When I was in school, my favorite subjects, not surprisingly, were literature and creative writing, followed by assorted languages (all modern). On the flipside, I hated history. Not because I had a hard time memorizing all the names and dates, because I didn’t. And as a child of parents coming of age in occupied Europe, I even understood the importance of learning from the past so we avoid making the same mistakes in the future. But really, did I have to know the exact day Marie Antoinette was decapitated, or the details of what precipitated the French Revolution? It all happened so long ago, and it wasn’t like I had any plans of marrying royalty and wasting the country’s capital on diamonds myself, now was it?
If I’d known that one day I’d get paid good money to write a book about those things, I’d have paid more attention in school. In actuality, until last year, everything I knew about the French Revolution, I learned from reading “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
And that brings me to something that, if not exactly my point, at least has a little to do with it. Elementary school is a long time ago now, longer than I’m willing to admit, and I’ve learned a few things since then. For instance, that I don’t hate history. I still don’t care too much for history books, per se, although of course I adore books in general. But history itself isn’t so bad. I just had to discover the proper way of learning it.
Yes, there’s a proper way, at least for someone who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a text book. The trick is to sneak the history in with something enjoyable, the way a mother hides grated carrot in her kids’ spaghetti sauce to get them to eat vegetables. Wrap it in something tasty – something like a bare-chested Victorian Egyptologist digging up the treasures of Ramses I, or a swashbuckling wronged nobleman turned highwayman in 18th Century England, or for that matter a dashing fop rescuing aristos from the guillotine – and I’ll gobble it right up. And then ask for seconds. And if I really like what I’ve read, I might even go out on a limb and try the carrots... um, I mean, the history by itself, without the yummy trappings.
Anyway, last year sometime I was offered the opportunity to generate a series of cozies for Berkley Prime Crime. One of those hobby-mystery series with snappy dialogue, a little romance, and cutesy tips for do-it-yourself projects in the back. My editor wanted something to compete with the crop of home renovation programs on TV, and I promised I could deliver. If there’s one thing I know, it’s home renovation. In the past eight years, I’ve lived in eight different houses, and renovated all of them. And with the millions of TV-watchers who tune in to Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, every week, surely a few thousand would be interested in picking up a book on the same subject. Especially if the cute handyman and love interest in the book looked a little like Ty Pennington and had a low-slung toolbelt and melting, blue eyes.
Then I got one more directive. In addition to the snappy dialogue, the romance, the handyman, the cats – did I mention the cats? It’s a cozy; there has to be cats – and the helpful tips, there should be history. Some kind of historical connection to the houses my protagonist is renovating in each book. Oh yes, and if I wouldn’t mind setting the series in New England? Lots of history in that part of the country.
By then I was well and truly committed, so what could I say but yes?
I began my research by hanging a Rand McNally depicting New England on the wall, closing my eyes, and stabbing it with a thumb tack, much the same way a five-year-old attempts to pin the tail on the donkey. My pin buried itself in Maine, which was fine by me. I have no preference for one New England state over another. The cats would be Maine Coon cats, I decided, and the setting would be coastal Maine – downeast in the local lingo – now on to digging up something historical I could include.
I won’t bore you with the details of the long hours I spent in front of my computer, hunched over the keyboard, eyes propped open with toothpicks... Nah. In reality, I hit paydirt almost immediately. A search for Maine Coon cats provided me not only with pictures and descriptions of the gorgeous felines, but also with some information about their background. Including the legend that the Maine Coon breed came into being after six of Marie Antoinette’s cats came to Maine and interbred with the local feline population.
“Huh?” you’re probably saying. I’m not kidding, really. Although I’m not going to claim I believe it. To me, it makes more sense that the Vikings brought some of their Norwegian Forest Cats over back in the days when they were exploring Vinland, and that’s not only because I’m Norwegian. But some people do – believe it, that is – because it’s a well documented story, involving real people and real places. Not to mention real furniture, and what could be more convincing than that?
Back in the fall of 1793, when the Terror was raging and Madame la Guillotine was getting her daily work-out – and while Sir Percy Blakeney was dashing about the countryside saying, “Sink me!” and polishing his monocle – one Samuel Clough from Wiscasset, Maine, was plotting against the French Republic. Samuel was captain of the Sally, a fast bark engaged in the lumber trade, and sometime in the fall of 1793, a plot got underway to break the doomed queen out of prison, then hurry her onto the Sally – along with all her stuff – and head for open water. Samuel’s wife was given the heads-up to prepare for a royal visitor, and in Azilum, a tiny village in Northern Pennsylvania, the French colonists got busy building a large house, known generally as the Grande Maison and privately as the Queen’s House, to serve as a home for the dethroned and dejected Marie Antoinette.
Of course, the plan didn’t come off. Getting the message to Marie Antoinette, hidden in the leaves of a carnation, was one thing. Getting her response back out of the Conciergerie prison, hidden in an orange, was a lot harder. The orange was intercepted, Marie Antoinette was detained and later beheaded, and Captain Clough and the Sally left harbor without the queen, but with all her favorite possessions safely below deck. Including, according to legend, her cats.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? I thought so, too, so I put it in the book, along with the cute handyman, the cats, the renovation tips, and a few dead bodies. Oh yes, and a dashing Frenchman. Or maybe not...
Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say. If you want to read the rest, you’ll have to wait for the book. And if Derek – six feet tall, with melting blue eyes, sun-streaked hair, snug jeans and a toolbelt riding low on his hips – can’t make it interesting, then I don’t know what to tell you. ;-)
Published in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2008
History Mysteries, Part II
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