MAF members had a terrific time talking about City of Lies with its author, Victoria Thompson. Since we’re already fans of her award-winning Gaslight Mystery series, we asked what inspired her to start a second series. Vicki told us that retiring from her other job gave her the time to consider what writing she would like to do outside of the Gaslight series. At that time she decided to get a Master’s degree “in her spare time”. She was already teaching courses at Seton Hill University, and thought she’d like to get the Masters in Writing Popular Fiction, herself. In 2010 the university changed the degree to an MFA which meant she’d be able to teach in college if she got it, so she decided to go for it. In that program, your thesis is a novel, so Vicki thought this was the perfect opportunity to do something different.
So she came up with “this great idea for a contemporary thriller”, was about a third of the way through it when she talked to her agent about it. Her agent said “Oh I’m so glad you haven’t started it yet – and then told her all the reasons why she thought it was a bad idea for Vicki to write a contemporary. These included the fact that her reader base was in historical fiction and mysteries and she’d be starting all over to establish a base in the new area. Vicki "felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted off [her] shoulders” because she realized she was not enjoying writing the book or doing its research, didn’t like the time period (current) and she also realized that “if the book was a success, then she’d be expected to write more [of them]!”
She had sat down with her editor at a previous conference and the editor talked about the Gilded Age (1870s – 1900s). When Vicki first started writing her Gaslight mysteries, you couldn’t get published writing about anything historical past 1900. But “as soon as the century changed, then people started thinking about the early 1900s as “historical” – [she] didn’t know what it was that caused [this] mindset change” but she started reading books about the early 1900s and read Consuelo Vanderbilt’s biography – which she found fascinating. Part of that fascination was with Consuelo’s involvement with the suffragist movement in England. Her mother back in America also became involved in the suffrage movement. This led to more reading and research which led to the discovery of how suffragists here were arrested and sent to the workhouse – an event she wove into “City of Lies”. Vicki told us “I didn’t know anything about any of this, and as a real history buff, I thought it was a story that needed to be told.”
Back at Seaton for the continuation of her Masters, Vicki was given a “beat sheet” from the book “Save the Cat!” which actually is about writing screenplays, but many writers find it very helpful with writing novels as well. The beat sheet helps writers to solidify their plots. She “started using it, and the next thing I knew, this whole book was plotted.” We were impressed with how this came about and Vicki said it “was like I was pregnant and then gave birth!”
We then talked about “City of Lies” main character, Elizabeth Miles – and how she’s a very different type of heroine from Sarah Brandt in the Gaslight series. Vicki told us that when she was researching “Murder in Chinatown” she came across the story in this time period of a man whose mother was as Irish woman and his father was Chinese, and that he had been a con man who “reformed” and wrote his autobiography. “This was a popular thing at the time, as a sort of lesson to young people – as a ‘don’t’ do what I did’ type of thing”. He gave details about the cons that he’d done through the years. Vicki was captivated by this “and “just for fun, started picking up books about con men”. We laughed about how she’d essentially reversed the purpose of his book to create con woman Elizabeth and her cohorts. One of the books she picked up was the one used as the basis for the film “The Sting”. So she wondered if there had been any women con artists “and there were, but not a lot – as this was before women’s suffrage, and they were discriminated against just like women in other things. They didn’t have the freedom of movement that men had.”
We were also curious about other characters in the series. We had some sympathy for poor David, but had to agree with Vicki that “he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier”. She verified that David comes to realize Elizabeth would not do as his fiancé/wife, and they have (in the next book) what one MAF member with great memory recalled “a conscious uncoupling”! We also talked about how his sister Anna is – like Elizabeth – a very different woman than he thought she was, and how David’s character is a reflection of men’s views of women at the time. “But the times are a-changin’”.
We asked about Elizabeth’s con family and how she’s now being influenced by the extremely honest Gideon. Vicki talked about how necessary the family was to Elizabeth being able to pull off a con, and that Elizabeth is now, not only the planner of the cons, but the one who pushes the family to give at least part of their gains to a good cause. She went on to tell us however, that this relationship between a man who won’t even tell a “white lie” and a woman who makes her living by lying does lead to a huge argument in the next book, and is definitely an ongoing source of conflict between them. Sybil and Zelda, on the other hand, do not believe Elizabeth when she tells them she and Gideon have broken up.
Another member told Vicki how much she love the scene where the con with the general reaches its climax and the way Elizabeth and Anna handle the fall out. Vicki shared that the con the two women pull is actually a standard con that con artists would pull when a con goes bad. We also talked how con artists basically have to stay on the move, so they won’t run into people they’ve previously conned. Vicki did point out however, that many of the people who are conned, don’t realize that they were conned. They’ve bought into the story the con artist left them with, so the con artist could pull off something else in their victims’ area, but in general, the con artist would just move on.
She in turn, asked as who we liked. We answered Anna, and Gideon, Gideon, Gideon… She told us “not to worry, Gideon will figure prominently” in the coming books. We also liked Mrs. Bates. Vicki broke out in laughter when we asked if there would be a tussle between Mrs. Bates and Clarissa for the “old man” (a.k.a. Elizabeth’s dashing con man father). She told us “even Elizabeth does not want the old man to get together with Mrs. Bates because she doesn’t deserve that!”
One member asked what the contemporary had been about, and when Vicki said it was a near future kind of thing, and that things she included have since scarily come true” . That led another member asked if she picked lotto numbers too!
We also asked about any repercussions that President Wilson would have faced over Occoquan. Vicki explained how the press, like the politicians at the time, and society in general thought these women were foolish, and basically looked down on them and made fun of them. Basically it was “if you don’t want to be thrown in prison, stay home and take care of your children. That’s what women are basically for.”
The groups was also curious about how she balances doing research versus writing. Vicki shared something she tells her students “if you don’t enjoy doing the research, you’re not going to enjoy writing the book”. She also said that if she runs across something she thinks is awesome but it won’t work in the current story she “tucks it away for later!” She also confirmed that the stories in this series will continue to use actual historical events as part of each story. The fact that World War 1 has started will be part of the historical base. She revealed that in book three, Gideon is actually drafted. We talked about how many great mysteries set during WWI have been done by such writers as Charles Todd, but that they’ve mainly been from the British perspective, we’re looking forward to seeing how Vicki describes the Homefront in America at that time.
About this time, we ended the meeting with the group's venerable tradition of "Staking the Cake" -- which Vicki did with sangfroid and a smile! Check out our "Great Moments in Staking the Cake" page to see proof of this -- and our other author "stakings"!