By Skye Alexander
Writers, especially beginners, are often advised to “write what you know.” Everyone has a story to tell––maybe two or ten––and for many people, writing a book isn’t quite so daunting if you can draw on the huge body of knowledge and experience you already possess. Although that’s good advice, I find it much more interesting to write about what I don’t know. In the process of researching my books, I dig up a wealth of unexpected booty that fills my stories with riches I never imagined.
I write traditional, historical mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, set in the mid-1920s. I confess, I never liked history when I studied it in school because most of it centered on rulers, wars, and politics rather than the lives of ordinary people. But once I started researching this colorful period for my Lizzie Crane mystery series I got hooked. I realized how much I didn’t know, and I was determined to rectify that deficit.
For example, while doing research for my second novel What the Walls Know, I discovered that the first automatic gate was invented by an Egyptian guy named Heron about 2,000 years ago. He also invented a coin-operated dispenser for holy water. How cool is that? I also learned that some of the world’s great pipe organs have more than 30,000 pipes and seven keyboards, and this incredibly intricate instrument dates back to ancient Greece. Because the book features a cast of mediums and other occultists, I also delved into the Spiritualist movement at the early part of the 20th century––séances, Ouija boards, tarot cards, etc.–which turned out to be fascinating.
For my third, recently released book The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors set in 1925 in Salem, Massachusetts, I had to bone up on the clipper ship trade between New England and the Orient. In the process, I found out that these beautiful sailing vessels not only brought precious tea, spices, teak, ivory, and silk to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, but also opium (which was legal at the time). The Chinese goddess Quan Yin, sometimes considered the Buddha’s feminine counterpart, is said to have protected seafarers and ferried shipwrecked sailors to shore––hence the title for my book. Many of the ship owners whose clippers made it home safely didn’t want to pay taxes on the valuable goods they’d risked bringing from halfway around the world, so they slipped them past the revenuers via a series of smuggling tunnels built beneath the city of Salem by the country’s first National Guard unit.
Because my series is set in the Roaring Twenties and my protagonist, Lizzie Crane, is a jazz singer from New York City, I had to familiarize myself with the jazz musicians of the period. Before I began writing this series, I wasn’t a big fan of jazz but that’s changed as a result of hearing the greats such as George and Ira Gershwin, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong play. YouTube is a valuable resource for this. If you’ve never listened to “Davenport Blues” or “Rhapsody in Blue” I urge you to do so. For my fifth book in the series, When the Blues Come Calling (not yet published), I learned about the rapidly developing music recording industry, how records were made in 1926, and even a portable record player called a Mikiphone that could spin a 10-inch disc yet folded up small enough to fit into a good-sized purse.
For me, every day is an exploration into worlds unknown. During my journey, I’ve learned about jigsaw puzzles, merry-go-rounds, rose windows, ladies’ undergarments, Jell-O, New York’s subways, voodoo veves, and so much more. I never know what tidbits of trivia or historic fact I’ll stumble upon and how they’ll influence the direction of my stories. It’s so much more fun that simply recapping what I already know.
Skye Alexander is the author of more than forty fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have been published in anthologies internationally and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 2003, she cofounded Level Best Books with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors is the third in her Lizzie Crane mystery series. Skye is also an astrologer and tarot reader, and has trained as a medium. She’s best known for her many metaphysical books including Magickal Astrology and The Modern Witchcraft Book of Tarot.
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