The following essay appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.
When I began researching early Twentieth Century Detroit for my historical mystery series, I came across all kinds of information about electric cars. I had some vague notion that electrics existed back in the day, but I really had no idea how significant a part they played in automotive history. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were almost twice as many electrics on the road as there were gasoline cars, but twenty years later, the quieter, cleaner-running vehicles had all but disappeared. The electric car was a superior design, simpler and more reliable. Yet during an age when gasoline-powered vehicles broke down so often they came from the factory with a repair kit, electrics were wiped out.
That smelled like a conspiracy.
After watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, my mind filled with possibilities. As an unpublished author, I needed a conspiracy. At the top of my wish list—a cabal led by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller conspiring to wipe out electrics. Imagine a conference room at the Standard Oil Company, with Ford and Rockefeller and their henchmen. Rockefeller closes the blinds, strolls to the head of the table, and says, “Gentlemen, we have a problem.” Then, though a series of shady business dealings, they work behind the scenes, manipulating the industry like a pair of puppet masters, probably ordering the murders of a few men along the way, until they squeeze the electric car companies (the good guys) out of business. For the book, I’d need a hero—some dashing electric car whiz kid who’s out to save the world, until he’s crushed by the nefarious forces of evil, led by Big Oil.
Can you say “bestseller?”
I started digging in with Henry Ford. It wasn’t until late 1908 that he hit on his first successful vehicle—the Model T. Prior to that, he had little to gain with the death of the electric. Okay, so how about later? Turns out Ford wasn’t against his company producing electrics. He and Thomas Edison, who were close friends, discussed the possibility of Ford Motor Company manufacturing electric cars on numerous occasions, but Ford’s engineers were never able to design one they could build cheaply enough for his taste. Further, while Ford had his share of faults (and a few other people’s shares as well), he was a loyal friend. Edison was building batteries for electrics, and it’s hard to imagine Ford cutting him off at the knees like that. I kept digging, but I wasn’t able to come up with any evidence of Ford’s involvement in the conspiracy.
So on to Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Talk about a guy with a motive—in the early 1900s he controlled more than 90% of the United States’ oil production and only a little lower percentage of the sales of refined oil products. He had a lot to lose if electrics supplanted gasoline-powered cars. So what did he do?
Damn it. I could see that number one spot on the New York Times list going up in smoke. Still, I wanted to know. Was it the pope? That would work. How about Teddy Roosevelt? Not quite as sexy, but still good. Andrew Carnegie? J.P. Morgan?
It was me. And you.
The consumer killed the early electric. Aided by Charles Kettering.
Early electric cars were expensive. The cost of batteries, the technology of which has changed little to this day, was extremely high, putting the price of electrics at a serious premium to gasoline-powered cars. The good news was that automobile owners were rich, because most gasoline cars cost about two year’s wages for the average worker, and most electrics were 50% higher than that. The folks who bought these things were the upper-class, and they could afford any car they wanted. So, if the manufacturers of electrics stuck to the high end, they would have been okay, right?
There were other problems, such as charging. First of all, you had to be somewhere that had an electric grid, not a given in the early Twentieth Century. Next, you had to leave your car all night to charge it. No quick stop at the gas station and off you go!
Range complicated the problem. Most of the early electrics were rated at around fifty miles per charge. That was enough for most uses, but not all, and very few people owned more than one car. By the 1910s, the range of electrics had doubled to 100 miles or more per charge, but still; after 100 miles—if you dared try to take it that far—you were stuck for eight hours or so while your batteries charged. And again, that’s assuming you were somewhere that had electricity.
So, electric cars were expensive, took a long time to charge, and had limited range. Sound familiar?
But they had one thing going for them—women dug electrics. Why? Because of the reasons you might think: they were quiet and didn’t spew noxious fumes. There was a bigger reason, though. They could be started with the flip of a switch. To start a gasoline-powered car, you had to bend down in front of it, grab hold of the crank, and give it a spin. Talk about unladylike. Woman drivers at this point in history were already progressive, really on the cusp of impropriety. To perform a task such as starting a gas car was unthinkable.
The electric car manufacturers focused on their primary demographic—rich women. By doing so, they made electrics de facto women’s cars. It’s not like the men of the early Twentieth Century cornered the market on machismo—men have always wanted to be “manly,” but this was the period in which Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” was the model. Men were men, and by George, they weren’t going to be driving a woman’s automobile.
Then, in 1911, Charles Kettering went and designed a self-starter for gasoline cars that allowed drivers to start them by flipping a switch. That was the beginning of the end. Women began choosing their automobiles for reasons other than how they started, and a much wider array of gasoline-powered vehicles offered many tempting choices. By the time World War One wrapped up, electrics were all but gone from the American landscape. Only a few electric car manufacturers survived into the Twenties, and only one that I’ve found (Detroit Electric) made it past the Great Depression, and they scraped along by the skin of their collective teeth until 1939, when they finally gave up.
Conspiracy? Unfortunately, no.… Sigh. Bye bye NYT #1.
It wasn’t Ford or Rockefeller or Roosevelt or Carnegie or Morgan. Or even Kettering.
As the great philosopher Pogo so famously said, “We have met the enemy … and he is us.”
Award-winning author D.E. Johnson has published four novels in his Historical Detroit mystery series: The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown, and Detroit Shuffle. His interest in the automobile industry is genetic—his grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors. Johnson is currently working on a crime novel set in early 1900s Chicago that has absolutely nothing to do with the auto industry.
I don't normally post reviews in my blog, but this review of Detroit Shuffle was so good I felt like I had to. This is from Book Browse, a subscriber-based book website, which has over 110,000 unique visitors per month. Here's what they said:
"Detroit Shuffle is the very best kind of amateur detective novel - a complex weave of disparate but interrelated threads that advance then double back on each other in ways that would make a Flemish tapestry artist envious.
"Mostly-failed engineer Will Anderson has thwarted the murder of suffragist Elizabeth Hume, and is desperately searching for the man who attempted to kill her. On top of that lies the emotional drama of Will's mental disability. He has blackouts, the result of clinical radium treatments he endured during a previous case. This bit of background information, alone, enticed me to read D. E. Johnson's previous novels, although Detroit Shuffle can certainly be read on its own.
"It's the fall of 1912 in a city Will refers to as "the Paris of the West": Detroit, Michigan - and with good reason. In 1912 Detroit was the epicenter of something that would truly open great, new vistas for the entire population of the Western Hemisphere - the automobile industry. Elizabeth, who is Will's girlfriend and leader of a large and influential suffragist group, is speaking before a crowd when Will spots a man staring at Elizabeth and brandishing a gun. In a blur of panic, Will draws his weapon and attempts to overtake the mysterious gunman, who narrowly escapes Will's grasp before disappearing into the melee. With no corroborating witnesses, Will is taken into custody as a suspected assassin. Of his own girlfriend!
"No one takes the notion of Will's attempt to kill Elizabeth seriously. But more damning is the fact that everyone, Elizabeth included, believes the alleged gunman is a figment of Will's imagination; a residual affect of his previous hospitalization. Their doubt only serves to fortify the young man's resolve. He becomes so determined to prove the gunman's existence that he gets himself fired from his job as an engineer at his father's electric car company for missing too many days' work. In the meantime, Will becomes a target.
"Shady characters are following him, pursuing every shred of evidence he collects, threatening his life. Here is where Johnson stirs the pot, or plot, as it were. Will's evidence begins to coalesce into a suspected conspiracy to fix the upcoming election that will determine the immediate fate of women's suffrage in Michigan. Johnson brings in one potential suspect after another as if each is just waiting in the wings for his or her cue. There is the head of the Michigan Liquor Association, an old high school classmate, private detective agents hired to protect Elizabeth, a former nemesis, plus the corrupt Detroit Police Department. Will barely knows which way to turn. Even his "allies", Detective Riordan and Elizabeth, remain doubtful of his reports, and their well-intentioned actions often only serve to thwart Will's efforts.
"All of this is exquisitely laid out amid sumptuous descriptions of a time and a city so alive and vital as to leap off the page and embrace the reader in its grand exuberance. My only, albeit infinitesimal, complaint is that sometimes Johnson's story arc and wickedly sharp characterizations fall second place under the weight of these meticulously researched descriptions. But as I think about it, that may just be Johnson's secret to plot pacing. Because he is indeed a master at establishing a finely tuned tempo, holding a reader just breathless enough to keep turning page after page.
"Yessir. With all its mystery, thrills, moral, ethical and emotional dilemmas - even Will has self-doubts after suffering a day-and-a-half long blackout - to say nothing of Johnson's literary chiaroscuro, this is about as good as it gets. I say, if you read only only one amateur detective novel this year, make it this one."
I could cite a great number of historical novels here, because there are so many that are outstanding, but I’ll choose only two: Ironweed by William Kennedy and The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle.
Ironweed, which won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, completes Kennedy’s “Albany Cycle”, a marvelous three-book series set in and around Albany, New York. The cycle starts with Legs, the story of 1920s and 1930s gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, as told by attorney Marcus Gorman. The second, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, takes the titular character, a small-time and tarnished gambler during the Great Depression, through a harrowing kidnapping story.
The cycle finishes only a few weeks after the end of book two, with Ironweed, the story of Billy Phelan’s father, Francis, who returns to Albany with Helen, his companion and fellow hobo.
In his youth, Francis was a baseball player with major league potential and ambitions until he lost a finger in a fight. He fled Albany after dropping his thirteen-day-old son, Gerald, killing him. Decades later he returns to Albany to face the ghosts of his past, both literally and figuratively. Here’s how the book starts:
Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death; illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.
Ironweed is a story of guilt and redemption, or such redemption as one can find in this life. It is at once violent and tender, hateful and loving. In my opinion, this is a masterpiece of American literature. My favorite book of all time.
The Road to Wellville is a very different book. I hadn’t read any of Boyle’s previous novels when I came across it lying on a new fiction table at a local bookstore. The cover looked interesting, and the cover flap info showed it was set in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is only about 30 miles from where I live. I read a few random pages and decided I immediately needed to devour it.
The Road to Wellville is one of those rare books that create grief about halfway through – a book so good and so much fun to read that I start to feel sad that I am going to finish it and will no longer be able to look forward to reading it every day. I come across those only every few years, and they all get reread.
Boyle brilliantly skewers the health industry of the early Twentieth Century with the story of Will Lightbody, who is dragged to the Battle Creek “San” (sanitarium) by his grieving wife, who had recently miscarried their child. John Harvey Kellogg, the founder and head doctor of the San, leads the patients with his brand of healthfulness, much of which is on the mark, with a few notable exceptions like radium treatment. Kellogg was a real man and was very influential at the time. He created the breakfast cereal industry and could certainly be described as a force of nature, which Boyle brings to the fore in this book. Here’s how it starts:
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-cereal coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene and some seventy-five other gastrically correct foods, paused to level his gaze on the heavyset woman in the front row. He was having difficulty believing what he’d just heard. As was the audience, judging from the gasp that arose after she’d raised her hand, stood shakily and demanded to know what was so sinful about a good porterhouse steak–it had done for the pioneers, hadn’t it? And for her father and his father before him?
The Doctor pushed reflectively at the crisp white frames of his spectacles. To all outward appearances he was a paradigm of concentration, a scientist formulating his response, but in fact he was desperately trying to summon her name-who was she, now? He knew her, didn’t he? That nose, those eyes… he knew them all, knew them by name, a matter of pride… and then, in a snap, it came to him: Tindermarsh. Mrs. Violet. Complaint, obesity. Underlying cause, autointoxication. Tindermarsh. Of course. He couldn’t help feeling a little self-congratulatory flush of pride–nearly a thousand patients and he could call up any one of them as plainly as if he had their charts spread out before him . … But enough of that–the audience was stirring, a monolithic force, one great naked psyche awaiting the hand to clothe it. Dr. Kellogg cleared his throat.
If you want to know what he says, you’ll have to get the book. ;>)
(As seen on WritingHistoricalNovels.com)
A friend of a friend recently asked me for some advice. She has written six books, but none have been traditionally published. She's self-published the last two and feels they are good enough for the big guys to pay attention. I gave her the following advice, which I think would apply to an awful lot of aspiring authors out there. Hope this helps.
Given your situation, here's my advice.
I hope this helps. Rejection isn't fun for any of us, but keep in mind that what the agents are saying when they don't pick you up is, "I don't know an editor who I think will buy this right now," not "You are not a good writer."
- Make sure the novel you're going to pitch is as perfect as you can make it. Agents (or worse, agents' assistants) read with the idea of finding something that will let them reject the book, so they can move on to the next one on the giant pile. You can't give them anything to use. As they say, "The first sentence has to be the best you've ever written, and every one after that has to be better than the last."
- You have to jump through whatever hoops your desired agents want you to jump through. Give them exactly what they want, when they want it. Be eager, positive, gently persistent. (For example, if an agent says to expect she'll get back with you within 30 days, after forty-five shoot her an email asking about progress.)
- Query letters are the second hardest thing to write. (In my opinion, synopses win by a wide margin.) Here's what I did and recommend everyone do: lead with your greatest strength. Start with why you are querying her, and it should be a good reason, like your book is very much like Author X, who she represents, or something equally compelling. Get the genre and word count out of the way, and then wallop her with the greatest thing about your book. That might be an award it won, a blurb from a respected novelist who writes something similar, or the killer hook. The best thing I've found is starting with "Author Y recommended I query you because ..." (Even if you don't have a personal relationship, if you ask writers for agent recommendations, most would accommodate you.) Then hit that killer hook.
- Knowing writers who write what you do is always helpful. They can open doors. Even the mention of their names will open doors.
- A great hook is essential. Can you make your story compelling in just a few words? My agent is going to be pitching the book I'm working on right now as "Huck Finn meets Goodfellas." Two dissimilar works, but both interesting and successful, and it sounds like a book I'd want to read. If an agent you're querying thinks the hook is compelling, she's going to want to read the book.
- This is the most important piece of advice, so burn this one into your retinas. If you are set on being traditionally published, you can't give up. Ever. I got lucky. In 2009, when the publishing industry was completely in the toilet and virtually no new authors were getting contracts, I got a two-book deal with St. Martin's only 4 months after I finished the book and started querying. Now, I think it's a good book, but there were a lot of other good books being rejected. The reason I got the contract was that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I queried an agent the day after she'd had lunch with an editor looking for a book like mine. Had I queried her two days earlier, she might have remembered that letter. Maybe. A week earlier, I wouldn't even have registered. I've seen a lot of agents going through queries at conferences. They give them 5-10 seconds before they move on to the next. Don't let that depress you. This - and only this - might be why you haven't gotten picked up. You have to keep querying. There are a lot of agents out there, and they all want to sell a new book. Send out 10 queries. If you don't get at least a couple of requests for material, rework your letter and send out 10 more. Keep going. Fine tune. If you've tried them all, start over with a different book. You have at least two that sound ready.
Keep track of who responds (I used a spreadsheet) and then throw away or delete the rejections. Negative thoughts are not allowed. You are an author. You just have to make the rest of the world realize it.
And nobody is going to do that but you.
I had the pleasure yesterday to meet Josh and Rebecca Tickell, who are filming a documentary called PUMP!, which is about the global economic impact of our reliance on gasoline. Part of the movie will be about Detroit, and they were interested in my historical perspective on the city and the impact of the auto industry during good times and bad.
I spent a couple of hours with them, and they filmed me for the majority of it. We'll see what stays off the cutting room floor, but the whole experience is awfully exciting for me!
Their previous film, Fuel, won the Sundance Audience Award and was short-listed for an Oscar. They are planning to finish the movie by the end of the year and then start sending it out to the world. Josh and Rebecca are both delightful people, passionate and personable. Hopefully, the film tears it up!
Writing a historical novel is a balancing act of the modern and the ancient, from current and past ethical boundaries to a balance of the literary styles of two different eras.
On the first topic, I have a friend, Albert A Bell, who writes ancient Roman mysteries, and his protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is a slave-owner. Part of Albert’s task is to include in Pliny the attitudes of a wealthy Roman toward those slaves, while still keeping him a sympathetic character to the reader. It’s a definite balancing act. I don’t know what Pliny really thought about his slaves or how he treated them but Albert keeps him distanced yet reasonably compassionate and makes it believable. I doubt many Roman slave-owners thought much about their slaves as people but to the modern mind it’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to a character who treats people as inferior. Modern readers, for the most part, want a protagonist they can see as a good guy, which sometimes blurs the line of historical accuracy.
In my novels, set in 1910s Detroit, many people with social status would have been raised with very definite opinions regarding people of color, the poor, and the ‘insane’ – which would have included gay people, who were considered sexual deviants. My protagonist, Will Anderson, was raised in that type of household, and when an openly (or as openly as was possible) gay man tries to befriend him, Will rebuffs him again and again. He accepts the man’s help only when he has exhausted all his alternatives. I felt like I was walking the line there. I wanted to include a historical perspective on homosexuality but I also wanted this character to be significant in the book. The only way I could do that was to box Will in enough that he had no choice. From there it felt right.
On the second topic, writing style has obviously changed a great deal over the years. Even though my books take place only a hundred years ago, if I wrote in the style of the early 20th century most readers would yawn and put down the book halfway through the first chapter. (That’s not strictly true. If I wrote a book in the style of the day no publisher would touch it, so no one would read it at all.)
Our goal as historical fiction writers needs to be to create the impression of the historical style. Our books are not written in the verbiage, syntax or particularly the style of the time period we write but are instead our approximation of that language – to create the feeling of authenticity to the reader while keeping the book moving along.
The most common method employed is to use loftier language for the well-to-do. With most historical novels set in the US, I tend to read with an English accent. There is a definite reality to that. Depending on time and place, it wasn’t unusual to hear educated Americans speaking much more like Brits.
However, poor people did not speak that way – in America or anywhere else. They used terrible grammar and had horrible vocabularies, and many of them swore like stevedores. (How’s that for a historical word?) I personally get suspicious when I’m reading a book in which the peasants speak like nobility. Okay, there probably were a few – somewhere – but the other millions of poor folks didn’t even know anyone who talked like that. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t read. Heck, they didn’t bathe. When survival is the rule of the day language tends to be left behind.
I imagine this is a somewhat contentious issue, so what do you think? Should historical writers strive for absolute historical accuracy or should they write in a way that readers will find more accessible? You’ve seen which side I come down on. How about you?
I'm really excited. I've been researching a new time, location, and set of characters for a new series. Starting a book is an amazing time. My mind swarms with ideas. Some prove to be good, others not so much.
Starting off on a completely new project is freeing for me. Harlen Coben once said that writing a series was like painting pictures in which part is already painted for you. Every successive novel fills in more of the painting for the next. Eventually there's not much more to be painted.
It makes writing the next book both easier and harder, in that you don't have to decide who the characters will be, you already know everything you need to about the setting, and the structure of the novel is going to be based on the previous ones. I have to admit that after four Will Anderson books, I need a fresh slate for the next book. While finishing Detroit Shuffle (out in the fall on St. Martin's Minotaur Books), I spent my "downtime" looking for the idea for the next project.
I found it in Chicago. The time frame will be very close to what I've been writing - somewhere between 1900 and 1912. The most famous gambler in the city at the time was a big man with a big personality. He made his bones betting on Jim Corbett to beat John L. Sullivan at 4-1 odds. He owned the most famous betting parlor in Chicago and rubbed shoulders with everyone from the worst dregs of organized crime to the highest stations in society and took bets from all of them. Every reform administration that came along made his saloon a target, and he fought them all off, making millions in the process. Still, when he died in 1925, his estate was worth only $10,000.
Best of all, he was Catherine O'Leary's son. Mrs. O'Leary, as you may recall, was the woman whose cow allegedly kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Big Jim was only two then. He's a fascinating character and was surrounded by people more colorful than I could ever make up.
So ... back to the adventure!
Next Friday from 4:00 - 6:00 PM, I am going to be on reddit.com for one of their "Ask me anything" posts. Reddit gets literally billions of visits per month, so it should be interesting. If you've got something to ask me, hit Reddit Friday, 2/15 from 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. I'll be there.
And tell your friends. You don't want me to be lonely, do you?
Got my all-time favorite email this morning. My goal is to write books that are, to use a "word" I sometimes see in reviews, unputdownable.
Toward the end of my books, I try to keep ratcheting up the tension, not giving the reader a place to jump off, where they can assume the protagonist will be okay until the next day. It's a fine line to walk. A writer can't just throw in cliffhanger after cliffhanger, because it will wear the reader down. Mix in a few teases with the cliffhangers, though, and you just might keep the reader going all night.
Here's the email:
"A pox on you, DE Johnson! Another school night up until 1:30am -- had to finish Det Breakdown -- and missed the Y this morning. If the Mr. mentions something about fat and lazy at least I can say I am well-read. OK, so now I am destitute. When will there be another? I want them to get married and somehow have children."
If my skin starts breaking out, I'll be worried. Otherwise I'll just enjoy the thought of another exhausted reader ...
Suspense Magazine will be publishing the following review in their October issue. Another good one!
“Detroit Breakdown” by D. E. Johnson
“Detroit Breakdown” is the third book in a mystery series set in Detroit in the 1910s. Johnson makes good use of period details, especially the little-known nuggets, like the popularity of electric cars at the time. Lead characters Will Anderson and his fiancée Elizabeth Hume each carry some baggage; sometimes the references to past events is interruptive, but overall their back stories drive them in compelling directions. The novel alternates between first-person narration from Will and Elizabeth, an effective technique giving insight to both, although there is some repetition early in the book. The format is most effective when the two are separated.
The title is a play on words, evocative of automotive breakdowns in the Motor City but really referring to mental breakdowns. As the novel opens, Elizabeth’s cousin Robert, a resident at the Eloise insane asylum, is accused of murder. Between terrible childhood memories of visiting the asylum and her mother developing dementia, Elizabeth is concerned about her own mental health. When the hospital’s doctors and police force seem happy to sweep the murder—which some claim is the latest in a series—under the rug, Will feigns amnesia to get committed to the asylum and investigate what’s going on himself. He questions the patients, some of whom, of course, have a shaky sense of reality. Meanwhile, Elizabeth volunteers at Eloise under an assumed name.
False names, fake amnesia, real insanity, and a killer right out of “The Phantom of the Opera” blend together to keep the reader guessing. Johnson also makes great use of the asylum setting, exploiting the often atrocious treatment of the mentally ill in the time period, both through abuse and ill-conceived therapies, to ramp up the danger at Eloise. By the end, many of the characters have had to face their deepest fears, which gets them through the current situation while also developing the characters across the larger story of the series.
Enjoyable on its own, but the close connections to continuing story arcs from the first two books would make it better when read in its proper order.
Reviewed by Scott Pearson, author of “Star Trek: Honor in the Night,” for Suspense Magazine