Ann Parker is a science writer by day, scribbling verbiage for science R&D national labs and solar energy start-ups, and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The series includes (from first to most recent) Silver Lies, Iron Ties, Leaden Skies, and Mercury’s Rise. Ann’s ancestors include a Leadville blacksmith, a Colorado School of Mines professor, and a gandy dancer. Ann and her family live in California, whence they have weathered many boom and bust cycles. Website: www.annparker.net
Two Authors, Suzanne Adair and Ann Parker, Chat About their Characters
Suzanne: Kaye, thanks for giving Ann and me this opportunity to chat on your blog!
Ann, let’s talk a few minutes about our fictional characters and their eras. In the first book of my series, Paper Woman: A Mystery of the American Revolution, the main character, Sophie Barton, is thirty-something, twice widowed, and runs her father’s printing press in a small town on the Georgia frontier.
History provides us with numerous examples of women who operated or owned such businesses out of necessity or choice during the War of Independence. However from the beginning, townsfolk regard Sophie as a little eccentric because she’s been without a husband for eight years. And she’s obviously in no big hurry to remarry.
Fancy that: a single woman who likes running a business and not being tied down to a man by the court system! Ann, this is a great time for you to discuss the main character for your series, Inez Stannert.
Ann: Sure Suzanne... My protagonist is thirty-year-old Inez Stannert, part-owner of the Silver Queen Saloon in Leadville, Colorado, 1880. She is truly a part-owner, on a handshake deal among her husband, her husband’s business partner Abe Jackson, and Inez herself. This may seem unusual, but then Mark Stannert (Inez’s husband) and Abe are unusual men!
Suzanne: As the Civil War was still fresh in memory for some, yes, a business ownership split between a black man (Abe), a woman (Inez), and the woman’s husband (Mark) was an unusual arrangement.
Ann: Saloon-owner may seem an unlikely occupation for a woman during this timeframe, but it wasn’t unheard of. In 1880 Leadville, there were approximately 300 saloons in Leadville. Of those, three were run by women. So, the way I see it, Inez is a woman in a man’s world, and she has learned how to maneuver in this world to survive and thrive. Her favorite weapons are words, her wits, and her Remington Smoot No. 2 Patent pocket revolver. Inez pours the drinks, keeps the accounts, and keeps the peace (or attempts to) in the Silver Queen, even as murder and mayhem constantly dog her from book to book.
That’s the same situation with your characters, Suzanne. They are all businesswomen, independent, and tough in their own ways, doing what they had to do. What about Betsy Sheridan?
Suzanne: “Tough” doesn’t begin to describe Betsy Sheridan, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Sophie Barton, and the main character for the second book, The Blacksmith’s Daughter: A Mystery of the American Revolution. Betsy is the accountant for her shoemaker husband’s business in Augusta, Georgia. That’s all quite proper and seemly.
Then her husband backs himself into an espionage corner and hightails it out of town to avoid arrest. Betsy, who is four months pregnant, dismisses advice from “proper” ladies in Augusta and runs after her husband, straight into the deprivating heart of war in neighboring South Carolina. In doing so, she reveals herself to be a chip off the Sophie Barton block. For Sophie ended up chasing her father’s killer all the way to Cuba in the sort of hellish journey that no “proper” woman would ever have made in the year 1780.
Clearly these ladies have more important matters on their agendas than conforming to society’s ideal of behavior for women. And speaking of this ideal of behavior, Ann, let’s hear about your fascinating secondary character, Frisco Flo.
Ann: Even though Frisco Flo comes across as a bit of a ditz in the first book, Silver Lies, she definitely comes into her own in the third book of the series, Leaden Skies. Frisco Flo begins as a prostitute in a high-class parlor house and eventually advances to running the house itself. She’s one smart cookie, much like Inez. I based bits of Flo on a couple of real-life Colorado madams from this timeframe: Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers. They were both described as very competitive, astute in matters of business, and good-looking. It’s interesting how little is known about their early lives. Women “in the trade” tended to take pseudonyms and change them frequently. They were also both unlucky in love (which is ironic, given the nature of their business). Mattie liked to say that she’d never been a working girl, but started right off as a madam.
Suzanne: Madams who were unlucky in love? I also find that ironic. You’d think men would be lined up to claim the virtuosas. :-)
Ann: Oh, they were, Suzanne. But sometimes, they were just after the money. And when these hard-headed practical women fell, they often fell hard. Now, you have another character, Helen Chiswell, who “worked her way up” from society page journalist to war correspondent. Tell us a bit about her and how this came to be?
Suzanne: Helen Chiswell, a widowed, ambitious journalist in her late twenties, is the protagonist of Camp Follower: A Mystery of the American Revolution. In 1780, a representative of a government with interests in the outcome of the Revolutionary War might visit an army’s camp to monitor how well his country’s investment was being used. But he wouldn’t be considered a war correspondent because there were no war correspondents as we know them today.
However it wasn’t unusual for women to write the Society page for a magazine during this time. That’s where we find Helen at the beginning of the book. When her publisher wants an exclusive profile on the commander of the British Legion, Banastre Tarleton, she jumps at the opportunity and agrees to visit the Legion’s camp posing as the sister of an officer. All very exciting for Helen -- until she’s caught up in a winter battle campaign in South Carolina. Then her eagerness to explore new journalism territory is submerged by her will to survive. Modern war correspondents can find themselves in the same predicament.
Ann, one of your secondary characters does her own bit of exploring new territory: photojournalism, if I remember correctly. Tell us more about her.
Ann: I have a secondary character who is at the fringes of the “printing” business. Susan Carothers is a photographer, a young woman who has come West to “make her mark,” if you will. I see her as a low-key, self-possessed young woman who doesn’t make waves (as Inez is prone to do!). Although I’d come up with Susan on my own, I discovered while researching my most recent book, Mercury’s Rise, that there was a female photographer working out of Manitou Springs, Colorado: Anna Galbreaith! I even have a cabinet card that is a photograph she took in Williams Canyon in “The Narrows.” I was fascinated by Anna G, but could find very little about her.
Suzanne: That’s cool! And not by a long shot was Anna Galbreaith the only woman photographer back then, so keep looking. The book Awesome Women by Leslie Sackrison lists two-dozen women photographers in the 1800s. You know there must have been even more.
Ann: Thank you! I’ll check out the reference. You have a character that also runs her own business. Like Inez and Frisco Flo, Kate Duncan’s business caters almost exclusively to men. Could you tell us more about Kate?
Suzanne: Sure! In her mid-twenties, Kate is a supporting character in Regulated for Murder: A Michael Stoddard American Revolutionary Thriller. She‘s widowed and owns White’s Tavern, formerly owned by her uncle, in Wilmington, North Carolina. The court system and inheritance laws of the time didn’t usually confer ownership of property on women, but laws can be circumvented. Kate has a shrewder head for business than her younger brother.
Notice that most of my main women characters are widowed. Married women during the Revolutionary War were legally subsumed in their husbands’ lives and had almost no rights. “Unlucky in love” definitely describes Kate. Her husband married her to grab the tavern while continuing an affair with his mistress. Women who’d been delivered from such a matrimonial hell by the deaths of spouses were understandably reluctant to remarry.
Ann: At least, the smart ones were reluctant to remarry, right? ;-)
Suzanne: Right! All our women characters are doing what they have to do, engaged in business, showing the innate, capable nature of women, not some trend of early feminism. For the supporting cast that shares the adventures, life is certainly more comfortable when expectations of women are straightforward and women do what they’re “supposed to do.” The minute these women start down new paths, they’re labeled “eccentric.” And there’s some fear and envy involved in that label.
What personal experiences of yours led to your development of Inez, Frisco Flo, and Susan?
Ann: I grew up in the 1960s, at a time when girls were required to wear skirts or dresses at school. I can still remember the fervour caused in my senior year in high school (this would be 1970), when one of my classmates wore a very nicely tailored pantsuit (as they were then called) to school. She was immediately pulled out of class and ordered to go home and change!
Of course, at that time, the roles and rights of women were changing dramatically, just as fashion was. No longer were the stated choices for “women’s careers” limited to nurse, teacher, and secretary. (I still remember as a third grader saying I wanted to be an archaeologist... who knows where that came from?... and being gently put in my place.) In college, I studied physics, a field with very few women. It was not uncommon for me to be the only woman in a class. After college, I went to work in a scientific R&D organization as a technical writer at a time when every single tech writer in the group was male (and mostly engineers).
What about you, Suzanne?
Suzanne: Whew, I hear ya. I was about five years later in the days of “roles and rights” changes. By then, high school administrators had realized that pants were not the Great Evil, because girls were wearing micro-miniskirts to school. Administrators need to pick their battles, yes? :-)
I grew up watching the contrails and first-stage separations of the Apollo missions from the roof of my house. It’s probably why I became interested in science. At one point, I declared my intention to become an astronaut. I was promptly shut down by a family elder who expressed doubt at my ability to handle the math. Nevertheless, I became a microbiologist. My classes were on the pre-med, pre-dent, and pre-vet tracks, with about a 3:1 ratio of men to women. Like you, I migrated later to tech writing.
In the early 1980s, I did a considerable amount of world traveling, even living in England for half a year. Much of the traveling was done in association with plant pathologists from other countries. Many were women. That’s when I learned that the United States was way behind in turning out women scientists.
Ann, why did you fashion your women characters as you did?
Ann: When I was working out who my female characters were in the series, I figured I could write “woman in a man’s world,” having lived it myself (albeit in a different time and location). So, I picked roles and occupations for my female characters that would be unusual, but not impossible for the times. How about you, Suzanne?
Suzanne: Same here. I found that modern readers had a mistaken impression of women’s roles and occupations during the Revolutionary War. That made me determined to enlighten those readers. I also factored in some of my experiences, particularly the wariness I received from some people when they realized I was a scientist, or (much later) divorced. The centuries pass, but some things just don’t change that much.
So, readers, we ask you: What was the last novel you read in which the protagonist's occupation struck you as unusual, maybe non-traditional? What did you think about it?