Today we sit down for a chat with Victorian mystery and literary author Lisa M. Lane. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
I think it was after I was turned down for a third time applying for a historical research grant. I had done all this work on H.G. Wells, and the project couldn’t be finished. So I wrote a novella about him and a historian: Before the Time Machine. I loved the writing process, because I’d never thought of myself as particularly creative, had never gone around with plots in my head. Then, I was visiting the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in London, and stood there thinking, “This looks like a good place for a murder”.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
As many authors do, I’ve dreamed of this since I was a kid, with my manual typewriter and so many stories . . . So about half a century.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
I decided to independently publish because I saw that what I was doing (first a literary novella, then a thoroughly researched historical mystery) would take a lot of twisting to fit into traditional publishing norms. And I loved the idea of learning the whole process.
Where do you write?
I’m old-fashioned, so at the kitchen table. I have a desk. It sits there with books and papers piled on it.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
Midnight silence. I tried music, but it kept pulling me out of the 19th century.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
For Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, none at all from people I know. Or perhaps combinations of traits, but nothing intentional. But for the historical characters who were real, who lived at the time, I like to read what they’ve written as well as what others have written about them, like obituaries and biographies. I study pictures of them if they’re available, to try to sense how they would have acted and spoken. And plot elements appear all the time, things that happened long ago that no one ever wrote about.
Describe your process for naming your character?
Historical names have to read and sound right for the era, so I have lists of common names, regions, and classes. But I’m also a bit Dickensian: Hannah Fairchild for a lovely actress, Sir Henry Featherstone for a man who’s a social schmoozer with a tough core. My inspector is Cuthbert Slaughter (a northern saint + a common English surname) And then, of course, some of my characters are real people with wonderful names: Sarah Wardroper was matron of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Joseph Bazalgette designed London’s sewer system.
Real settings or fictional towns?
As real as I can get it: London in the 1860s. I research guidebooks, old maps – I want the houses to have been right for the neighborhood at the time, and every walk the characters take to stroll by things that were really there. I’m kind of crazy about it. I’m holding off on a sequel to St. Thomas’s right now because I need a railway timetable from 1870 and can’t find one.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
Constable Jones is very theatrical – he whispers in a conspiratorial hush, serves tea with a flourish. And Geraldine Orson, the stage actress, likes to play everything like a scene. But I think the quirkiest is Jo Harris. To be middle-class and refuse to wear a corset or a crinoline in those days was to be quirky in public.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
My writing habit is so particular: kitchen table, midnight, cup of Guittard cocoa with mini-marshmallows, small bowl of pretzels.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
Anything by Rachel Cusk or Sarah Perry. I just finished Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, and I wished I’d written it. Her ability to hold the reader’s attention when you’re in a character’s head for so long, and an unpleasant character at that, is amazing.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
I suppose if I had it to do over, I would have pushed on until I got the PhD. But other aspects of life were always more important.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
All versions of “with all due respect”: “I’m sure I shouldn’t tell you this, but…”, “I wouldn’t say this if you weren’t my friend…”, “I don’t know much about that, but…” – all are followed by something nasty.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves?
Can I say a library? I suppose that’s not one thing, but let’s go big. A library, an inexhaustible supply of chocolate, and the internet.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
I did temp work as a grocery store demonstrator, manning a table in the freezer section trying to get people to taste green chile salsa. Not only could I not answer questions because I couldn’t eat chiles, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been so cold.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
Not possible to answer, because ever means from the perspective of right now. Different books are best depending on when in your life you encounter them. The best book is the one that answers questions you didn’t know you had, just at the point in your life when you had them.
Ocean or mountains?
Ocean, but next to it, not in it or on it. There are scary things in the mountains. And I prefer nature through a pane of glass, to be honest. Nature is so lovely – over there.
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
City, depending on the city. Towns are even better.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Murder at Old St. Thomas’s has a sequel or two in the works, but I’m not sure it’s really a series in the classic sense. Recurring characters, yes, but the mysteries tend to be solved as a group effort. Inspector Slaughter is not the protagonist in the second book; Jo Harris and her friend Bridget will be on the trail of the killer.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books?
I call my Victorian mysteries “semi-cozies”, but the emphasis is on the history and the setting. My characters reflect the diversity of 1860s London, so there are gay relationships, concerns for public reputation, and disputes about medical advances. And to me, London is not just a place to set the story, but a living, breathing character within it.
Mystery at Old St. Thomas’s
In 1862 London, the body of a famous surgeon is found, sitting upright, in an old operating theatre. His dead eyes stare at the table at the center of the room, where patients had screamed and cried as medical students looked on. The bookish Inspector Slaughter must discover the killer with the help of his American sergeant Mark Honeycutt and clues from Nightingale nurses, surgeon's dressers, devious apothecaries, and even stage actors. Victorian Southwark becomes the theatre for revealing secrets of the past in a world where anesthesia is new, working-class audiences enjoy Shakespeare, and women reformers solve society's problems.