Writer To Reader
Susan Wittig Albert
Author of the China Bayles Mystery Series
Whose story was it? Why? What happened?
I love books that tell true stories about real people who survive enormous challenges. That was why, when I read Eric Larson’s book, Isaac’s Storm, about the hurricane that wiped out Galveston TX in 1900, I knew I had to write about it. The hurricane—to this day, the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States—struck Galveston Island on September 8, 1900. It killed as many as twelve thousand people (nobody really knows how many), wiped out whole families, and changed the destiny of the city of Galveston, which at the time was the most important port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane fascinated me because it was a Texas event, of course—and because Galveston worked so hard to rebuild itself. But the storm is also fascinating because it’s not just historical, it’s timely and topical. Hurricanes happen today, and when they hit big cities (Katrina’s hammering of New Orleans is a terrifying example), they’re hugely destructive.
So I began to collect research materials describing the 1900 storm (the list of documents and books I used is in Widow’s Tears) and think about how I would tell such a story. Whose story was it? Why? What happened? What happened after that? Out of answers to these questions, I fashioned Rachel Blackwood, her family, and her cook-housekeeper Colleen O’Reilly, basing them on the real hurricane survivors and victims I was reading about in my research. I sketched out the Blackwood story, or most of it, from beginning to end.
But I wasn’t writing a standalone historical novel (believe me: I was tempted!). I was supposed to be writing the next book in an ongoing series of contemporary mysteries. So I faced the challenge of incorporating this compelling backstory into the lives of my series characters, China Bayles and Ruby Wilcox, China’s best friend. I fiddled with three or four different scenarios, most of them featuring China, who is usually (but not always) the first-person point-of-view character in these books. But nothing seemed to click.
Then lightning struck. (Well, not really. That’s just how it always seems to me when an idea sparks enough energy to produce a story.) In previous books in the series, we’ve learned that Ruby has a special gift, especially when it comes to solving mysteries. We’ve seen her adventures with the Ouija board in Rosemary Remembered and Bleeding Hearts, and we saw her intuition at work in Indigo Dying. But we’ve never discovered where her gift came from. We don’t know if it was a family inheritance or uniquely hers. And while we’ve learned bits and pieces of Ruby’s history, we’ve never heard the full story. This would be a good opportunity to learn more about her—and to see her learning to come to terms with her gift and show us just how good she is at looking deeply into mysteries that are often completely hidden from everyone else.
So I began crafting a narrative that would link Ruby to Rachel Blackwood and to the Galveston hurricane, both in the present time and the past. What I thought of as the “Ruby story” involves a friend who has inherited an old house with a strange history. And of course, there’s China. I couldn’t very well leave her out. But what kind of role could she play in this already complicated mystery?
And there was still one other challenge. Every book in the China Bayles series (soon to be 23 and counting) has some sort of herbal theme. Sometimes the book is based around a single herb, such as Lavender Lies and A Dilly of a Death. Wormwood is based on the Shakers, a historical sect that grew herbs and crafted herbal medicinal products. Indigo Dying includes many herbs that are used as coloring agents, and Mourning Gloria involves psychoactive herbs. Cat’s Claw is built around herbs that have thorns, spikes, or prickles.
I had already settled on the title herb for the Ruby/Blackwood story: a plant called dayflower or widow’s tears (Commelina) because as it fades it seems to weep. But I wanted something larger, an idea that would allow me (and China, of course) to bring in a wider variety of plants. That’s when I decided to base the herbal theme of the book on the Victorian “language of flowers,” or Florigraphy, in which every plant has its own meaning. It was fun and satisfying to introduce readers to this somewhat esoteric language and to show how plants were once used to spell a story.
I hope you’ll enjoy Widow’s Tears, and that as you read it, you’ll reflect on the ways in which these different threads (Rachel Blackwood’s story, Ruby’s story, China’s story, the herbal theme) were woven together into the novel.
April 1, 2014
Berkley Mass Market Paperback
In Widow’s Tears, a haunted house may hold the key to solving the murder of one of China’s friends
After losing her family and home in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Rachel Blackwood rebuilt her house a hundred miles inland and later died there, still wrapped in her grief.
In present-day Texas, Claire, the grandniece of Rachel’s caretaker, has inherited the house and wants to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. But she is concerned that it’s haunted, so she calls in her friend Ruby who has the gift of extrasensory perceptionto check it out.
While Ruby is ghost hunting, China Bayles walks into a storm of trouble in nearby Pecan Springs. A half hour before she is to make her nightly deposit, the Pecan Springs bank is robbed and a teller is shot and killed.
Before she can discover the identity of the killers, China follows Ruby to the Blackwood house to discuss urgent business. As she is drawn into the mystery of the haunted house, China opens the door on some very real danger.
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