The Vanishing Thief, Kate ParkerOne of the joys of writing is discovering new source material. On a trip to England, I discovered a reprint of “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Baroness Staffe, translated from the French by Lady Campbell, in 1893.

Baroness Staffe has opinions and suggestions on everything, from the sensible (green is a “dubious” choice for an olive-skinned brunette, very fat women shouldn’t wear a low cut dress) to the incredible (using cocaine on insect stings, rubbing in arsenic for the complexion).

Along with her opinions comes information about everyday life in the 1890′s for Georgia Fenchurch, the heroine of The Vanishing Thief and the other books of the Victorian Bookshop Mystery series. These suggestions and directions of the baroness’s give wonderful clues about a character to plant in a story.

Buttoned and laced boots were both popular at that time, and the baroness gives directions for putting both on. I would never have guessed you don’t button the first two buttons on the boots by the toes until after you close the boot from the instep to the ankle. That might be another case of the baroness’ opinion, but it could be used in describing a character’s actions.

She recommends if your “fingers are square or wide at the ends, you may narrow them a little by pinching and squeezing the tips.…in time you will become aware of a notable and pleasant change.” Can’t you see a possibly guilty woman doing this while being questioned?

“A woman should speak in a rather low voice, but distinctly. To shout in speaking denotes vulgar habits, and sometimes shows a domineering spirit…We should have self-command enough never to shout, even when under the influence of anger, indignation, or pain. Such outcries spoil forever the chords of a musical voice.” A character who carries on in a mild voice while everything is falling apart around her would be interesting. What would make her finally scream at someone?

“A badly-dressed woman is only half a woman, if her being so comes from indifference.” Can you imagine a meeting of Baroness Staffe and a suffragette?

On the other hand, the baroness recommended walking and housework for exercise. She preferred using chamois leather or cotton satin for corsets which should be short and only boned in the front and back, allowing freedom of motion.

A woman like Georgia who is running a bookshop and investigating crime in the Victorian Bookshop Mysteries would need to move easily. It’s nice to find evidence that upper crust dispensers of advice in the books in Georgia’s shop would approve of her corset, if not of her occupations.

The Vanishing Thief, Kate ParkerMy series of Victorian Bookshop Mysteries takes place during a fascinating time period, the 1890′s. From the 1880′s until the beginning of World War I, Europe and North America seemed to run under the belief that there was no problem that couldn’t be solved by technology and good will.

This was the time period when telephones and electricity made their appearances in many homes, particularly in large cities such as London. Automobiles and airplanes began to be useful instruments and not just curiosities. Mass production brought more and better goods to the middle class.

This was also the period when large numbers of people began to have leisure time because inventions meant tasks took less time to perform. Travel, whether across town by bicycle, tram, or Underground, or long distances by ever faster ships and trains, took less time and energy. Labor saving devices made their way into offices, homes, and factories.

Despite lives cut short by diseases seldom fatal with today’s medicine, and poverty many times worse than anything experienced with today’s safety nets, we think of this time period as the last age of innocence. They saw the world and their lives as constantly improving. We look back at this time through the smoke of world wars, depression, and terrorism and see only a simpler age.

For young women of that day, their lives were more taken up by sports, doing “good deeds,” and education than previous generations. During this time, it went from rare to more commonplace to find women attending colleges, although job opportunities for graduates were limited. Fashions changed to allow for freer movement for sports. During this time, skirt lengths began to rise from the floor to just above the ankle.

I chose this time period for Georgia Fenchurch and the Archivist Society because attitudes were changing. Women had more freedom of movement than during the earlier Victorian period. Universal education became the law. Travel increased between countries and continents, and with it, communication between people, businesses, and governments. And before World War I, there was an innocence about society that with strong leadership, improved sanitation, and good intentions, life would continue to improve.

All of these advances created a world where Georgia had both the freedom to go about her investigations and the expectation by society that she would do good deeds. This was also a world where universal education and more leisure time meant more customers for her bookshop. Money coming in from the colonies and an increase in manufacturing led to more people buying luxuries including antiquarian books from Fenchurch Books. Along with the innocence of society, Georgia has a belief that her individual efforts can solve crimes and make the world a better place.

And isn’t that something we all hope for despite terrible events in today’s world? Join me in the simpler age of The Vanishing Thief, the first of the Victorian Bookshop Mystery Series.