I’m thrilled to feature bestselling mystery author Victoria Thompson as my special guest today. Vicki is not only a terrific writer but a master teacher whose workshops on mystery writing have inspired me and countless other Seton Hill MFA students. Below are her responses to my questions, followed by her bio and a description of her recently released Murder on Wall Street.
First off, congratulations on your recently released novel. Can you tell us about the book?
Yes! My new Gaslight Mystery, Murder on Wall Street, has fan-favorite Black Jack Robinson returning to seek Frank Malloy’s help. Frank and his wife Sarah played matchmaker for the reformed gangster, helping him find and marry a society girl who could help him become respectable. But when the man who raped her is murdered, Jack is afraid he will be accused and the whole story will come out. Frank and Sarah must help him find the real killer to save his new family from scandal.
You do such an amazing job of capturing nineteenth century Victorian life in New York City. How have you gone about researching your novels?
Fortunately, there are hundreds of books about the history of New York City, and many photographs taken during the turn of the last century that tell me even more than written accounts do. I own a good share of the books, which are an endless source of information. What I can’t find on my bookshelf, I can usually locate with a Google search. I also tried visiting the city, but too often I would go to a location only to find a department store instead of the neighborhood I was hoping to see, so I stopped visiting.
You’ve always been one of my heroes in terms of resilience and perseverance as a writer. I recall your telling us grad students at Seton Hill that after writing many historical romances, the market more or less dried up, but you continued to write. Can you tell our readers about your transition to historical mystery writing?
Yes, I published 20 historical romances back in the heyday, from 1985 to 1997. Those books sold extremely well, so publishers decided to publish more of them. This flooded the market, which meant sales of individual titles dropped. Some dropped so much that the publisher stopped buying books from them, and I was one of those authors. My agent had been encouraging me to try to write a mystery series, but I’d been resisting. After a year of rejections, my agent called to tell me she’d had lunch with an editor at Berkley Publishing. They were looking for someone to write a mystery series set in turn of the century New York City with a midwife as the heroine. Would I be interested? My daughter had just started attending NYU and we had walked around Greenwich Village and even bought a couple books on the history, just because. I was then working for the March of Dimes and several of my volunteers were actually midwives. It was kismet! So I wrote a proposal, adding police detective Frank Malloy to the mix, and that became Murder on Astor Place, the first Gaslight Mystery.
You currently have two very successful mystery series, the Gaslight Mysteries and the Counterfeit Lady Novels. What was the initial inspiration for each?
As I said, my inspiration for the Gaslight Mystery Series was the fact that a publisher was looking for it! The Counterfeit Lady Series was quite different. I’d discussed ideas for a second series with my editor and she had suggested the early 20th century as a setting. I began researching and came across the biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt. Consuelo was one of those American heiresses who married a penniless British aristocrat so her family could brag that they had a duchess in the family. The Duke in turn got much needed funds to fix up his ancestral estate. But what really interested me was that Consuelo had become involved with the Woman Suffrage movement in England. At the same time, her mother had become involved with the Woman Suffrage movement in America, providing a large share of the financing, too. I started reading more about the Woman Suffrage movement. I learned that the women who demonstrated for the right to vote were abused and beaten and imprisoned and even sexually assaulted. I didn’t know that! I felt it was a story that should be told, but how to tell it without making it sound like a textbook? That’s when I decided to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider, someone who didn’t believe in the cause and thought the women were all idiots for getting themselves arrested just so they could vote. I created con artist Elizabeth Miles to be my heroine. She very quickly becomes a convert to the cause, but she also discovers that her skill at conning people can be used to help others.
How would you describe the major differences between the two series?
The differences are that everything in the Counterfeit Lady Series is backwards from the Gaslight Mysteries. Sarah in the Gaslights is a good person and Frank Malloy is a crooked policeman when the series begins. Elizabeth is a con artist, guilty of lying and cheating her entire life, and her love, Gideon Bates, is a thoroughly honest attorney who won’t even tell a white lie. The Gaslight Series books are traditional mysteries, with a murder and suspects. Frank and Sarah investigate and discover the guilty party and see that person punished, often with the help of their circle of family and friends. The Counterfeit Lady books, however, aren’t mysteries at all. They are capers. Elizabeth discovers a person in need for whom the law cannot obtain justice. She then instigates a con (or two or three!) to punish the evildoer and get justice of a sort for the victim. Elizabeth calls on her con artist family for help and even honest Gideon is sometimes pressed into service.
What are the particular pleasures and challenges of writing a series?
The biggest challenge is keeping the series fresh. Readers can tell when an author is tired of her characters or bored with a series. It shows in the work. So far, no one has hinted that they think I’m slacking off, and that is probably because I still love Frank and Sarah and their extended family and look forward to writing each and every book, even after 24 of them. The Counterfeit Lady Series is a challenge because I need to figure out a new con for each book. I’m terrified each and every time I start one, but then I find the con and I’m just as excited as the reader to figure out how it’s going to work out.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Were there books/authors who especially inspired you as a child?
I was always an avid reader, but I don’t think I ever understood that “writer” was a possible career. People who wrote books were a breed apart, not real people at all! I did, however, love to write. And I always made up stories in my head, even as a child. Looking back, I loved all the mystery novels like Nancy Drew, but I was in my thirties before I finally figured out that I could write a book, too.
Do you consider yourself a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in-between?
When I wrote romances, I was 100% a plotter. I’d have a chapter by chapter outline of the entire book before I’d write a single word. When I started writing mysteries, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I didn’t plot it out first. I found that if I knew who the killer was in the beginning, I made it so obvious that I had to change it anyway, so I became a pantser. Or more accurately, a hybrid. I start with a victim and then figure out a cast of suspects who all have a motive and opportunity to commit the murder. Then I start writing.
You earned your MFA from Seton Hill University in Writing Popular Fiction and now teach in the program. I know you’ve helped and mentored so many aspiring writers in the program. Have you found that your teaching has also enriched your own writing?
Teaching definitely keeps my writing fresh. I’m always learning things from my students, because it’s easy to see mistakes in other people’s work and then I can recognize the same mistakes in my own. When I went through the program myself, I was able to flesh out the idea for the Counterfeit Lady Series and write the first few chapters. I also figured out, with the help of one of my classmates, how to finally (after 15 books!) get Frank and Sarah married without ruining the series.
When you’re not writing or teaching, what do you especially enjoy doing?
Oh my, I should make up something exciting, like skydiving, but what I like most—after spending time with my grandchildren—is reading and watching true crime shows on TV! So predictable. But I also volunteer in local politics, and I serve on my local library’s board of trustees. I used to love to travel and might do so again someday!
Victoria Thompson is the Edgar and Agatha Award nominated author of the Gaslight Mystery Series, set in turn-of-the-century New York City and featuring midwife Sarah Brandt, and the Counterfeit Lady Series, featuring con artist Elizabeth Miles. She also contributed to the award-winning writing textbook Many Genres/One Craft. Victoria teaches in the Seton Hill University master’s program in writing popular fiction. She lives in Illinois with her husband and a very spoiled little dog. Follow her on Facebook at Victoria.Thompson.Author and on Twitter @gaslightvt. Visit her webpage www.victoriathompson.com.
About Murder on Wall Street:
Midwife Sarah Brandt Malloy and her detective husband, Frank, must discover who killed a prominent—but despised—society banker before an innocent family is destroyed in Murder on Wall Street, an all-new Gaslight Mystery in the USA Today bestselling series.
Reformed gangster Jack Robinson is working hard to bolster his image in Gilded Age New York City society as he prepares to become a new father. But when Hayden Norcross, the man who nearly ruined his wife, is shot in cold blood, Jack knows the police will soon come knocking on his door. Frank Malloy has to agree—things don’t look good for Jack. But surely a man as unlikeable as Hayden had more than a few enemies. And it’s soon clear that plenty of the upper echelon as well as the denizens of the most squalid areas of the city seem to have hated him.
Sarah and Frank have their work cut out for them. As the daughter of the elite Decker family, Sarah has access to the social circles Hayden frequented, and the more she learns about his horrific treatment of women, the more disturbed she becomes. And as Frank investigates, he finds that Hayden had a host of unsavory habits that may have hastened his demise. But who finally killed him? Sarah and Frank must put the pieces together quickly before time runs out and Jack’s hard-won new life and family are ripped apart.