I love books that tell true stories about real people who survive enormous challenges. That was why, when I read Eric Larson’s book, Isaac’s Storm, about the hurricane that wiped out Galveston TX in 1900, I knew I had to write about it. The hurricane—to this day, the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States—struck Galveston Island on September 8, 1900. It killed as many as twelve thousand people (nobody really knows how many), wiped out whole families, and changed the destiny of the city of Galveston, which at the time was the most important port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane fascinated me because it was a Texas event, of course—and because Galveston worked so hard to rebuild itself. But the storm is also fascinating because it’s not just historical, it’s timely and topical. Hurricanes happen today, and when they hit big cities (Katrina’s hammering of New Orleans is a terrifying example), they’re hugely destructive.
So I began to collect research materials describing the 1900 storm (the list of documents and books I used is in Widow’s Tears) and think about how I would tell such a story. Whose story was it? Why? What happened? What happened after that? Out of answers to these questions, I fashioned Rachel Blackwood, her family, and her cook-housekeeper Colleen O’Reilly, basing them on the real hurricane survivors and victims I was reading about in my research. I sketched out the Blackwood story, or most of it, from beginning to end.
But I wasn’t writing a standalone historical novel (believe me: I was tempted!). I was supposed to be writing the next book in an ongoing series of contemporary mysteries. So I faced the challenge of incorporating this compelling backstory into the lives of my series characters, China Bayles and Ruby Wilcox, China’s best friend. I fiddled with three or four different scenarios, most of them featuring China, who is usually (but not always) the first-person point-of-view character in these books. But nothing seemed to click.
Then lightning struck. (Well, not really. That’s just how it always seems to me when an idea sparks enough energy to produce a story.) In previous books in the series, we’ve learned that Ruby has a special gift, especially when it comes to solving mysteries. We’ve seen her adventures with the Ouija board in Rosemary Remembered and Bleeding Hearts, and we saw her intuition at work in Indigo Dying. But we’ve never discovered where her gift came from. We don’t know if it was a family inheritance or uniquely hers. And while we’ve learned bits and pieces of Ruby’s history, we’ve never heard the full story. This would be a good opportunity to learn more about her—and to see her learning to come to terms with her gift and show us just how good she is at looking deeply into mysteries that are often completely hidden from everyone else.
So I began crafting a narrative that would link Ruby to Rachel Blackwood and to the Galveston hurricane, both in the present time and the past. What I thought of as the “Ruby story” involves a friend who has inherited an old house with a strange history. And of course, there’s China. I couldn’t very well leave her out. But what kind of role could she play in this already complicated mystery?
And there was still one other challenge. Every book in the China Bayles series (soon to be 23 and counting) has some sort of herbal theme. Sometimes the book is based around a single herb, such as Lavender Lies and A Dilly of a Death. Wormwood is based on the Shakers, a historical sect that grew herbs and crafted herbal medicinal products. Indigo Dying includes many herbs that are used as coloring agents, and Mourning Gloria involves psychoactive herbs. Cat’s Claw is built around herbs that have thorns, spikes, or prickles.
I had already settled on the title herb for the
Ruby/Blackwood story: a plant called dayflower or widow’s tears (Commelina) because as it fades it seems to weep. But I wanted something larger, an idea that would allow me (and China, of course) to bring in a wider variety of plants. That’s when I decided to base the herbal theme of the book on the Victorian “language of flowers,” or Florigraphy, in which every plant has its own meaning. It was fun and satisfying to introduce readers to this somewhat esoteric language and to show how plants were once used to spell a story.
I hope you’ll enjoy Widow’s Tears, and that as you read it, you’ll reflect on the ways in which these different threads (Rachel Blackwood’s story, Ruby’s story, China’s story, the herbal theme) were woven together into the novel. If you have questions or comments, please post them. I’ll try to drop in several times over the next few days to reply.
Widow's Tears (China Bayles - Book 21) By Susan Wittig Albert
Publication Date: 04/01/2014
Publisher: Penguin Group
Imprint: Berkley Prime Crime
Genre: Cozy Mystery
(Received for an honest review from Berkley Prime Crime)
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, Indiebound
Susan Wittig Albert on the WEB: website, blog, twitter, facebook, goodreads
Books in the series:
1. Thyme of Death
2. Witches' Bane
3. Hangman's Root
4. Rosemary Remembered
5. Rueful Death
6. Love Lies Bleeding
7. Chile Death
8. Lavender Lies
9. Mistletoe Man
11. Indigo Dying
12. A Dilly of a Death
13. Dead Man's Bones
14. Bleeding Hearts
15. Spanish Dagger
18. Holly Blues
19. Mourning Gloria
20. Cat's Claw
21. Widow's Tears
Coverart: Click the Image for a larger, clearer view of the covers in this series.
Excerpt from, Widow's Tears, courtesy of the author's website.
Herbalist and ex-lawyer China Bayles is “in a class with lady sleuths V. I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum” (Publishers Weekly). In Widow’s Tears, a haunted house may hold the key to solving the murder of one of China’s friends…
After losing her family and home in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Rachel Blackwood rebuilt her house a hundred miles inland and later died there, still wrapped in her grief.
In present-day Texas, Claire, the grandniece of Rachel’s caretaker, has inherited the house and wants to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. But she is concerned that it’s haunted, so she calls in her friend Ruby—who has the gift of extrasensory perception—to check it out.
While Ruby is ghost hunting, China Bayles walks into a storm of trouble in nearby Pecan Springs. A half hour before she is to make her nightly deposit, the Pecan Springs bank is robbed and a teller is shot and killed.
Before she can discover the identity of the killers, China follows Ruby to the Blackwood house to discuss urgent business. As she is drawn into the mystery of the haunted house, China opens the door on some very real danger…
The twenty-first book in the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert is a departure from the norm that readers have come to expect from this series. Widow's Tears takes readers outside the small town of Pecan Springs and focuses on another character other than China as the lead. China's friend Ruby takes center stage, as her paranormal abilities are needed by a friend who thinks she has a haunted house on her hands. China ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and fans are treated to a tale with many layers and complex threads. A great addition to a long lived series!
What I liked:
As usual with any Susan Wittig Albert novel, the research was phenomenal. This author always does her homework and in this addition to the series, she gives readers a lot of historical background on the city of Galveston and the devastating hurricane of 1900. I thought Albert did a fantastic job of weaving in the historical details into the story without letting the history take over the mystery. Albert uses a deft hand and turns out a mystery that will have readers wanting to know more about the hurricane and it's deadly effects on the town while still being glued to every clue that Ruby and China turn up.
I liked the fact that Albert is taking readers out of their comfort zone with this series. I think it is important especially for a long running series like this one, to have some variety and change and Albert seems to sense that as well. Taking the mystery outside of Pecan Springs, gives Widows Tears a fresh and original premise that readers haven't seen for awhile in this series. It also provides a wider range of outcomes because there are only so many places to find dead bodies in a small town.
I also enjoyed learning more about Ruby and her extra sensory abilities. Readers who are familiar with the series, know that Ruby has used her gift to help China out from time to time and now another friend, Claire needs her help in solving her own ghostly issues. I loved learning more about Ruby along the way as well. How she got her abilities, how she felt about them, etc. It was nice to see another character kind of take over the starring role. Don't get me wrong, China is amazing, but this was a nice break from the routine of the series. I thought Albert did a great job of letting Ruby take the lead and using China as the sidekick this time. It really added to the enjoyment of the book seeing her in a different role.
I loved all of the information that Albert gives readers about Florigraphy as well. The language of flowers is both interesting and full of little known facts about herbs and flowers that I find incredibly entertaining. I think readers will enjoy finding out some of the meanings in the back of the book and trying out some of those great recipes as well.
What I didn't like:
I wasn't sure how the story of the bank robbery and murder were going to tie in with the haunted house in the beginning and I was scratching my head a little bit, but I shouldn't have worried, Albert always ties up the loose ends and brings everything together.
If you are fan of Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series, this one might be a surprise, but in a good way. I liked the change of viewpoint, and setting. I think it added a refreshing originality to this installment of the series and I think it is one of the best so far. You gotta read it!
Widow's Tears is available NOW from your favorite bookseller.
I'm giving this one 5 out of 5 apples from my book bag!
About the Author:
Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Some of her recent titles include Widow’s Tears, Cat’s Claw, The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose, and The Tale of Castle Cottage. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige, which includes such titles as Death at Glamis Castle and Death at Whitechapel.
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