By Karen Harper
In summer 1880, many come to the fast-rising health resort of Manitou, Colorado, at the foot of Pike’s Peak to “chase the cure” for tuberculosis. But Inez Stannert, part-owner of the Silver Queen Saloon in Leadville, travels for a different reason—to reunite with her young son, William, and her beloved sister, Harmony. However, the stagecoach journey to Manitou turns lethal when East Coast businessman Edward Pace mysteriously dies under the horrified gaze of Inez and Pace’s wife and children. As Inez digs deeper into the businessman’s sudden demise, she uncovers shady business dealings by those hoping to profit from the coming bonanza in medicinal waters and miracle remedies, medical practitioners who kindle false hopes in the desperate and the dying, and deception that predates the Civil War. Pace’s death is not the only event that tarnishes Inez’s hopes of a happy reunion with her son and sister: Inez’s husband, Mark Stannert, has reappeared after a year-and-a-half absence, after Inez has made other plans for her future.
Even as she fights to hold on to her child and the life she has built for herself, Inez comes to realize there is no “cure” for murder….
I recently had an opportunity to interview author Ann Parker for TheBigThrill:
Mercury’s Rise is book four in your Silver Rush suspense series. How much do the books stand alone or should they be read in order?
Like most writers of series, I tinker with each book so it will stand alone. However, I do think of the series so far as running in “pairs.” Silver Lies and Iron Ties form a natural pair, in my mind, as do Leaden Skies and Mercury’s Rise. The closing line of Leaden Skies, in particular, leads directly into Mercury’s Rise. My hope is, of course, that those who follow the series are “chomping at the bit” to read the next one out. All that aside, I was pleased to see that Publishers Weekly in its review noted specifically that Mercury’s Rise is “an installment that’s an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.”
Readers seem to love books in a series. For one thing, it gives them the opportunity to see the main characters develop over time. But it’s a challenge for the author to keep the main characters evolving. Can you tell us a bit about the development of Inez Stannert to this point?
Inez has been through a lot since we met her in November 1879, at the start of Silver Lies. Mercury’s Rise takes place in August 1880, so the four books basically span ten months.
I like to describe Inez as a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. As the series now stands, that future still isn’t entirely certain, but some big questions in her life have been answered, at least in part, by the end of Mercury’s Rise—questions about Inez’s husband, Mark Stannert, and their son, William, for instance. (Briefly, when Silver Lies opens, Mark has been missing for some months, and Inez has sent their son back East to live with family. Inez has also taken over the business of running the saloon along with Mark’s business partner, Abe Jackson, as she tries to determine whether Mark is alive or dead.)
As the series evolves, Inez is learning to trust, to forgive, to recognize when she has been wrong and “own up to” her mistakes. She’s also evolved into quite a canny businesswoman (a trait I believe she always had, but didn’t have a chance to demonstrate until she had to manage the saloon). Colorado, specifically Leadville, has now become her home—this is quite a development for a woman who has spent nearly a decade roaming footloose and fancy-free, one step ahead of the law, with her husband and his business partner. She has formed strong bonds of friendship with women and men in Leadville … all this, I believe, means that Inez is “growing up.” We’ll have to see where all this leads!
I love your clever titles; they even rhyme: Leaden Skies, Iron Ties, Silver Lies and now Mercury’s Rise. How many titles do you envision in the series or do you not plan that far ahead?
I’m glad you like the titles. Readers seem to enjoy them as well, and tell me they look forward to seeing what comes next. I’ve received some very creative title suggestions from readers, for instance: Golden Thighs (no!), Murdered Dead Guys (ha!), Golden Fries (um, no).
I will say each title seems to become a little more difficult to configure. It’s the pairing of a metal and the rhyme that’s boxed me in a bit. I also want the titles to “resonate” in some way with the story and the themes… so far, I’ve been lucky in that they all basically work in that regard as well.
I figure I can do something with tin and gold. And for the –ies word, there is still demise, disguise, and some other good “mystery-type” words. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have a planned list of titles for future books, so if anyone has any ideas (besides those mentioned above), please send ‘em on!
Your launch title for the series received a starred Publishers Weekly review with great comments including, “A cast of convincing larger than life characters.” As a long-time author, I know it’s tough to write characters which are both ‘convincing’ and ‘larger than life,’ as these two things are sometimes opposites. Can you give other writers any advice on balancing these two compelling elements of fictional characters?
So much of my writing is instinctual that I’m not certain I can articulate how my characters come into being and how I balance these elements. Maybe part of the “larger than life” element comes from the way the stories and characters evolve for me: The whole unrolls in my mind like a movie. Perhaps this movie aspect contributes to the larger than life aspect. (I swear I can sometimes hear the soundtrack as I write.) At the same time, if the characters are to be convincing, their emotional states and actions should “ring true.” It’s something I feel at a gut level as I’m writing. Part of the trick of being convincing, perhaps, is not forcing a character to do something, simply for the sake of the plot. I fall into this sometimes, when I see where I want to go next in the story and start shoving characters around so I can get there. My critique group is good at catching me out on that. They’ll say things such as, “Would she (or he) really do that?” When I stop and think about it, often I’ll realize that, no, she (or he) wouldn’t.
Okay, having written all this, I believe I do have a piece of advice: If you find you’re moving your characters around as if they are pieces in a chess game, step back and take a hard look at your characters, who they are, and what motivates them. Then, if you are forcing them to acting in ways that aren’t “true” to who they are, rethink your approach and try again.
I’m also impressed by the fact you seem to be mining (pun intended) fresh territory for your setting and era. The stories are set about 15 years after the Civil War in boom town Colorado. Can you give us a little background on how you chose this time and place? I imagine your own family tree gets some of the credit for this.
You’re right, family does get credit for this, particularly my Uncle Walt who put me on the trail to Leadville. Grandmother Parker (otherwise known as “Granny”) was raised in Leadville until she was about 18 years old. This was something I only found out at a family reunion in the mid-1990s, long after her death, courtesy of Uncle Walt, the family historian. Granny had never mentioned Leadville at all to us young’uns, and she was a woman who loved to tell stories. Intrigued, I asked my uncle about Leadville and he, in turn, urged me to do some research. “You could write a novel set there,” he said. Thus instructed, I started to read all I could about Leadville and its history.
I was fascinated by the silver rush period, from 1878 (or so) through the 1880s. So much of what I was reading resonated with what was going on around me—this was in 1997 or so, the years of the dot.com boom. The “get rich quick” mania that gripped Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in the mid- to late-1990s was very similar to what happened in Leadville in 1879, only in Leadville, it was silver that captured men’s minds and imaginations, not the internet.
Your educational background seems perfect for this series. Many of us would expect a writer to have a literature degree but to combine that with your physics degree seems unusual. And blending a career as a science writer with that of a fiction writer also seems a rare thing. Is the transition between these two disparate kinds of writing a challenge?
Actually, I think the two kinds of writing help keep me balanced. When I get tired of writing the whole truth and nothing but the truth (i.e., science writing), I can switch to making things up, within historical constraints, of course.
I also find that the research process for both kinds of writing is similar. As a science writer, I don’t specialize in any particular field, although I do have a soft spot for the very large and the very small: astrophysics, astronomy, particle physics, and nanoscience. For the science side of my work, I’m usually assigned a subject (I’m currently working on an article on battery-less nanosensors) and must learn enough through reading, interviewing experts, and so on, to write an article that will engage a general audience. I’m always learning something new; I love that about my work!
Writing historical fiction is much the same, only I get to pick the topics that capture my interest. Often history events will guide me in those choices. For instance, with Iron Ties, I became intrigued by the coming of the first railroad to Leadville and some of the longtime repercussions of the Civil War. With Leaden Skies, I explored former president and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant’s five-day visit to Leadville and local politics of the time. For Mercury’s Rise, I delved into tuberculosis and its treatment in 1880. This was shortly before the discovery that TB (also called consumption) was caused by a bacterium. Medical papers and tracts of the day provide a sobering snapshot of how desperate physicians were to identify a cure, and how desperate consumptives and their families were to try almost anything that held promise of recovery.
I love to learn, and I’m lucky that my science and fiction writing endeavors provide plenty of opportunities in that department!
What’s next for your series and your writing? How far are you able to work ahead with the multitasking demands on your time?
Next up for the series is the (as yet nameless) book after Mercury’s Rise. I’m not as far along as I’d like to be on it, but I have to recognize and accept my limitations or end up going batty. There’s the day job, eating, sleeping, my spouse and kids (who get a little grumbly if I neglect them for too long!), paying the bills, and all the minutiae of everyday life. I always feel as if I’m running to catch up, but that’s the nature of my life. I’m lucky that my readers and publisher (Poisoned Pen Press) are understanding and patient with the time it takes me to finish a book. I’m grateful, and do the best I can to follow through and give them a story and characters worth waiting for!
Ann Parker is a science writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series is set in the 1880s silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, and features saloon owner Inez Stannert—a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. MERCURY’S RISE, the fourth in the series, will be released November 2011. Ann and her family reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, whence they have weathered numerous boom-and-bust cycles.
To learn more about Ann, please visit her website.