Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Interview with Frances McNamara

What is the title of your newest book? How many books have you published?

Death at the Selig Studios is Book 7 for the Emily Cabot Mysteries. It is set in silent film studios set in NW Chicago in 1909 before they all moved out to Hollywood. The first book in the series is Death at the Fair. It's set at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was published in 2009.

How did you develop your character and choose your location?
I was working in the library of the University of Chicago when I read the memoirs of Marion Talbot the first Dean of Women and realized it was a big exciting thing for her and other women to come to the new university where women could do graduate research. Sociology was a new field of study and they planned to use the city of Chicago as their "laboratory". So that gave me Emily Cabot a Wellesley College graduate who is excited to do research in sociology at the new university. For the first book set at the Columbian Exposition, I wasn't interested in the serial killer who's in Devil in the White City, I was more interested to learn that Ida B. Wells was at the exposition doing her anti-lynching campaign. I learned a lot about Ida and was fascinated that I didn't know about such a great woman character. 

In the later books I really enjoyed having my fictional character Emily and her mentor the fictional detective Henry Whitbread meet real people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley at Hull House, George Pullman and Eugene V. Debs at Pullman, early scientists at Woods Hole, Wang Chin Fu and two real Chinese women doctors in Chinatown, etc. I love finding fascinating forgotten characters from our pasting and getting them to come alive again. I'm grateful to a lot of the women of that time who bucked the system and it's also interesting to see how problems of the past resonate with things happening in the present day. My publisher Allium Press of Chicago has the motto "rescuing Chicago from Capone, one book at a time" and I like to find all those other people who built the city and might not be remembered as vividly as they deserve.

What is a day in the life of an author like? Do you write a certain number of words, do you write in the morning or evening?
It varies. I try to write mornings now that I'm retired, but I wrote most of the books while working full time and would go on a writing binge, shutting myself away for a weekend and doing nothing but writing or rewriting. Belonging to a writing group helps me to keep to a schedule as well.

Do you belong to a writers group or are you in touch with other writers? How does that help your writing?
I'm active in Sisters in Crime New England, and was in the Chicagoland chapter before. I also belong to the local chapters of Mystery Writers of America. Another mystery writer, Susana Calkins, recently commented that the thing she hadn't expected was how nice it was to be able to socialize with other writers in these groups. It's true. Mystery writers are very generous and also helpful. It's also good to go to some conferences like New England Crimebake, or Malice Domestic. I did have a long term writing group in Chicago. We called ourselves "The complete unknowns". When I moved to Boston I did some Novel in Progress workshops at Grub Street. They were good. I have since joined another small group of published mystery writers. I find it helps to keep me honest and on a schedule to have to provide some pages.

Do you model your character after yourself or any one you know?
Emily Cabot is modeled after the women in the book Endless Crusade which covers Edith Abbott, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Katharine Davis, and Frances Kellor. They all worked at University of Chicago and Hull House and were able to accomplish a very surprising number of things. I was never interested in the high society women of the type portrayed by Henry James and Edith Wharton. I always thought, well there must have been women at that time doing something more useful with their lives, and there were. I am personally very grateful to these women who broke down a number of barriers I didn't have to face. They were really enthusiastic and excited about what they were doing as well.

If your books were made into a movie, who would you want to play the lead character?
Jennifer Lawrence, because I liked her in Hunger Games

Who is your favorite author?
Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain! But for historical mysteries I especially like Laurie King’s series about the Beekeepers Apprentice. I like the voice of the young woman who marries Sherlock Holmes. Like my books they are in first person and Mary is a woman of that time. I also really enjoy the Roman mysteries of Steven Saylor. Gordianus the Finder and his family are like figures in the foreground of a big historical painting of the historical happenings of the time. He sets the stories around the time Julius Caesar rose to power and the books skip over many years to be set with an important historical event in the background while the fictional characters deal with a murder in the foreground. I’ve chosen to move my stories along to portray some really interesting historical events like the Pullman strike and the Columbian and Paris Expositions. I read lots of other mysteries as well.

How do you keep track of character details from book to book so they are consistent?I keep a notebook. Sometimes I have to look back at the books.

If you could not be an author, what would like to do as a career?
I already was a librarian. I like being retired!!! Guess I'd be a script writer/producer/director if I had all the time and money in the world. But writing is good.


Denise Kainrath said...

The series sounds really good! I liked Michelle Cox's telling of Chicago in a different time as well. It's fun to see what our city was like in older times.

Good interview, and I agree that Jennifer Lawrence was great in the Hunger Games :)

Annette said...

Nice interview.