Cover Art for Next Book

Cover art.

There’s a story here. When a publisher’s art department designs the cover for a new book, they read a summary of the book and do their best to create an imaginative, appealing cover that will draw the eye and give a clue as to the nature of the book. With my newest book (publication date spring 2021), the first attempt was as follows:

I loved it. BUT . . . and this is a big BUT . . . it was inaccurate. An important character in the story is a mystic, a spiritualist who connects people to deceased loved ones. This is very different from fortune telling, so the Tarot cards and crystal ball are not correct. In fact, at one point in the book, the mystic says dismissively that she’s no fortune teller. So, I told the publisher that the cover was terrific from an artistic standpoint but that it would be more accurate if they could replace the Tarot cards with something else, like an image of hands touching on a table, or a spooky ghost figure, or candles. And they listened.

Much better, yea! But . . . the words 1920s Mystery need to be centered a bit and the S in 1920s needs to be smaller so it doesn’t read like 192 OS. Final version:

I’m really happy with the final version.

The book is scheduled for release in March-April 2021 in England and Australia, then 2-3 months later, in the U.S. When I have more definite information, I’ll share it.

Published in: on December 7, 2020 at 6:28 pm  Comments (3)  

Bootlegger’s Stash Discovered!

A New York couple found dozens of bottles of illegal Prohibition-era whiskey stashed inside the walls of their old house. The house, built in 1915, was once owned by a German-American who was rumored to have been a bootlegger. Seems the rumors were true and here’s the proof!

Check out the whole story at

You can buy a bottle and taste it yourself, but the asking price is $1,000. I’m afraid I’ll pass. But I wouldn’t mind having an empty bottle–I’m more interested in the label than the contents.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 7:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Chicago Morgue

Most murder mysteries involve dead bodies, and most dead bodies end up in the morgue, so I needed to know something about the Chicago morgue in 1924, mostly: Where was it? Did it have refrigeration (or use ice)? I found this helpful postcard (sorry it’s so small). Can you see the small #8 building behind the famous City Hospital? That’s the morgue. I also learned it was colloquially called the Deadhouse. So that’s what my characters call it. And yes, they had refrigeration in the 1920s. It wasn’t even new.

Published in: on October 29, 2020 at 3:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Titles 101

Some people don’t realize that a book’s author doesn’t necessarily choose his/her book’s title. I’ve been fortunate thus far in that the titles I suggested for my first 4 books (The Impersonator, Silent Murders, Renting Silence, and Murder in Disguise) were accepted by my publishers. My luck ran out with my upcoming book, which is the first in a new series set in the Roaring Twenties.

The background of the new series is Chicago; the year is 1924. The main character is a young mother whose husband has just been killed in turf war between Al Capone’s Outfit and Dean O’Banion’s North Side Gang. The only way she finds to support herself is as a shill for a fraudulent medium, sitting a the seance table pretending to connect with her late husband so as to convince others that the mystic is genuine. The other part of her job involves researching the backgrounds of the mystic’s customers through wills, newspapers, gravestones, and gossip, finding out those little no-one-could-have-known-that details the mystic can use.

So . . . I thought a good title for this first-in-the-series would be THE SHILL.

My publisher disagreed. In their view, the word is not sufficiently familiar to readers. I’ve conducted an informal survey at every chance I get and I’m afraid the publisher is right. More than half of the people I ask recognize the word, but that isn’t really enough. How about you? Did you know it?

Imagine my surprise when yesterday’s Word of the Day from the Webster Dictionary folks was my word–SHILL. They list it as a verb, not as a noun, but acknowledge its use as a noun. Here’s their definition:

1 : to act as a decoy especially for a gambler or pitchman

2 : to act as a spokesperson or promoter

Someone who shills today may very well be employed to simply extol the wonders of legitimate products. But in the early 1900s, when the first uses of the verb shill were documented, it was more likely that anyone hired to shill was trying to con you into parting with some cash. Practitioners called shills did everything from faking big wins at casinos (to promote gambling) to pretending to buy tickets (to encourage people to see certain shows). Shill is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, but etymologists have found no definitive evidence of where that longer term originated.

See the full website here:

So . . . we dropped THE SHILL and replaced it with THE MYSTIC’S ACCOMPLICE. What do you think?

I’ve finished working with the editor to make some minor changes, changes that make the story much better, I might add. Next comes the cover art, my favorite part of the publication process.

Published in: on October 12, 2020 at 10:05 am  Comments (4)  

The 1920s vs the 2020s

When I give presentations about the Roaring Twenties, I can’t help but compare that decade to the present. There are so many, many similarities, it’s almost as if we are re-living that era. Now comes an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying much the same thing. It’s not too long. have a look:

The 1920s are remembered as the Roaring Twenties. How will our ’20s be remembered? Guess we have to live through them first, but it’s worth looking back at the last decade with this name. Those ’20s turned out to be consequential years that still shape our lives today.

The 1920s began, as our own will, with a presidential campaign. The winning candidate that year promised a “return to normalcy” — a word that earned Warren Harding jeers from grammarians but a landslide victory from voters. We’ll see in November what version of “normalcy” today’s voters prefer.

That election was also the first in which women were allowed to vote; the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified just in time. In this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage, we now have a woman presiding as U.S. House Speaker — for the second time — and a woman four years ago received more votes for the presidency than her rival (just not enough electoral votes). When the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, we’ll see a record number of women in the state legislature —11 out of 40 in the state Senate and 30 out of 100 in the House of Delegates. Moreover, Virginia will see its first women (all Democrats) as House speaker (Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax), House majority leader (Charniele Herring of Alexandria) and chair of the Senate Finance Committee (Janet Howell of Fairfax).

Published in: on January 6, 2020 at 7:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Who was Lois Long?

Lois Long was only twenty-three when she started writing for the new magazine, the New Yorker. The Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois must have horrified her parents with her wild flapper ways. The stereotypical “minister’s daughter,” she covered the city’s nightlife scene with its speakeasy lifestyle, mixed race crowds, drinking and dancing, and flappers. But she didn’t use her real name–she signed her columns “Lipstick”–so maybe Daddy never knew . . . I got some good tidbits for my novels from her writing: for example, her choice of words and slang and her descriptions of the customers and speakeasies.

Click here to see the excellent Ken Burns 7-minute film about Lois Lang that includes some of her biting commentary on New York speakeasies.

Published in: on July 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm  Comments (2)  

SLEUTH: What sort of word is that?

What do you think of when you hear the word “sleuth?” I think of Nancy Drew.

That made this post on Merriam-Webster’s word origins site pretty interesting, especially for someone like me who writes mysteries.

The etymology of SLEUTH:

“They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” Those canine tracks in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles set the great Sherlock Holmes sleuthing on the trail of a murderer. It was a case of art imitating etymology. When Middle English speakers first borrowed sleuth from Old Norse, the term referred to “the track of an animal or person.” In Scotland, sleuthhound referred to a bloodhound used to hunt game or track down fugitives from justice. In 19th-century U.S. English, sleuthhound became an epithet for a detective and was soon shortened to sleuth. From there, it was only a short leap to turning sleuth into a verb describing what a sleuth does.

Examples of SLEUTH

“Farmer would go sleuthing in the archives of Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies to find evidence of an undiscovered landfall in Canada, and Ward could build a rig that trailed an 11-foot metal detector behind a combine, which is how they unearthed $1 million in pallasite fragments from several square miles of Alberta farmland.”
— Joshuah Bearman and Allison Keeley, Wired, January 2019

“For more than five decades, Morse has sleuthed out long-lost family trees for a living. From his home base here in Haywood, Morse travels the world tracking down missing heirs.”
— Becky Johnson, The Mountaineer (Haywood County, North Carolina), 20 Nov. 2018

Published in: on January 31, 2019 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tap Dancing History

I stumbled across this interesting video. Don’t worry-it’s short. Have a look. Tap Dancing History



Published in: on January 18, 2019 at 3:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Prohibition Abroad

We forget sometimes (or I do, at least) that alcohol prohibition was not solely an American phenomenon. I was reminded of that recently, as I traveled through Central Asian countries of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In each country, our guides mentioned the prohibition era of 1985-1987, when Gorbachev launched a campaign that seems to have been partial prohibition. Prices on alcohol were raised and sales were restricted, but more serious than that, existing wineries and breweries were shut down and farmers were forced to cut down their grape vines. It sounded a lot like the 1920s in America. One of our guides said that his grandmother had to cut down her vines, but since the prohibition was rescinded after only a couple of years, the roots hadn’t been dug up and the vines came back, giving Grandma back her home-made wine production. Since Prohibition lasted 13 years in the U.S., farmers here weren’t as fortunate.

Russia (pre-Soviet Union) did have a go at complete prohibition back in 1914 when World War I broke out. In an effort to make sure soldiers didn’t drink, they banned all sales of alcohol, except in restaurants, which allowed the tiny number of rich Russians to continue consuming whatever they wanted. Predictably, it had about as much success as Prohibition in the U.S., which is to say, very little.

Today, I was glad to see, the secular countries of Central Asia have no such restrictions on alcohol. Wine, beer, and liquor is sold in bars and clubs and restaurants and hotels, and we were able to visit two active wineries. We enjoyed tasting the local wines whenever possible, even though they were not generally the sort I like. Central Asians prefer sweet red wines and don’t make or drink much white–I like my wine dry, red and white.

As an aside, if you are trying to come up with an unusual, safe, and fascinating trip, consider Central Asia. The best country is Uzbekistan. Its cities–Tashkent, Bokhara, Khiva, and Samarkand–have magnificent sights. The only drawback (besides the sweet red wine) is the distance.

Published in: on October 30, 2018 at 4:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

George Will’s history lesson touches my books










If you’ve read THE IMPERSONATOR, you may remember a character who is running for public office named Henry. Henry is a bigot, typical of Oregonians (and many other Americans, it should be said) in the 1920s, who rails against Catholics, the Japanese, and private schools (because some were Catholic). Henry mentions that the current governor is a friend of the Ku Klux Klan, as is Henry himself.  In my third book in the series, RENTING SILENCE, the main character Jessie goes on a vaudeville tour in Indiana and comes up against serious threats from the KKK–but she can’t get help because the town’s entire police force are Klansmen. Some readers thought these portrayals were inaccurate–that the Klan was only in the South.

History books seldom go into enough detail to mention that the Klan was stronger in Indiana and Oregon than it was in parts of the South, but it is true. So I was delighted when conservative columnist George Will wrote about this in last week’s column. Here’s the excerpt:

In the Twenties, however, Oregon was a national leader in a different flavor of nonsense, as historian Linda Gordon recounts in “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.” The Klan’s revival began in 1915 with the romanticizing of it in the film “Birth of a Nation,” adapted from the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. He was a John Hopkins University classmate and friend of Woodrow Wilson, who as president made the movie the first one shown in the White House. Wilson was enraptured: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The resuscitated Klan flourished nationwide as a vehicle of post-World War I populism. It addressed grievances about national identity — pre-war immigration (too many Catholics and Jews) had diluted Anglo-Saxon purity — and disappointment with the recalcitrant world that had not been sufficiently improved by, or grateful for, U.S. involvement in the war.

Gordon, who grew up in Portland, says: “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, and extending through the mid-twentieth century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states.” By the early 1920s, “Oregon shared with Indiana the distinction of having the highest per capita Klan membership” because the Klan’s agenda “fit comfortably into the state’s tradition.”

In 1844, Oregon territory banned slavery — and required African-Americans to leave. Prevented by federal law from expelling African-Americans, Gordon says it became the only state to ban “any further blacks from entering, living, voting or owning property,” a law “to be enforced by lashings for violators.” The state offered free land, but only to whites. It imposed an annual tax on non-whites who remained. Oregon refused to ratify the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (not doing so until 1959 and 1973, respectively).

In 1920, Oregon’s population was 0.006 percent Japanese (they came after the federal government banned Chinese immigration in 1882), 0.3 percent African-American, 0.1 percent Jewish and 8 percent Catholic. To make living difficult for Japanese, Gordon says, the state “banned immigrants from operating hospitality businesses.” In 1923, only one state legislator voted against barring immigrants from owning or renting land. In advance of today’s progressive hostility to private schools competing with government schools, Klan-dominated Oregon — it was primarily hostile to Catholic schools — banned all private schools. In 1925, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (Gov. Walter Pierce was a Democrat and, Gordon says, “an ardent Klan ally”), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down this law.

Interesting, huh? Thanks, George Will, for elaborating on this subject.

Published in: on August 12, 2018 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)