Putting Those Grade-School Show & Tell Skills to Good Use!

In first grade I found my calling: Show and Tell. It was my best subject. And while my career goals morphed over the years from spy to teacher to curator to historian to writer, my fondness for Show and Tell never wavered. Today, whenever I give talks at libraries or museums, visit with book clubs, or attend author conferences, I bring along Stuff to augment my presentations. 

Stuff helps me connect to readers. It draws them to my table at a book fair or brings them up to the podium for a closer look after my lecture. Stuff sparks conversations and leads to unexpected interactions. Stuff helps paint a picture of my subject or characters or era.

Because I’m a historian and my mysteries are set in the past, most of my Stuff is historical. To illustrate my Roaring Twenties series, I’ve collected inexpensive items that relate to both period and plot: a dozen vaudeville programs, two 1925 beaded flapper dresses, several silent movie magazines and advertisements, a blown-glass fisherman’s float, a Prohibition-era prescription for “medicinal” alcohol, and most recently, an antique bottle of mercury bichloride (empty!), the poison that figures in my second book. Every time I prepare for a presentation, I choose two or three items that seem most relevant to the occasion. $(KGrHqZ,!owF!F0PPH!IBQI+UncFng~~60_3

Last weekend, I drove 500 miles to attend two events in Pennsylvania: a book club and a mystery author conference. The book club ladies loved my two beaded flapper gowns and vaudeville programs; mystery lovers at the conference got a kick out of the 1924 bottle of poison and the prescription for alcohol (which happened to be issued by a Pennsylvania physician in 1929, so it was particularly relevant). Scan 152760004 copy

If you’re an author, consider whether Stuff could help you reach more readers. Are there items that relate to your plot or time period that you can carry along to your next bookstore signing? Admittedly, this is easier for authors of historicals but even if your tale is set in the present or the future, consider what sort of Stuff you might bring to illustrate it. A paperweight? A wine glass? A piece of jewelry? A reproduction of the Rembrandt that the thieves stole? What about a model of a particular car, boat, or airplane that figures importantly in your story? Anything that would launch a conversation will help you connect. Many authors set a bowl of candy on the table to encourage people to pause . . . is there a particular consumable—candy, gum, teabags—that relates to one of your characters? I usually bring individually wrapped Charleston Chews because the name evokes the iconic dance fad and they were introduced in 1922. 

250px-CharlestonChewIt won’t work for every mystery author, but if Stuff works for you, it can set you apart from the others at the book fair and give you a smooth way to interact with potential readers.

Published in: on October 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  

Mary to give talk at VHS Downton Abbey Exhibit

Downtown-image2_mediumI’m delighted to have been asked to participate in the Virginia Historical Society’s program offered in conjunction with their Downton Abbey exhibit. I’ll be giving a lecture on the Roaring Twenties on Saturday, November 14 at 2:00 PM at the museum on 428 North Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23220. The unofficial title is Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. Members are free; other adults are $6; seniors $5; children $4.

“Mary Miley Theobald thinks the Roaring Twenties is the most fascinating decade in American history. In this lecture, she touches on some of the surprising things she learned about vaudeville, Prohibition, silent movies, and fashion while doing background research for her mystery novel series. Mary Miley Theobald is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, and First House: Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families, and an award-winning mystery series set in the Roaring Twenties. Her novels include The Impersonator and Silent Murders.”

The exhibit “Dressing Downton” runs from Oct. 18 through January 10, 2016. Don’t miss it!

This October, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times will be the first in a series of exhibitions to open in the new Virginia Sargeant Reynolds Gallery. Dressing Downton highlights fashion from one of the most widely watched television dramas in the world, Downton Abbey®. Follow your favorite characters, both upstairs and down; walk through a costume chronicle of the period in this traveling exhibition that showcases nearly 40 period costumes and jewelry from the hit series. Visitors will be able to explore the lives of Downton’s aristocratic inhabitants and their servants during the 1910s and 1920s. Altria Group is the proud sponsor of this dazzling exhibition, which is produced by Exhibits Development Group in cooperation with Cosprop Ltd., London. Downton™ and Downton Abbey®. ©2015 Carnival Film & Television Limited.

Published in: on September 27, 2015 at 8:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Get ’em while it’s still legal!


I came across this great photo of a bar during the last days before Prohibition became the law of the land. Don’t you love the fact that it’s all men? Women were seldom seen in bars before Prohibition. During Prohibition (1920-1933), when illegal speakeasies sprouted on every corner, men and women (and children, for that matter) could be seen drinking together. Without regulation, there was no, uhhh, regulation. Bribes to policemen, judges, bureaucrats, and politicians took care of that pesky law outlawing liquor.

Published in: on September 20, 2015 at 5:40 am  Comments (2)  

Traffic Jam in the 1923


Isn’t this a great picture? When people ask me about the research I do for my novels, I list the usual history books, scholarly articles, biographies, autobiographies, and novels written in the Twenties, and then I talk about how much I learn from watching silent movies made in the mid-1920s (ones that tell a contemporary story) and photographs. Here’s a perfect example. I use this one to help me accurately describe street scenes in the mid-1920s. I think it’s New York, and conditions were not so dire in other, smaller cities, but still . . . it gives you a sense of the time. Who knew gridlock has been around for so long!

Published in: on September 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm  Comments (1)  

Almost made a big mistake

MV5BMzU0NDkyMjEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTcyMzEyMjE@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Thanks to the Library of Congress silent movie workshop last spring, “Almost Lost,” I learned that in my fourth Roaring Twenties mystery, I had made a big mistake in describing Douglas Fairbanks’s filming of The Black Pirate. Luckily, that book hasn’t gone to press yet (and won’t–I’m still waiting for #3 to come out), so I could make the change. 

There is an underwater scene in the film with Douglas and lots of men swimming secretly out to the pirate ship to rescue the fair maiden. I was under the impression that it had been filmed on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles (and some scenes were filmed there), and I did a good bit of research to learn how cameramen in those days filmed under water–a tricky process before the days of waterproof cameras. That turned out NOT to be correct. So then I learned about the Williamson underwater filming process that was used in 20,000 Leagues MV5BMTQ0OTk3MTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDA5MjAwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Under the Sea (1916). Underwater cameras were not used for that film. The Williamson brothers had developed a system of watertight tubes and mirrors, like an upside-down periscope, and were dependent on the clarity of water and sunshine to provide the necessary light. Then, at the workshop, I ran into a film historian who told me that wasn’t right either! Evidently, Douglas Fairbanks faked that scene. The swimmers were held in the air with harnesses and went through the motions of swimming under water. He told me his own collection included one of the harnesses. 

So I rewrote that part of the book, deleting most references to the underwater scene. You can see why I value this silent movie workshop so much. I plan to attend the 2016 event as well. 

The Scandal of the Decade–Was It True?

President Waren G. Harding, philanderer-in-chief

President Waren G. Harding, philanderer-in-chief

I knew about the President Harding scandals–he was a good-looking man and a popular politician who was rumored to be unfaithful to his wife–but never thought they would be confirmed! In a very Clinton-like episode (see Gennifer Flowers and her claim to having had a 12-year affair with Clinton), Harding and his followers vilified the young woman who wrote about her long relationship with Harding and claimed that he was the father of her child. Well . . . good ol’ DNA proved her accusations were true. 

P.S. Harding is usually ranked at the bottom of U.S. presidents. 

Test Results Are In: At Last, Secret About Harding Is Out WASHINGTON — She was denounced as a “degenerate” and a “pervert,” accused of lying for money and shamed for waging a “diabolical” campaign of falsehoods against the president’s family that tore away at his legacy. Long before Lucy Mercer, Kay Summersby or Monica Lewinsky, there was Nan Britton, who scandalized a nation with stories of carnal adventures in a White House coat closet and endured a ferocious backlash for publicly claiming that she bore the love child of President Warren G. Harding. Now nearly a century later, according to genealogists, new genetic tests confirm for the first time that Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. The tests have solved one of the enduring mysteries of presidential history and offer new insights into the secret life of America’s 29th president. At the least, they demonstrate how the march of technology is increasingly rewriting the nation’s history books. The revelation has also roiled two families that have circled each other warily for 90 years, struggling with issues of rumor, truth and fidelity. Even now, members of the late president’s family remain divided over the matter, with some still skeptical after a lifetime of denial and unhappy about cousins who chose to pursue the question. Some descendants of Britton remain resentful that it has taken this long for evidence to come out and for her credibility to be validated. “It’s sort of Shakespearean and operatic,” said Dr, Peter Harding, a grandnephew of the president and one of those who instigated the DNA testing that confirmed the relationship to Britton’s offspring. “This story hangs over the whole presidential history because it was an unsolved mystery.” The Nan Britton affair was the sensation of its age, a product of the Roaring Twenties and a pivotal moment in the evolution of the modern White House. It was not the first time a president was accused of an extracurricular love life, but never before had a self-proclaimed presidential mistress gone public with a popular tell-all book. The ensuing furor played out in newspapers, courtrooms and living rooms across the country. Britton, who was 31 years younger than Harding, had a difficult time proving her relationship when she revealed it after his death in part because his family insisted he was sterile. “The family really vilified Nan Britton,” said Peter Harding, now 72 and a physician living in Big Sur, Calif. After finding Britton’s book, “The President’s Daughter,” among his father’s belongings, though, he and his cousin, Abigail Harding, decided to pursue the matter and made contact with James Blaesing, a grandson of Britton and son of the daughter she claimed to have conceived with the president. Testing by Ancestry.com, the genealogical web site, determined that Blaesing was a second cousin to Peter and Abigail Harding, meaning that Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had to be President Harding’s daughter. James Blaesing said Britton’s relationship with Harding was a love story. “She loved him until the day she died,” he said. PETER BAKER

Published in: on August 21, 2015 at 11:15 am  Comments (2)  

Cover Art for New Gothic Mystery

Just received cover art for my new book, a gothic mystery that takes place in France in 1928. I love it! A little spooky, and it matches one particular scene in the book. Release date is in a couple of months.Stolen Memories Cover

Here’s the synopsis on the back: 

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine in 1928 leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital, without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, believing his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne?


Published in: on August 14, 2015 at 2:18 pm  Comments (10)  

Illustrating The Impersonator

IMG_0194 (1)On a trip to Alaska last month, we sailed into a cave that reminded me of the Oregon cave I wrote about in The Impersonator . . . especially because it was lined with starfish and other sea life, like I described in the story.

As I reached its mouth, the loose pebbles underfoot gave way to rough rock and slime. My thin soles fared poorly on the jagged floor. The cavern itself was larger inside than its narrow mouth suggested, about the size of a theater stage, and as high, with starfish decorating its walls and crevices. I called to myself and my own voice answered in the emptiness. I picked my way about halfway in until I could see the back wall, then turned back into the sun. No clues there. 

. . . and later . . .

It looked like Nature had built herself one of those pointed-arch cathedrals I had seen in Oliver’s travel books and decorated its wet walls with frescoes of colored algae, red and white barnacles, and starfish. A narrow ledge, smooth from centuries of erosion and slippery with strands of green slime, skirted the north side of the cave all the way to the back. A few feet below, the rising sea churned like boiling water, even on a relatively calm day like today. The waves broke against the cave’s mouth and sloshed noisily inside, each one bringing the water level closer to covering my walkway. I had arrived just in time. It wouldn’t be long before the ledge was submerged. I wondered whether high tide regularly filled the cave, and one glance at the barnacles stuck high on the walls answered the question.  IMG_0193

Published in: on August 6, 2015 at 1:55 pm  Comments (4)  

11-Year-Old Film Scholar

ShaneFlemingPhoto-1024x577At the Library of Congress’s Almost Lost workshop last month, there were about a hundred and fifty participants were trying to help identify the unidentified silent movies in the Library’s collection–scholars, film collectors, film buffs, and regular folks like me–and one eleven-year-old boy who is all of the above.

Shane Fleming from NY City attended and contributed as much or more than most. He’s an avid silent movie fan. And he’s not shy about calling out his thoughts as the audience tries to figure out something–anything–about the piece of a silent movie being shown. I enjoyed talking with him and his mother during the conference. 

Shane was interviewed last year, when he was ten, on the Turner Classic Movie set. See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUWVK3c4OXc

Published in: on July 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm  Comments (1)  

The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929

51Q+nUeLhIL._AA160_I read The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, by David Pierce, published 2013 by the Library of Congress. I learned a lot about silent movies, and it had some good tidbits that I can use in future Roaring Twenties mysteries:

Coquettemp–in the early years of talkies (1929-1931), some producers shot films as both forms–silent and talkie–so they could be shown in theaters that had not yet outfitted for sound. Mary Pickford’s Coquette of 1929 was one of those. That’s something I’ll mention if and when the series progresses to 1929. (Right now, we’re in 1926.)

–the first feature-length silent films were produced in 1912 and there were only a very few. In 1913 there were about 50. From there the number shot up to over 900 in 1917, then steadily in the 600-800 range, until talkies came on the scene. In 1929, the number dropped to 300, then a dozen in 1930 as talkies took over. 

–Mary Pickford owned many of her films and paid for their preservation. Few other actors, directors, or studios did.

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–“It is Fairbanks’ representations of these characters (Robin Hood, Zorro, the Three Musketeers, the Black Pirate, etc.) that live today, filtered and morphed over the years by Errol Flynn, Antonio Banderas, Michael York, and Johnny Depp.” I completely agree with the author in this and have tried to portray Douglas as the creative innovator that he was. 



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