Five years ago, I knew nothing about the Progressive Era. I mean naught, nothing, nada. I had some vague notion that they washed their hair with egg yolks and drank Coca Cola laced with cocaine, but that was about it. I ran across a brief article about a police matron, Alice Stebbins Wells, who became the first woman cop with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910. She was brave and amazing and I wanted to write something about her world.
But I’d never written a novel.
Always a sucker for a challenge, I engaged in a grueling multi-year process of educating myself, and wrote the book anyway. It’s called THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC, and it takes place in 1907 Los Angeles among the police matrons of the LAPD. It came out this week from Seventh Street Books.
Mischievous socialite Anna Blanc fantasizes about being a detective, but in her world, women aren’t allowed to hunt criminals. Anna buys off her chaperone and, using an alias, takes a job as a police matron with the Los Angeles Police Department. There she discovers a string of brothel murders, which the cops are unwilling to investigate. Seizing her one chance to solve a crime, she takes on the investigation herself.
If the police find out, she’ll get fired; if her father finds out, he’ll disown her; and if her fiancé finds out, he’ll cancel the wedding and stop pouring money into her father’s collapsing bank.
Anna must choose—either hunt the villain and risk losing her father, fiancé, and wealth, or abandon her dream and leave the killer on the loose.
How I Learned Anna’s World
I immersed myself in Anna’s culture, relying on the following.
1. Novels – Not historical fiction, but books my character would have read—Lurid accounts of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, The Circular Staircase, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz. This is a great place to get a handle on social mores and harvest slang. Speaking of slang…
2. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang – This is the definitive slang dictionary for the US. It’s comes in a mammoth two-volume set and has 14 pages for the f-word alone. The bad news – it only goes up to the letter O.
3. Old photographs – I looked at tens of thousands of them. I started collecting digital images from on-line museums and libraries. Pinterest is a great source for digging up old photos. (Click here to see my collection.) Seeing the candid shots helped humanize the people. They weren’t just cardboard figures stoically posing for portraits. They were silly, sexy (Yes, Great Grandma was sexy), joyful, mischievous, and artistic.
4. The Arts – Painters, musicians, poets, humorists, cartoonists, fashion designers. Checking them out helped me learn the zeitgeist of the era.
5. Clothes and Jewelry – In 1907, ladies as rich as Anna flaunted their wealth. Not only did I collect hundreds of photographs of gowns and art nouveau jewelry, I went to a Cartier exhibit and saw some of the pieces with my own coveting eyes.
6. Marriage and Courting Advice Books and Erotica – These were hilarious.
7. Memoirs and Eyewitness Accounts – My favorite is a cop’s account of a sting operation where the officers dressed in drag to catch “The Boyle Heights Rape Fiend.” (That’s in the novel)
8. Court Transcripts, meeting minutes, and administrative documents – You can sometimes find these babies on line. For example, I found a police department’s annual report, which was both dull and informative.
9. Textbooks – Theirs not ours. For example, I read a legal medicine text (Think CSI) from 1895.
10. Doctoral Dissertations – They are on microfiche at your county library.
11. Museum Curators – They are always excited to talk to people who are geeking out on their area of expertise, because so few people care how to start a 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.
12. LA Historians – I stalked one until she caved and read the book.
13. The 1900’s Newspapers – From want ads to the crime beat, there is no better source for story ideas.
14. U-Tube – Silent movies that my character would have seen, videos of dances that she would have done, footage of people just walking down the street.
The novel flowed from everything I learned. And that is how I wrote a historical novel set in an era I knew nothing about.
Jennifer Kincheloe is a research scientist turned writer of historical fiction. She earned a Masters degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University and a PhD in Health Services from UCLA. She adores kickboxing, yoga, and developing complex statistical models. She was on the faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting research to inform health policy. THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC is her first novel. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two children, two dogs, and a cat.
THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC was released to bookstores everywhere on November 3rd from Seventh Street Books.