Last week, Sarah Woodbury wrote a post about setting her newest Gareth and Gwen Medieval mystery, Fallen Princess, during the Celtic celebration of what is now known as Halloween. Coincidentally, I’d written a similar post last year about setting a scene of Uneasy Spirits, my second San Francisco Victorian mystery, during Halloween. I’d had so much fun weaving historical details about how the Irish in America celebrated this holiday into the plot of that book that that I decided to do something similar, this time setting my third book in the series, Bloody Lessons, in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day
But first I had to find out how people in San Francisco celebrated Valentine’s Day in 1880. Would they send cards, and, if so, would they have been hand made or commercially made, and were they only given to sweethearts or was it common to give them to family and friends?
It didn’t take long to find out the answers to these questions, along with lots of fun pictures of Victorian-era cards. What I discovered was while that hand-made valentines had been popular in Europe for centuries, by the early 19th century valentines began to be made in factories in England. Victorian Americans embraced the holiday as well, and the first mass-produced cards made in this country were produced by an printer and artist Esther Howland, who started making them by hand in her home, employing her friends and family to help her. By the end of the 19th century, the manufacture of valentines had become entirely mechanized. Like New Years Day cards and Christmas cards, Valentine’s Day cards were something one sent to friends and relatives, not just sweet-hearts.
I now knew that Annie Fuller, my main protagonist, who had been in a Female Academy in the late 1860s, would have been familiar with making and exchanging valentines. But I also learned that in 1880 when the book is set, stationers and department stores had French imported and American-made cards available for sale—at a price that ranged from 5 cents to 5 dollars a card. But, it was clear that people still made their own cards because one article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1881 stated that: “The progress of art education in this country is readily seen in the improved styles of Christmas, Easter and Valentine cards.
My next step was to figure out how to incorporate Valentine’s Day into the plot of Bloody Lessons, without sounding like I was just dumping information for the sake of showing what I had learned (an occupational hazard for historical fiction authors.)
For example, I have always associated valentine cards with elementary school (where I made cards to bring home to my mother and exchanged with my classmates the cheap store-bought ones with the silly sayings.) Since the plot of Bloody Lessons featured public school teachers (my mystery series features different occupations held by women in the 19th century), a perfect way to incorporate the Valentine’s Day theme was to have the character Laura Dawson (one of many teachers in the book) decide to make cards for all her students. The following excerpt comes from a scene in that is really about developing a possible murder suspect; however, by having Laura be making valentines, I was able to give the characters in the scene something else to talk about as I slipped the clue into their conversation.
“Laura held one of the sheets of embossed lace paper up to the oil lamp in the center of the table. ‘Kitty’s father gives her an enormous weekly allowance, and she insisted we buy all this. She said we were economizing because all of this cost much less than if we had bought the ready-made valentines at the stationers. This way we can make cards that are special for each child.’”
Having the book set in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day also helped me satisfy those readers who were getting impatient with the pace of the developing romance between my two main protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson. Not surprising, as the holiday approached, both Annie and Nate found reasons to think about each other and their apparently stalled relationship.
At one point Annie realizes that she has never gotten a valentine from a sweetheart and that: “She had a sudden desire to make one for Nate, to see how he would respond.” While in a later scene, Nate panics when he realizes that the card he got for Annie might not get the reception he hoped.
“The simple card he ended up buying showed a small boy giving his teacher an apple, with the caption, ‘Be Mine.’ Be Mine. This morning, when he reread the card before signing it, all he could think of was how possessive that sounded and that Annie would hate it.”
In the end, I came to understand that from the pink cover to the plot within, Bloody Lessons was my own valentine to the teachers of the past—and those who would read my book in the future.
So Happy Valentine’s Day to all!
M. Louisa Locke, February 3, 2014