People often ask me what I like best about writing mysteries. My answer, always: research! For me, it’s the research behind the story that sets the mood, defines the characters, determines the action, and provides the details that make the story come alive.
My latest mystery, The Darling Dahlias and the Eleven O’Clock Lady, takes place in the small southern Alabama town of Darling, in the summer of 1934. It is the second year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and the dark cloud of the Great Depression is just beginning to lift. One of the reasons for people’s optimism: the creation of the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, the largest and most ambitious of the American New Deal programs. The WPA employed millions of people (mostly unskilled men) to construct roads and public buildings, create parks, and build airports. The most popular of all the WPA programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, which put young men (18-23) to work in remote and rural areas replanting cutover forests, restoring eroded soils, constructing parks, fighting forest fires, and building roads. They earned $30 a month, $25 of which had to be sent home to their families.
When I began to research the CCC for this book, I discovered that it was also called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” partly because it was run by the Army and partly because it was engaged with reforestation. There were a couple of CCC camps in Alabama, doing soil restoration and reforestation, so I “borrowed” one of those and planted it just outside Darling. Across America, one of the important local benefits of the CCC camps was the money they injected into the local economies: the camp spent Federal money to buy local products and pay local people as consultants, which was all part of FDR’s “local relief” scheme. But my research also showed that—human greed being what it is—the lure of big money created tempting opportunities for gaming the system, and there was plenty of fraud, both at the local level and higher up the food chain. Which gave me the idea for the central mystery plot of The Eleven O’Clock Lady, and for the characters who carry out the fraud—and blow the whistle.
When I’m writing a historical novel, I try to make sure that almost every paragraph holds several important pieces of historical information, not laid on the surface like a decoration, but built into the settings and the characters’ actions and speech. One of my favorite settings in this series is the Darling Diner, which is owned and operated by Myra May Mosswell and her partner Violet. The diner (where everybody comes to eat and just hang out) also houses the Darling Telephone Exchange, where the operators avidly listen in on everybody’s telephone calls—and then go home to gossip about what they’ve heard. I can’t think of a more intriguing way to connect people, and to guarantee the kind of accidental and deliberate miscommunication that makes for both mystery and fun. Of course, the diner also serves great traditional Southern dishes, like corn pudding, fried apples, and Jefferson Davis pie.
And yes, the recipes are included, along with a page of tips for making-do, 1930s style—all a product of research. I hope you enjoy the result as much as I do!
Series: Darling Dahlias (Book 6)
Publisher: Berkley (September 1, 2015)
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Buy: Amazon, Kindle, IndieBound, The Book Depository
New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert transports readers to the summer of 1934, when a sensational murder shakes up the small Southern town of Darling, Alabama—and pulls in the ladies of the Darling Dahlias’ garden club, who never let the grass grow under their feet when there’s a mystery to solve…
The eleven o’clock lady has always been one of garden club president Liz Lacy’s favorite spring wildflowers. The plant is so named because the white blossoms don’t open until the sun shines directly on them and wakes them up.
But another Eleven O’Clock Lady is never going to wake up again. Rona Jean Hancock—a telephone switchboard operator who earned her nickname because her shift ended at eleven, when her nightlife was just beginning—has been found strangled with her own silk stocking in a very unladylike position.
Gossip sprouts like weeds in a small town, and Rona Jean’s somewhat wild reputation is the topic of much speculation regarding who might have killed her. As the Darling Dahlias begin to sort through Rona Jean’s private affairs, it appears there may be a connection to some skullduggery at the local Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Working at the camp, garden club vice president Ophelia Snow digs around to expose the truth…before a killer pulls up stakes and gets away with murder.
Includes Southern-style Depression-era Recipes
Thanks to the publisher, I have one (1) copy of The Darling Dahlias and the Eleven O'Clock Lady to give away.
Giveaway open to residents of the US only.
Giveaway ends on September 27th
Winner will have 48 hours, from the time of notification to confirm their win or another winner will be chosen.
In 1985, Susan left her career as a university English professor and administrator and began working fulltime as a novelist. Her books include the best-selling China Bayles mysteries, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert. Working together, the Alberts have also written over 60 young adult novels. Susan's latest project is a series of historical mysteries, The Darling Dahlias, set in the 1930s.
Susan's earlier nonfiction work includes Work of Her Own, a study of women who left their careers, and Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story, a guidebook for women memoirists. That book led to the founding of the Story Circle Network in 1997. She has edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network: With Courage and Common Sense (2004) and What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest (2007).
Her latest nonfiction work (September, 2010) is a journal: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. Her memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, was published in 2009. She currently serves as an editor of StoryCircleBookReviews. Susan says that she "grew up rural" and is proud to claim farming in her family heritage. She continues to live the rural life with Bill in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and raises a varying assortment of barnyard creatures. She has three children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Darhling Dahlias Books