Questions for the Author of Stealing History
Q: What inspired you to write Stealing History?
A: The plot was inspired by a newspaper story (referred to in the book) about the many thefts that occur at local historical societies in New England. Even though I know a little about such places, I was surprised at how much valuable material they have and how difficult it is to protect the holdings. Then the character of Julie Williamson started to emerge, and she seemed like the perfect person to figure out what was going on at the Ryland Historical Society. Everything began to fall together around that–valuable items that go missing and a smart young woman who wants to find out why and recover them.
Q: How long did it take you to write it?
A: About a year, with stops and starts and a long digression into another Julie Williamson mystery that really follows this one–and may appear later!
Q: What are your experiences with historical societies?
A: I was trained as an historian of colonial America and so spent far too much time in the musty archives of historical societies up and down the Eastern seaboard. I always found them intriguing. Every one has its own character–and characters! At one, everyone–visiting scholars, professional staff, cleaning persons–stopped work at 4 pm and gathered in an ornate room for tea. It was fabulous because we got to know each other and talk about matters other than what we were working on. When I moved to the Bethel area, I started doing some research in the Bethel Historical Society and got involved on committees and ultimately the board of trustees. I’m also a member of the Maine Historical Society in Portland and use its research library. I just can’t get enough of these wonderful, quirky places with their colorful characters–and the great good they do to preserve local history and then make it come alive, especially for children.
Q: Will any of your associates recognize themselves in this book?
A: Not unless they have a lot more imagination than I do. While a writer always recalls and uses, sometimes without thinking, traits and quirks of real people, I didn’t model any character in Stealing History on someone I know. I’d like to think my characters are their own people with their own looks and habits and values.
Q: What special research was involved in writing your book?
A: Aside from verifying a few dates and names of historical events or people, I really didn’t do any “special research,” unless one counts hanging around historical societies.
Q: How did you come up with the main character, Julie Williamson?
A: I’m fascinated by how young people make career choices and establish themselves in new jobs because they face so many different circumstances than I did. And that applies especially to young women. So I was interested in trying to show how someone right out of graduate school would handle her first real job, how she’d establish herself and deal with people who consider her too young, or “from away,” or disqualified just because she’s a woman. Julie tries to be tough and professional, but there’s a lot about people she doesn’t know, and she’s not very sophisticated about how organizations work. She loves history, loves solving problems, and is really eager to make her mark. I like her ambition and sympathize with her efforts to launch her career in a way that serves both the Ryland Historical Society and her own interests.
Q: Aside from the Maine angle, what sets your mystery apart from all the others out there?
A: I’m not aware of any mysteries that deal so directly with an historical society, and few that feature a young woman as the mystery-solver. Small-town life is the background for other mysteries, but the combination of small-town Maine, an historical society, and a woman protagonist may well be unique. I don’t think being unique or even rare is a requirement, though, because mystery readers simply go for a good story, and I hope Stealing History provides that.
Q: Who are your favorite mystery writers?
A: Even if I were threatened with some exotic murder weapon, I couldn’t limit myself to a few favorites. I’m really wide ranging in my taste and eager to try new writers. The principal quality I look for is a strong setting and a close connection among characters, actions, and place. That’s why I like the classic British writers: Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell, Michael Inness. I love England, and they make it come alive. Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, and Ian Rankin (for Scotland) do the same in a contemporary setting. And then there’s P.D. James! It’s hard to admire her enough. Since the connection to place is so important to me, Maine-based mysteries are a special treat. I like Gerry Boyle, J. S. Borthwick, and Sarah Graves, among others. And if I have to leave the Pine Tree State in my mind, I enjoy Archer Mayor’s Vermont tales.
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to write a mystery?
A: The same advice that Donna Huston Murray gave me: write, throw away, write some more, throw away some more. (Donna, by the way, has written a series of wonderful mysteries set in Philadelphia’s Main Line, and like the writers I mentioned above she always makes the place vital. You couldn’t move her characters and plots to another setting and get the same magic.) She told me that she has a garagefull of discarded manuscripts and urged me to aim for the same. I don’t have a garage, but I do have a large cellar, and there’s a lot of paper down there. Most people think the writing itself is hard, but I’ve found the throwing away is harder because you don’t want to admit something you spent time on is worthless. But it really isn’t if you try to learn from each effort. So, with thanks to Donna Huston Murray, I’d say: write, throw away, learn from everything you do–and then apply what you’ve learned and write some more.