Carola Dunn is the author of twenty-three Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, set in 1920s England; four Cornish mysteries, set in Cornwall around 1970; and more than thirty Regencies. Born in England, she set off around the world after university and made it halfway before returning to the US, where she has lived ever since. Today she joins us to talk about the inspiration for her plots. Learn more about Carola and her books at her website.
Whence plot ideas?
Many of my plot ideas spring from nowhere, or at least, I was too busy writing to bother to trace them back to their origins. But quite a few I still remember years, even decades, later exactly what sparked them. More than once it was a place.
Having picked the setting of The Corpse at the Crystal Palace (US paperback August 27th 2019), because it sounded intriguing, I started to research. One surprising fact struck me: the original Palace, erected in 1851 in Hyde Park, had the first ever public ladies' loo in London. No lady, it was thought, would want to be seen entering such a convenience where anyone who saw her knew on what embarrassing errand she was bound. I instantly decided to murder someone in the ladies room, and to make it more intriguing, the victim was to be a man dressed as a woman. The plot revolved around not only who killed him, but what on earth he was doing there in a Nanny's uniform.
The Tower of London (The Bloody Tower, 2007), with its sinister history, is another place capable of inspiring any number of plots. Its semi-isolated population, including the Lieutenant Governor and his family, the Keeper of the Jewels, the Yeomen of the Guard, and the garrison of Guardsmen with their colonel must be a breeding-ground for all sorts of disagreements, quite apart from the greed engendered by the presence of the Crown Jewels. On a visit to refresh childhood memories, a steep stone outdoor stairway enclosed by high walls struck me as an invitation to shove someone down it. I just had to choose the shover and the shovee and add fog rising from the river...
A very different place, Rocky Valley, a narrow inlet on the coast of northern Cornwall, was the inspiration for Valley of the Shadow (my third Cornish mystery). The steep cliffs on either side offer no way for a swimmer to climb out, but what if Eleanor and co. found a half-drowned man floating there...The cliffs thereabouts are riddled with caves, the haunts of smugglers for centuries, so what would they have been smuggling in the 1970s--not silk stockings, for sure. People? It took a lot of research to find out who and from where were the most likely group of refugees to be desperate to enter Britain.
Research for one book often leads to a plot for another. I came across a mention of the so-called "superfluous women," the over a million British women who were unlikely ever to find a husband because so many young men were slaughtered in WWI. An irresistible subject that formed the background of Superfluous Women (2015), the twenty-first Daisy mystery, in which three young women decide to form a household and find a nasty surprise in the house they acquire.
A great idea for a title can be a starting point. For instance, Styx and Stones (1999) obviously has to be a poison-pen story. Sometimes leisure reading is the spur: Reading three Regencies each entitled The Fortune Hunter suggested to me to write one about two covert fortune-hunters falling in love with each other (The Fortune Hunters, 1991). And Murder on the Orient Express is entirely responsible for my Murder on the Flying Scotsman (1997), which I made as different as possible from Christie's famous book!
The Corpse at the Crystal Palace
A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery, Book 23
A casual outing to the Crystal Palace in London takes a mysterious and murderous turn in The Corpse at the Crystal Palace, the latest mystery in Carola Dunn’s beloved Daisy Dalrymple series.
April 1928: Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher is visited in London by her young cousins. On the list of must-see sites is the Crystal Palace. Discovering that her children's nanny, Nanny Gilpin, has never seen the Palace, Daisy decides to make a day of it—bringing her cousins, her 3-year-old twins, her step-daughter Belinda, the nurserymaid, and Nanny Gilpin. Yet this ordinary outing goes wrong when Mrs. Gilpin goes off to the ladies’ room and fails to return. When Daisy goes to look for her, she doesn't find her nanny but instead the body of another woman dressed in a nanny's uniform.
Meanwhile, Belinda and the cousins spot Mrs. Gilpin chasing after yet another nanny. Intrigued, they trail the two through the vast Crystal Palace and into the park. After briefly losing sight of their quarry, they stumble across Mrs. Gilpin lying unconscious in a small lake inhabited by huge concrete dinosaurs.
When she comes to, Mrs. Gilpin can't remember what happened after leaving the twins in the nurserymaid's care. Daisy's husband, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard, finds himself embroiled in the investigation of the murdered nanny. Worried about her children's own injured nanny, Daisy is determined to help. First she has to discover the identity of the third nanny, the presumed murderer, and to do so, Daisy must uncover why the amnesic Mrs. Gilpin deserted her charges to follow the missing third nanny.