Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, discusses her book, her journey as an author, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Maids of Misfortune?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: Maids of Misfortune is an historical mystery set in 1879 San Francisco, featuring a young widowed boarding house owner, Annie Fuller, who supplements her income as a clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl. (Little know fact, this was a very prominent form of employment for women in the late 19th century. The classified sections of the local San Francisco newspapers list dozens of women working as trance mediums, fortune tellers, and clairvoyants in 1879.) When one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Matthew Voss, dies in suspicious circumstances, Annie goes undercover as a domestic servant to find out the truth about his death and to locate his missing assets. Nate Dawson, the Voss family lawyer, reluctantly aids her in this investigation.
Maids of Misfortune is a light, romantic mystery in the cozy style that, nevertheless, illuminates such serious late Victorian themes as class and ethnic antagonisms, constraints on women’s occupational opportunities, and male and female relationships in a period of changing social mores. This book is the first in a planned series of mysteries, featuring both Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, and I am currently working on the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, which delves much deeper in the world of spiritualism.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: At the start, I write detailed mini-biographies for all my major characters, while for minor characters I write much shorter pieces, sometimes no more than a paragraph, as I go along. Since the major characters are going to show up in a number of books and short stories, I produce a fair amount of backstory, knowing that most of the detail won’t be needed in anyone particular story, but will influence how the character develops over time. Some of the minor characters will play larger roles in my short stories or subsequent novels, so I have spent more time on their backstories.
However, as many authors will point out, one of the delights of writing fiction comes when a minor character jumps onto the page, fully formed. In Maids of Misfortune, a young man, Ambrose Wellsnap, walked into a room and stole the scene, without any advance planning on my part.
I use names and basic physical descriptions as the primary way of differentiating between characters. In addition, because I have characters of different class and ethnic backgrounds, and the work is set in a specific historical time period, I use differences in grammar and word choices and rhythms of speech to further differentiate between them.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: I have always imagined that my ideal reader is going to be a lot like me, someone who loves to read, wants to learn something while being entertained, likes a well-plotted book with humor and romance, but doesn’t particularly need explicit sex or violence to feel that the characters or situations are “real.” Since these have been the attributes I have looked for in my recreational reading since I was in junior high school, I believe that Maids of Misfortune can be read and enjoyed by a people of virtually any age, and I have been particularly delighted that not just women (the usual cozy reader) but men have enjoyed the book, which means I have done a good job in developing both my female and male protagonists.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: I knew I wanted to write historical fiction by the age of thirteen, but Maids of Misfortune wasn’t published until I was a month away from turning sixty, so you can see the journey was a long one. I came up with the idea behind Maids of Misfortune while working on my doctoral dissertation in history at University of California: San Diego. I was reading a diary by a domestic servant who was complaining about being locked out of the house in the morning when she returned from her evening off. This seemed like such a perfect setting for a locked door mystery that for the next ten years, as I finished my doctorate and got my first college teaching jobs, I kept thinking about the mystery I would write if I ever got the time.
Ten years later, in a brief hiatus between teaching jobs, I wrote the first draft. This was 1989, and historical mysteries had not yet exploded into popularity, so, although I got an agent for the book quite quickly, I didn’t get a book contract. What I did get that year was a full time teaching job at San Diego Mesa College. After twenty years of a busy and very satisfying career as a community college professor, as I neared retirement, I decided to give the manuscript one last rewrite. After extensive research to the status of the publishing industry, print on demand technology and ebooks, I concluded I was too old and too impatient to put myself through the frustrating process of trying to get my book published through the traditional route again, and I decided to self-publish Maids of Misfortune. That was in December of 2009, and since then I have sold over 10,000 copies of the book, most of them on Kindle. I even made enough money so that I could fully retire and now I am writing full time on the sequel, and I am having the time of my life!
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: I am an outliner, but before I start on my outline I write out the main themes I want to address and the broad arc of character development for my two main characters, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson. Next I decide who was killed, and who killed them, and I often write out a description of the actual murder(s) even though this may happen off stage, or even before the action in the book starts. I then work on my character biographies, and a rough chronology of events. Finally, I write my outline, which is pretty much a paragraph for each scene (setting, whose POV the scene will be in, main clues to be developed, what themes or character development points I want the scene to address.) Then I start writing, often redoing, or filling in the outline as I go along. Once I get the first draft done, I rewrite a lot, but I don’t plan on taking twenty years with this second book!
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: My current favorites are the mystery writers, Laurie King, Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny, and Dana Stabenow, and in science fiction, C.J Cherryh, and William Gibson. However, if I just want to read a book by the author that started me on my path as a writer, I reread a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer. All these authors may write what Laurie King calls frivolous fiction, but their works transport me to different places and different times, and I am thoroughly entertained.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. This classic 1935 mystery, with both an amateur detective and a female sleuth, was a revelation to me when I first read it the mid 1970s. Here was a beautifully written novel that perfectly blended romance and mystery, while exploring the question of whether or not a woman can successfully balance career and marriage. This question is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s, and, if you read Maids of Misfortune, you will see that it was relevant in the 1870s as well.
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: I haven’t done anything particularly innovative. I have an author webpage, which provides an excerpt of the book, sample reviews, and links to the various ways you can obtain the book. I have a blog, The Front Parlor, where I have chronicled my self-publishing journey. I have been fortunate that I have become a regular contributor to a number of websites, which widens my exposure. I join in when I feel I have something to contribute to conversations on the various Kindle forums, and within such groups as MurderMustAdvertise, SheWrites, and GoodReads. I have recently created a facebook author page, where I post interesting pictures and facts about the Victorian era and San Francisco, as well as provide updates on my progress on Uneasy Spirits. My short story, "Dandy Detects," was featured on KindleNationDaily, and occasionally I will be fortunate enough to be interviewed by sites like this one. I am a firm believer that the more times someone sees your name or the title of your book, the more likely they will look for it. Then if the book is good enough (as judged by the cover, description, reviews, sample chapter) and priced right (Maids of Misfortune is $2.99 on Kindle), people will buy it.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: All the reasons I love my Kindle as a reader, the wide selection of books, the ease of downloading a sample, and the instantaneous availability of a book, make it an equally great place to publish as an author. Whether you are publishing your out-of-print backlist, an independently published book, a short story, or a novella, you have options that the traditional system of distribution through brick and mortar bookstores just don’t provide. Your books can be reviewed, ranked, recommended by the Amazon algorithms, placed on best selling lists, and shelved in multiple categories, and it is so easy and painless to buy books on Kindle that it encourages impulse buys. I know that I buy more books than I ever did before I bought my Kindle, and I know there is no way I would have sold 10,000 copies of my book as an independent author without Kindle, nor made the money I have made without Amazon’s willingness to give me 70% of the profits.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
M. LOUISA LOCKE: I actually have published a blog post on this, entitled "Seven Tips for selling books on Kindle," which your readers might want to read. Very briefly, make sure your book is well edited, you have a cover that shows up well as a thumbnail, your book is well-formatted, and that you have come up with the best tags and categories for your book so that potential readers will find you when they browse the Kindle book store. Then use the various forms of social media that now exist to join in the conversations about books, writing, publishing, and the specific topics your book addresses, because that is one of the ways that your future buyer will find you. Finally be persistent and patient, because it can take time to find your market.
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery. She is currently living in San Diego, California with her husband and assorted animals, working on Uneasy Spirits, the next installment of her series of mysteries that feature occupations of women who worked in the late 19th century. Dr. Locke also spends a good deal of time sharing what she has learned about writing, self-publishing, and marketing fiction in this period of rapid changes to traditional publishing. When she finds the time, she also reads as many new mystery and science fiction authors as she can on her beloved Kindle.
Visit her website, read her blog, find her on facebook, and follow her on twitter.
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