PATRICIA RAYBON – Award-winning Colorado Author of Mystery, Essays on Faith, Race, and Grace. 

It’s 1923, and a young Black theologian—and Sherlock Holmes fan—receives a cryptic telegram to return home to Denver to solve the cold-case murder of her estranged father. But, in a city ruled by the KKK, will she unravel the crime before becoming a victim, too?

 

Patricia Raybon, former Denver Post reporter and former journalism faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is an award-winning Colorado author and novelist who writes at the intersection of faith and race. Her published books include My First White Friend, winner of the Christopher Award, and I Told the Mountain to Move, a Book of the Year finalist in Christianity Today’s 2006 book awards.

Her debut historical mystery, All That Is Secret—a Parade Magazine pick for “Mysteries We Love” Fall 2021—released October. 5th from Tyndale House. CrimeReads listed it among the “Most Anticipated Books of 2021: Fall/Winter Edition.”

Where did the idea come from to write about 1920s Denver and the Ku Klux Klan corruption? First, I love “clergy” mysteries—Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, Grantchester’s vicar Will Davenport, and the like. My hope was to introduce a faith character in Colorado during one of its darkest times, the 1920s.  Since fiction needs a threat element, I used the Klan as a hovering danger for a young Black theologian’s attempts to solve her father’s murder. I hope it makes for good tension.

How unusual was a female seminary professor in the 1920’s? A Black theology professor of either sex? Not totally unusual for two reasons. Many college-educated women in the U.S. matriculated at all-female seminaries, forerunners of female colleges such as Smith or Wellesley. Their goal was to prepare young, unmarried women to be teachers. Meantime, there was a move by many denominations to launch colleges for “Negroes,” now known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Some white schools, such as Oberlin, had accepted Black students even earlier—at Oberlin since 1835. While most white colleges in the U.S. didn’t admit Black students until much later, Annalee would’ve found a place to study. Her study of theology would be rare but not impossible.

Was the neighborhood burning based on an actual event? Yes, the historic Shorter A.M.E. Church in Denver—founded in 1864 and named for an A.M.E. bishop (James A. Shorter)—was destroyed by fire on April 9, 1925, with many suspecting the Klan. One year later, on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1926, the congregation moved into a newly built building on the site of the previously burned structure in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, staying at that location until 1981 before moving to Martin Luther King and Colorado boulevards. My husband Dan and I have been members of Shorter for nearly 40 years. Knowing about the fire, I used the incident in my novel, All That Is Secret.

What sort of research did you do? I started out reading histories about Colorado’s Klan. Then, I scoured old newspapers at the Colorado Historical Newspapers site (a treasure) and listened to oral histories at the Denver Public Library’s amazing Digital Collections—also poring over their old phone books, street maps, vintage photos, church bulletins. I love history, so digging through this material never got old.

Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan? What other mysteries do you like? Sherlock Holmes is my first fictional barometer for mystery writing. I also deeply love Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and I love historical mysteries set in other countries, including Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh mysteries in India, Harriet Steel’s Inspector De Silva mysteries in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness mysteries in the U.K. (and her stand-alone novels), Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries in Botswana, as well as American author William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries in Minnesota and his excellent stand-alones.

This is your first novel. What led you to try fiction? The pandemic. It sounds prosaic, but I’d started working on a mystery some ten years ago and then put it on a shelf. However, during the pandemic lockdown of summer 2020, I was desperate for something to take me away from the horrible daily news. So, I went back to my mystery. What had changed was me. Older now, I simply worried less about what people might think or say about prim Patricia Raybon writing a romantic historical mystery—or worry about what my characters needed to say and do. No reaction could be worse than a pandemic. So, I let her rip and gave it my all.

Did you find the “learning curve” challenging? I found it exciting. I’ve been reading about fiction writing for at least 30 years. I admire the format and always wanted to learn how to plot a novel. So, during the pandemic, I sat myself down on my back deck and re-read Robert McKee’s wonderful screenwriter’s “bible” entitled Story, James Scott Bell’s books on structuring the novel, John Truby on The Anatomy of Story, G.K. Chesterton’s classic reflection on “How to Write a Detective Story,” Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, plus bunches of books on understanding story beats, especially in romance and thriller plots.

I tried to have fun with the writing so the reader would, too. That was my goal—excitement and readability.

What did you learn by writing a mystery? To treasure life even more. In a mystery, since someone’s life usually gets taken, that invites a brave look at all things in life that die—especially spiritually—for each of us. What, indeed, can we learn about life by looking hard at dying? To a theological detective, that’s a key question. As for historical fiction, hindsight reminds us that winners write history. But what’s the rest of the story? Historical fiction allows a second look. Writing my novel helped me get in touch with both sides of a historical time and place.

As for the actual plot—the moment-by-moment action—I honored those experts who say to focus on what the character wants most. Once I met Annalee and understood what she wanted—to solve her father’s murder, over everything else—that was my North Star.

I wasn’t trying to reinvent the fiction wheel but roll with what others already have studied and shared about plot—starting, in fact, with Aristotle. I’m a beginner at this, however, so I know there’s much more to learn.

Is this the beginning of a series? Where are Annalee and Jack going from here? To my wonderful surprise, the Annalee Spain Mysteries are envisioned as a series. Tyndale House requested three books to start out. Mystery readers love series, of course. So, overnight, I went from writing one book to developing a mystery series. I just completed Book 2, which I loved writing.  I love that the relationship between Annalee and Jack is an intentional subplot in the stories. So, to find out what happens, follow along on their next adventure.

Did you enjoy the experience of writing a novel? It’s extraordinary fun, so much that I regret not turning seriously to fiction decades ago. My only consolation is believing that age and life experience will make me a better novelist. I sure hope so!

Let’s connect:
At my website at patriciaraybon.com

On Twitter at twitter.com/PatriciaRaybon

Facebook at facebook.com/PatriciaRaybonAuthor

On my Faith Journey Newsletter at http://bit.ly/2jgpasW

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Michael A. Black

    I’m glad to see that the pandemic had some positive effects too if it inspired you to write your first novel. Finishing your first one is like finishing your first marathon. It’ll be easier next time. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Patricia Raybon

      Thanks, Michael, for encouraging. In fact, I finished the second in the series this summer and, indeed, it was easier. Even better, it still was fun. Always a good thing!

      Reply

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Mary Miley, historian, and author of five mysteries set in the Roaring Twenties

Miley began her fiction career with The Impersonator, winning the Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, and currently optioned for a television movie.

A graduate of William and Mary, she worked at Colonial Williamsburg and taught history at Virginia Commonwealth University for many years. She retreats to her Virginia winery for getaways, where everything she does would have been illegal during the Prohibition era.

You think it’s easy, naming characters? Ha! It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.

First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.

One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website, where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, and William; Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, and Sophia). I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Thus, lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.

But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe, so many people in urban centers had last names that were Italian, Jewish, and Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago skewed toward Irish, so I named the cop in my latest book Kevin O’Rourke. In the early part of the twentieth century, servants were often Irish immigrant girls or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen, and the Black cook is Bessie Jackson. Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of the previous generation. Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, in the early 20th century, they chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.

In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. She married an Italian immigrant I named Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!

Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the online random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then, it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll please) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.

Some authors, like my friend David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky for the author. I guarantee you, the author worries about the winning name! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any of her characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.

I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But, off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery, and that’s the era I love.

“I wasn’t proud of what I did, but I was proud of how well I did it.” It’s 1924, and Maddie Pastore has it made. A nice house, a loving husband with a steady job—even if it is connected to Chicago’s violent Torrio-Capone gang—and a baby on the way. But then Tommy is shot dead and she learns her husband had a secret that turns her life upside down. Penniless and grieving, Maddie is sure of only two things: that she will survive for the sake of her baby and that she’ll never turn to the mob for help. So when she’s invited to assist a well-meaning but fraudulent medium, she seizes the chance. She’s not proud of her work investigating Madam Carlotta’s clients, but she’s proud of how well she does it. When Maddie unearths potential evidence of a dark crime, however, she faces a terrible dilemma: keep quiet and let a murderer go unpunished or follow the trail and put herself and her baby in mortal danger. . .(Cover Flap)

And before I go, one more thing . . . who doesn’t love illustrations in a book? I sure do, but unfortunately, adult novels seldom contain illustrations—a map, perhaps, or a genealogy chart are the most readers can hope for, considering the cost. So in order to overcome this visual wasteland, I set up a Pinterest page for The Mystic’s Accomplice, where I post illustrations of Maddie’s Chicago in the 1920s, although many buildings no longer exist.

Because I weave real people through my stories (people like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio), I include photos of them, plus photos of the objects mentioned in the story. Please take a peek at the page and let me know what you think! https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/the-mystics-accomplice/

Mary Miley www.marymileytheobald.com

The Impersonator (St. Martin’s: 2013)
Silent Murders (St. Martin’s: 2014)
Renting Silence (Severn: 2016)
Murder in Disguise (Severn: 2017)
The Mystic’s Accomplice (Severn: 2021)
Spirits and Smoke (Severn: 2022)

 

6 Comments

  1. Madeline Gornell

    My first comment didn’t seem to go through? Trying again… Really enjoyed your post, like selecting name. Madeline “Maddie” (smile)

    Reply
    • George Cramer

      Hi Madeline,

      Unless you are a regular visitor, your comments are screened for viruses. That’s the reason for a bit of a delay.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      George

      Reply
  2. Madeline Gornell

    I really enjoy naming characters! Enjoyed your post.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn Meredith

    I write in modern times, and now moms are giving their kids unusual or old fashioned and biblical names: in my family we have Aleena, Avyanna, Aria, Achilles, Asher, note all the A names, Jeremiah, Olivia, Eleanor, Madeline. When I’m picking names I like to look at all the graduation programs I’ve collected and pick a first name and last name that fit the characters.

    Reply
  4. Violet Moore

    Great naming process to make fictionalized characters fit with the historical period.

    Reply
  5. Michael A, Black

    I found your reflections on writing very fascinating. The Roaring Twenties is a great and underused era for fiction writing. I love the pulp and a lot of them were written back then but you have the added benefit of looking back with a retroactive hindsight. Good luck with your series.

    Reply

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