Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Past Holds Many Secrets

Today we welcome Susan Wittig Albert to the blog. The latest in her Darling Dahlias cozy mystery series was just released and she joins us to tell about it.

One of the pleasures of writing a series of novels is the delight in discovering something new about the continuing characters: buried things, secret things, things the characters themselves don’t know (or won’t tell you). That’s why I’m hooked on series books. I’ll bet you are, too.

For those of you who haven’t yet met the Darling Dahlias, let me introduce them. The Dahlias are members of a garden club (named for Mrs. Dahlia Blackstone) in the small southern Alabama town of Darling during the early 1930s. The town is fictional, but it’s modeled after the town of Monroeville AL, which  in turn served as the model for Harper Lee’s town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, the courthouse in Darling is a twin of the courthouse in Maycomb/Monroeville. Isn’t that a coincidence? (And can’t you just see Gregory Peck striding up the steps?)


The first book, The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree, introduces the club and its history—a long history that goes back to what happened in Darling during the War Between the States.

The second book, The Darling Dahlias and the Naked Ladies involves a murderous secret in the life of Bessie Bloodworth, who owns the Magnolia Manor, a boarding house for genteel older ladies. I like to play with plant names in the titles of this series: the cucumber tree is a species of magnolia, and naked ladies look something like this:

The third book, just published by Berkley Prime Crime, also features a plant: a Confederate rose, a species of hibiscus (Hibiscus mutablis, as the town’s librarian, Miss Dorothy Rogers, would say) with blooms that “mutate” or change, starting off white, fading to pink, and finally to red. The shrub was often planted in Southern cemeteries, symbolizing the blood sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. But as I began to look deeper, I discovered that the Confederate Rose was also the name given to Rose O’Neale Greenhow (1813-1864), a Washington society belle who doubled as a Confederate spy. She is often given the credit for the North’s defeat in the first battle of the Civil War. Rose was imprisoned by President Lincoln. But using a cipher to encrypt her messages, she employed young women couriers, friends, to carry important intelligence to the Southern generals.

How does this interesting bit of Civil War history connect with the 1930s? Why, through Miss Rogers, of course, whose family tree is much more interesting—and holds many more mysteries—than she ever guessed. And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that. You’ll have to read the book and find out how all these historical tangles get straightened out.

One of my main purposes in writing this series is to explore people’s small-town lives during the Depression. My mother remembered those difficult years as “hard times,” and as a child, I listened open-mouthed to her stories. But she lived through those days because she believed that better times were coming, as long as people had faith, worked hard and worked together, and respected and cared for one another. That’s the spirit I want to reflect in these books. I hope you find it as reassuring as I do.



There’s more about the Dahlias on their website: www.darlingdahlias.com

You can read the first chapter of The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose here.



Thank you for stopping by, Susan. Readers, please leave a comment or question for the author if you wish.
 

18 comments :

  1. I love books that weave interesting tidbits of history into the fabric of a great fiction story. It's been much too long since I read a book for pleasure, and now I just might have to read all three in this series. Thanks for posting this, Dani. Definitely a winner!

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  2. Susan, I love the name Darling Dahlias even better once explained. Wedged as we are between the Great Depression and the post-apolcalyptic visions of Cormac McCarthy, Suzanne Collins, and many others, a look back can be a good reminder that many of us don't really have it all that bad.

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  3. These are good and entertaining reads, and the historical tidbits woven through are spot on! There are always bonus recipes at the end, too, and I've enjoyed trying them out. Highly recommended!

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  4. In my two historical series (The Cottage Tales, now complete; The Darling Dahlias), I'm using the recipes section to explore period foods, food prep, etc. That's been fun and a serious learning for me--takes me into food history, teaches me something new. Which, when it comes right down to it, is why I write.

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  5. I'm looking forward to reading the latest Dahlias adventure. These characters are so real to me!

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  6. Thanks, Judy. I think it's hard to construct real characters in historical fiction--it's kind of a double trick. The writer has to make the character "real," then make the character "real" in the historical setting. Not very easy.

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  7. Kathryn, yes, that's one of the reasons I started this series. Things were much worse in the 30s than now, because there were no safety nets. Elderly, the poor, the disabled--they had no help at all, except what the family might afford. There was no Social Security or unemployment insurance. Times may be hard for us, but it was worse for them.

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  8. I love your books, Susan, because you always have so much more than just a story. And since I'm a Southern girl, this series sounds great.

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  9. The DDs and the Confederate Rose sounds like another superb book, Susan! I have a whole section of Susan Albert eBooks on my iPad, and it looks like I'll be adding to it soon! Thanks for the look at the background of the series and what motivated you to write it. I always learn from you!

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  10. "she lived through those days because she believed that better times were coming, as long as people had faith, worked hard and worked together, and respected and cared for one another."
    I love these inspiring words that give me hope. How wonderful to write books that are filled with hope.

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  11. Helen and Susan, thank you. I don't have a lot of time to read, and the older I get, the more impatient I am with writing that doesn't help me understand more about the world. I think many readers share this impatience with me and prefer books that are interesting and fun, but also somehow instructive. That keeps me going.

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  12. Regina, that may seem like a strange message to convey in a murder mystery, and sometimes it takes quite a bit of doing. I write mysteries because that's where the market is--and because I like books with strong plot lines (mysteries certainly have that!). In this series, I try to create crimes that don't involve murder (after all, this isn't St. Mary Mead), and subordinate the mystery plot to the "character plots": the things that are happening in the characters' lives.

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  13. Great title and I love the way you've woven history into mystery.

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  14. Have you read another good historical spy, the Secrets of Mary Bowser? She was a Richmond slave who spied for the North. There was very little recorded for the author, Lois Leveen, to use in constructing her character, and as I read I could imagine her doing just what you are talking about here, the "double trick."
    I look forward to reading Confederate Rose

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  15. Oh, I'll have to add the Darling Dahlias to my To Read list. I grew up reading Nancy Drew - not sure if I read any that you wrote, but I'm still very excited to "meet" one of the Carolyns. Thanks for visiting us.

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  16. Looking forward to meeting the Darling Dahlias.

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  17. Could there be a more timely message than "she lived through those days because she believed that better times were coming, as long as people had faith, worked hard and worked together, and respected and cared for one another"? It seems spot on to me, and definitely a worthy goal for your writing, Susan. I'm looking forward to diving into the stories of the Darling ladies. And curious to compare this series to your non-historical China Bayles books. Enjoyed the blog post. Good on you for bringing Susan to the Blood Red Pencil, Dani.

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  18. I haven't read the Dahlia books, but am looking forward to starting the series later this fall (I am so many books behind on my Kindle!) But I remember your name ... I bought the paperback version of Hill Top Tales, or Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, years ago at a bookstore (and read it, and loved it, and passed it on to my daughter and granddaughter.) That was your too, wasn't it?
    I'll review your book once I've read it, at http://terrysthoughtsandthreads.blogspot.com
    Thanks for posting here!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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