletariat because she yearns to write books. Gritty books. Books set on the mean streets involving “real” people.
She figures a sheltered young lady from Boston knows beans about, grit, real people or mean streets. Therefore, she gets a job as secretary to a private detective, Mr. Ernest Templeton. Mercy and Ernie have several adventures together. One of them involves a woman I modeled more or less after Aimee Semple McPherson, who was a big Gospel preacher in the 1920s and who built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. That book was Fallen Angels, which was republished a few months back. It won the Arizona/New Mexico Book of the Year Award for mystery-suspense in 2012, which is weird because I didn’t enter it. Someone entered it for me. I don’t personally care for contests for more reasons than I want to go in to here.
Anyway, I was glad about Mercy, but I was absolutely thrilled when Five Star picked up the Daisy books. Then Five Star closed their mystery line, and I moved to ePublishing Works, a “small” publisher and the only that’s ever made any money for me! Go figure.
Jann: The reissue of Angels of Mercy will be available this month. What has Mercy gotten herself into in this book?
Alice: Mercy, who really does try to live on the income from her job as secretary to a P.I., dips into her Great-Aunt Agatha’s legacy to purchase the Bunker Hill home her sister and brother-in-law own (her parents are scandalized that Los Angeles commandeered the name Bunker Hill, by the way). Chloe and Harvey Nash (Mercy’s sister and brother-in-law) are moving to Beverly Hills. Mercy’s motives are pure. She wants to operate a boarding house for young women who, unlike her, actually have to live on their incomes as working women. All goes well until she allows a cuckoo into her nest. Then things get dicey. Mercy’s apricot-colored toy poodle plays a pivotal role in the book, too. I love dogs.
Jann: What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
Alice: Never give up. I also have a favorite quotation: “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” That’s by Henry Van Dyke. I’d leave out the “very” if it were up to me, but it isn’t. Anyway, I didn’t write “The Story of the Other Wise Man,” and Henry Van Dyke did, so what the heck.
Jann: In your books, who is your favorite character and why?
Alice: Daisy Gumm Majesty is my favorite character in my mysteries series. Daisy’s me, only with a supportive family and none of my neuroses (she has plenty of her own, so she’s not boring). And she also has a black-and-tan dachshund. I’ve collected dachshunds for most of my life, and it’s not my fault. I think a dachshund magnet was implanted in me at birth. I now belong to New Mexico Dachshund Rescue, but I managed to end up with seventy-billion wiener dogs even before that.
My favorite character from my historical romances is Loretta Linden, a wealthy San Francisco feminist who survived the sinking of Titanic. Her book, A PERFECT ROMANCE, is the middle book in my three-book Titanic series.
Jann: Do you ever run out of ideas? If so, how did you get past that?
Alice: Oh, yeah. I didn’t at first, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years or more, and I’m old and tired. In order to get past that, I ask people for suggestions! They come up with some doozies. I use them and acknowledge the donors in my books. I appreciate them so much, it’s difficult to quantify how much.
Jann: What profession would you hate to do?
Alice: I’ve pretty much hated every day job I’ve ever had, mainly because I’ve always wanted to write books. I wouldn’t have minded being a librarian, but I had to support my two daughters by myself by the time I was 19 years old, and that didn’t leave much room for writing. After my daughters grew up, writing books just seemed so hard. I mean, how do you string 400 or so pages of one story together? A friend of mine recommended historical romances, so I read them and realized that’s what I’d wanted to write since I was five. So I did.
Jann: What’s your all-time favorite book?
Alice: Oy. That’s a big job; finding one book out of thousands. However, I think my all-time favorite book is THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN, by Romain Gary. Contains elephants.
Jann: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Alice: Not sure about a statute of limitations, but I don’t think I’d better answer that.
Jann: What turns you off?
Alice: Anachronistic language and cultural mind-sets in historical fiction. There’s a PBS series called “Frankie Drake,” which is set in Canada in the 1920s. It’s absolutely teeming with modern cultural sensibilities and modern expressions. Drives me nuts (not a long drive). But people will watch it and think that’s the way it was. It wasn’t. Trust me. I’ve done so much research into the 1920s (especially in Pasadena and Los Angeles) and the American west, and I know that’s not the way things and language were. Gah.
Jann: What’s the funniest (or sweetest or best or nicest) thing a fan ever said to you?
Alice: I’ve received several letters and emails from people who tell me my books have helped them through hard times, and that makes me glad. The most amazing one came from a woman in Australia, who was, at the time she first wrote, homeless and living in her gold VW Bug with her cat, Koto. I used her story (with her permission) for the Daisy book, Bruised Spirits. I’m happy to say she’s doing much better now, although she nearly got burned out a couple of weeks ago, thanks to Australia’s hideous drought and ghastly brushfire problems.
Jann: Alice, it has been so much fun talking with you today. Thank you for giving us peak into your writing career.
You may or may not have heard – I started working for a video game company last month! I know, right?! Crazy! And sooo cool! I now work at the same company my husband, John, works for. I wish I could say more, but non-disclosure agreements being what they are… 😀
Suffice it to say, I am incredibly busy suddenly working a full-time job outside my home, and still trying to keep up what used to be my full-time job – writing and podcasting – at the same time. Oh, and throw in a weekly entrepreneurship class for foreign-born women for six months, a little volunteering at church…no wonder I’m tired!
But I still have something cool for you. I just interviewed Jennifer Dornbush, a forensic specialist and consultant on movies and TV as well as an author, about how to write a mystery. She has so many great tips! Plus, if you sign up for her newsletter, you get a free masterclass! If you’ve been thinking about trying your hand at this genre, or you want to make the small mystery element in your other books ring truer, listen to this great interview!
Wow! I recently read the most wonderful Autumn/Halloween read! Love Bites, by Annabelle Costa. This is NOT your run-of-the-mill vampire book at all! This novel weaves together two suspenseful, eerie, mysterious narratives. Tom Blake is a young man in 1905 who is falling in love when he gets his first job. Soon he’ll be out of his cruel father’s house and his life will truly begin … but why does he have such a craving for blood? When he is working at the butcher shop, and every time he gets close to his sweetheart Mary…
In present day New York City, Brooke wonders if adorable, reliable, all around good-guy Jamie might be more than a friend. When her gorgeous friend Sydney is murdered and strange things start happening to Brooke, she turns to Jamie and yeah … she’s pretty sure he’s more than a friend. But before she can act on her realization, Hunter T. Stone walks into her life and mesmerizes her. Brooke finds herself under his spell, but the closer she gets to him, the more it seems like he has something to do with Sydney’s murder …
OMG this book is soooooo good!!!! It hits the ground running and both narratives unfold with compelling grace and precision. The romances and the spine-tingling mysteries kept me turning the pages, ravenous to devour every next word! And the best part? As the story unfurled, I had NO IDEA what was going to happen – or even what I wanted to happen! I didn’t know who was going to end up being the good guy or the bad guy. I couldn’t guess who was going to end up with whom. Every new chapter offered another tantalizing piece of the puzzles, something else to consider. The stakes keeping getting upped and upped and upped! Even when you reach the climax, you still have no idea how it will all play out until the very last page. What an exciting read! Sex in the City meets Sleepy Hollow in an intriguing and unique book about vampires, murder, romance, and survival. A perfect Halloween read!
I’ve blogged here before about the importance of authors letting the world know about our books. Writers may prefer just sitting at their computers and writing. We’re more successful, though, when we actually publish those manuscripts we’ve spent so much time, effort and love on and let others read what we’ve been up to.
The internet and social media help a lot with letting readers know what we’ve written, but it also helps to get out in the world and meet readers and discuss our stories with them.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of that lately—not that I don’t always seem to have something pending. Or just behind me. I write in different genres, so I’m always busy.
Recently, I attended the RWA National Conference in Denver, where I had a great time—and was recognized for having had my 25th Harlequin novel published.
Returning home to L.A., I headed south to San Diego, where I participated in a panel called Romancing the Galaxy at Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore specializing in—what else?—mysteries and sci-fi, but they also include romantic suspense and are now branching out into more romance.
Also, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on a delightful panel with other mystery authors at the Beverly Hills Library. And yesterday, I did a reading from my most recent Barkery & Biscuits Mystery Pick and Chews at the August meeting of the Sisters in Crime, Los Angeles Chapter.
More to come? Always. Can I tell you about it? Not yet. All I can say for certain right now, though, is that it won’t involve my dancing in front of a crowd—fortunately for me and for that crowd.
One thing I wholeheartedly believe in, though, is that writers don’t just write, then promote themselves. Writers help other writers in all stages of writing, from starting out to finishing books, then getting published, and, yes, then in getting out there and promoting. So, thanks to those writers out there who’ve been there, and continue to be there, for me. And if any writer has any questions for me, whatever stage you may be in, let me know.
And, oh yes, I’ll be glad to tell you more about my own stories.
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