Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mary Lou Locke had two goals: to teach history and to write novels that would bring others the joy that Georgette Heyer’s historical romances and Mary Stewart’s suspense novels brought her. Degrees in history from Oberlin College and Kent State University got her started on the first goal, preparing her to teach high school history; but the arrival of the women’s movement taught her to dream higher, and Locke headed west with her husband to obtain a doctorate in history from U.C. San Diego. Throughout those years she continued to read both historical fiction and the growing work of women writing mysteries, and daydreamed about writing someday.
In 1979, while working on her doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth century western working women, she was inspired by a passage in a diary by a domestic servant that suggested a perfect setting for a cozy “locked room” mystery, and the germ of the plot of her first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, was born. (You will have to read the book to find out what role that servant and that locked door ended up playing!)
In 1989, just as she completed the first draft, she got a full time job teaching at San Diego Mesa Community College, where she taught U.S. and women’s history for over twenty years. Her first goal to teach history had been satisfactorily achieved, but the fiction writing had been put on hold.
In 2009, semi- retired from teaching, Locke finally returned to her second childhood goal, to write light, romantic, suspenseful fiction. She rewrote Maids of Misfortune, and, after researching the new opportunities in independent publishing and ebook publishing, Locke published Maids of Misfortune in December 2009 as an ebook and in print. Maids of Misfortune became a successful historical mystery bestseller on Kindle, was a finalist for the historical fiction category of the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and made Locke enough money that she retired completely from teaching and devoted herself full time to writing, completing and publishing Uneasy Spirits, the sequel toMaids of Misfortune, in October 2011.
M. Louisa Locke (her pen name) is still living in San Diego, with her husband and assorted animals, and she is currently working on the third book in the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Bloody Lessons.
Locke can be contacted at the following:
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Your new novel, Maids of Misfortune, is a Victorian mystery set in San Francisco. What excites you about this genre?
As I reader, I love mysteries; the challenge of figuring out who the murderer is, the examination of the psychology of human behavior through the lens of crime and violence, and the satisfaction of a wrong being righted. As an historian, I am always looking for ways to illuminate the past for the general public. While working on my history doctorate, I discovered my first historical mysteries, Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, and I knew I had found a way to combine my two passions, writing fiction and being a professional historian.
The protagonist, Annie Fuller, finds herself in a dilemma common to 19th century women, but she addresses the challenge in uncommon ways. Tell us how you were able to allow Annie freedoms not usually dealt to Victorian women.
Actually, Annie’s freedoms were not that unusual. While Victorian social mores said that a woman should marry and devote her life to maintaining a beautiful home for her husband and children, there were a growing number of exceptions to that rule, even among the wealthier classes. Widowhood itself was probably the biggest exception. Widows like Annie Fuller, unless they came from families of enormous wealth, generally supported themselves through boarding house keeping, teaching, domestic service, or the sewing trades (all jobs held by women in the book.)
In addition, Annie’s alter ego, Madam Sibyl, reflected the popularity of spiritualism and the occult during the period and dozens of trance mediums and fortune tellers could be found working in cities like San Francisco. Women like Victoria Woodhall, who opened a NYC brokerage firm in 1870, or Clara Foltz, the divorced woman who became the first woman to be admitted to the California Bar in 1879, were also role models for young educated women, like Annie Fuller, who began to push against the limitations of Victorian society.
This aspect of Annie’s character makes her appealing to modern women while retaining the charm of a bygone era. The detail you insert into the story takes the reader back in time as all good historical authors do. What was your favorite area of research?
My dissertation was on working women in the far west in the late 19th century, and there is a reason my book is called Maids of Misfortune. Domestic service was the occupation held by the largest number of young single working women of the time and I had fun using the material I had gleaned from the writings of mistresses, the studies of reformers, the 1880 manuscript census, and a few rich primary sources, my favortie being the diary of a young German domestic named Anna Harder. It was her complaint about sitting on the doorstep, waiting for her mistress to let her in after her night out, that prompted the key idea behind Maids of Misfortune.
Murders are meant to be solved, and the central murder in this case is important to many of the characters. What was the most interesting element of plotting a murder?
The most difficult, therefore most interesting, element was setting up the red herrings. I needed to play fair with the reader and develop clues that led to the real murderer, but I also had to develop believable motives for other characters so that it wouldn’t be too easy for the reader to know “who done it.”
Please tell us where readers can find your book, and in what formats it is available. If readers want to know more about Annie and her adventures, where can they get updates on the sequel?
Check out my author website to find where you can buy Maids of Misfortune as an ebook and a print book. In addition, I have an author facebook page where I provide interesting facts and pictures of Victorian San Francisco, as well as frequent updates on the progress I am making in writing Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to Maids of Misfortune.
Thank you, Mary Lou.
Annmarie Banks for Historical Fiction eBooks