When Truth is Stranger than Fiction by M. Louisa Locke

Posted by on Sep 23, 2013 in 19th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research | 5 comments

My Victorian San Francisco Mystery series features Annie Fuller, a widow who runs a boarding house, supplements her income as a clairvoyant, and investigates crimes. She fights hard to maintain her economic independence, and this independent streak gets her in trouble and causes personal and romantic difficulties. This is fiction, but it also is laced with historical fact.

Maids-185x280On occasion, the factual elements of my books are harder for readers to swallow than the fictional parts. For example, some reviewers, after reading my first book, Maids of Misfortune, complained that my protagonist, Annie Fuller, is “too modern” in her attitude and behaviors. Yet, some of the most “feminist” statements Annie makes are shameless paraphrases of real speeches by real 19th century women.

Other readers found it far-fetched that I had Annie pretend to be a clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, in order to be taken seriously when she gave business advice. This is why I decided to start half the chapters in my second book, Uneasy Spirits, with the real advertisements that fortunetellers, clairvoyants, and trance mediums put in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1879 — a number of them specifically offering to give business and stock advice.

Conversely, there have been times when something I thought I had made up turned out to have more ties to fact than even I imagined, creating a kind of synchronicity or happy accident. (As I worked on this post, an example of this kind of synchronicity or serendipity emerged when I discovered that the Historical Novel Society website was featuring a series of posts on this very topic.)

What follows is a tale of how synchronicity has worked for me in my mystery series. In Maids of Misfortune, the first book in the series, the last chapter begins with the phrase WOMAN’S BODY FOUND IN TRUNK. This is supposed to be a newspaper headline that my protagonist has just read, and a reader might easily assume I had made this headline up for its shock value. Nevertheless, that throwaway line was based on a real murder case that I stumbled on a decade earlier when doing my dissertation research. I had been so taken by this real newspaper story about a man who killed his sister-in-law and lover and stuffed her body in a trunk that I decided to pop this into my fictional story.


Clara Foltz

On the surface, this could be seen as just an example of truth being stranger than fiction. However, let’s fast-forward twenty-five years to the time when I was writing my second book, Uneasy Spirits. In that book, I had planned to introduce Clara Foltz, the first woman to practice law in California, into a conversation between Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, the other main protagonist in my series who is a San Francisco lawyer.

I didn’t remember when Foltz was active in California so I looked her up on the web to make sure she had won the right to practice law by the fall of 1879, when the book was set. I was glad to discover the timing worked; she had been admitted to the California Bar two years earlier. I also learned, however, that another woman, Laura deForce Gordon, had been fighting alongside Foltz for the right to practice law––including joining her in a suit against Hastings Law School for denying them admittance the year before.

Uneasy_Spirits185x280This is where synchronicity comes in. As I read further, I learned that Gordon was a former spiritualist who had made her living in her youth as a trance medium—just as one of the key fictional characters in Uneasy Spirits had done. Instead of finding a minor historical detail that I could use to reveal how Annie’s attitudes were not “too modern,” I had discovered a real historical figure living and working in San Francisco in 1879 and a reason to give her a small role in the novel interacting with my fictional former medium.

This synchronicity continued into my third book, Bloody Lessons. Nate Dawson’s sister, Laura is an important character in this third book and part of the plot rested on her desire to further her education in order to become a lawyer like her big brother. It felt like one of those happy accidents that Foltz and Gordon finally won the right to attend Hastings Law School (part of the University of California) in the spring of 1879, less than a year before Bloody Lessons opens. The timing of the real events gave me a perfect opportunity to have Laura refer to them in her discussions with Nate about her career plans.

bloody-lessons185x280But the oddest coincidence (or happy accident) that I came across occurred when I began to do research for this post. I decided to go back and track down that trunk murder (since I didn’t even remember exactly when in the 19th century it had occurred and I had long ago thrown out my dissertation notes). I quickly found an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that told me that the murder occurred in 1880 but that the case didn’t come to trial until February 1881. I learned that the accused murderer was named George Wheeler, that he had been living in a San Francisco hotel with Adelia Tilson, his sister-in-law and lover, while his wife lived down the hall, and that, when another man came to offer Adelia marriage to help her get away from Wheeler, Wheeler killed her and stuffed her in a trunk. If I was interested in writing true crime fiction, I couldn’t have found a juicier case.

But that wasn’t the synchronicity. That came later that day when I discovered a book about Foltz and read the chapter about her relationship to Laura Gordon. I learned that both Clara Foltz and Laura deForce Gordon had actually participated in the Wheeler-Tilson trunk murder trial––Foltz for the prosecution and Gordon for the defense. Foltz, in her first ever jury trial, was hired by the prosecution because they felt she would be able to gain sympathy for the victim (who had, after all, been sleeping with her sister’s husband) in front of the (all male) jury. The defense hired Gordon in the hope that she would be able to counter the effect of Foltz. The Chronicle made a big deal out of this, writing that the “duel” between two female lawyers was the first in the United States, if not the world.

Laura deForce Gordon

Laura deForce Gordon

When I started this post, I had absolutely no knowledge of this connection between the trunk murder, which I dimly remembered from my dissertation work 30 or so years ago, and the two female lawyers. In fact, the book about Foltz wasn’t published until 2011 and nowhere else in the literature I had read about either woman had this case been mentioned.

Yet I had introduced this murder in my first book, made Gordon a minor character in my second, and in my latest book I had set up the idea that that Nate’s younger sister wanted to be a lawyer, like Foltz and Gordon. So I can’t help but wonder if Annie, Nate, and his sister will find themselves drawn into the fascinating Trunk Murder case in future books! And then fiction and fact would be truly working in synch.

Have you had such happy accident happen in the fiction you write or found that the truth was harder for your readers to believe than the ficton?

M. Louisa Locke, September 23, 2013


  1. I just wanted to say that I loved your books and really enjoyed reading them. I will admit, I love mysteries and historical fiction, AND paranormal type stuff, but I think there was another tipping point for me when I first picked up your book. My mothers name is Anne Fuller, and her grandmother was Annie Fuller. There are a few more synchronistic moments, but just that was enough to get me started. Keep up the great work! I wish you much continued success.

    • Dear Diane,

      Talk about serendipity!! Well I hope my Annie lived up to her namesakes!

      Mary Louisa

  2. Isn’t it amazing how the fiction we write is often true? I have had reader’s complain that the real estate happenings in my Regan McHenry Real Estate Mysteries series are too far-fetched to be believable, but they are true events. The deaths in the books are supposed to be fiction, but a number of them have been “ripped from the headlines,” often before the headlines were printed.

  3. That is nuts! I’ve had similar experiences, and I have to say, it is both exciting and just a little bit creepy.

    When I was doing research on one of my books, I came across the Hampstead Murders. Talk about juicy! I didn’t read it carefully until a year or so later when it came to mind again. If someone were to make a movie of it, they’d never believe it was based on fact. And yet I found the story in the London newspapers.

    Fact truly is, and quite often, stranger than fiction. Great post!

  4. M. Louise Locke- Fascinating! What a series of serendipitous occurrences, please make sure to post a link to your article here on the Historical Novel Society website/blog for the in-process series “Stories of Serendipity: Writing Historical Fiction”. Folks will love to read this!