Thursday, July 22, 2010
I had originally thought about writing a Civil War story, but when I learned that women were recruited to solve ciphers in World War I, the idea began to crystallize. I realized the timeframe was perfect for Summerside’s new suspense line. The more research I did, the more plot points jumped out at me. It was a year of intrigue and sabotage.
Tell us about the book’s cover and what makes it unique.
Emma is wearing a very fashionable and mysterious hat, which they tell me was right in style in 1915, and against the dark background of buildings is the hint of a cipher message. This cover screams, “Mystery!”
I know. I love it. Summerside does a wonderful job with the covers. Please explain and differentiate between what’s fact and fiction in the book.
Because I drew so much on history, I wrote a “Dear Reader” letter explaining that very thing. Here’s part of it (and I don’t think this gives away too much):
During my research, I learned that the sabotage and espionage going on in North America in 1915 reached a massive scale. The bombing of the bridge at Vanceboro, Maine, is a true incident. The bombing of the Peabody plant and many other factories happened, as did the attempted bombing of the occupied armory at Windsor, Ontario. The sinking of the ships William P. Frye and the Fulflight, as well as the sabotage of the Minehaha and the Nebraskan, really happened. These, along with the Lusitania, are only a few of the Allied ships attacked or bombed that year. However, the Larkin is a fictional ship.
While several German diplomats in America were arrested in connection with espionage, passport fraud, and other crimes, most of them were apprehended later than this story’s timeframe. Otto van Wersten (“Kobold”) is a fictional character.
Erich Muenter’s (alias Frank Holt’s) bombing of U.S. Senate reception room and subsequent shooting of J.P. Morgan were real, tragic events occurring in July, 1915. The gathering of cryptographers by the U.S. government actually began a little later than this story. Room 20 at Trafton House is loosely modeled after Great Britain’s famous Room 40 at Bletchley Park in England. While Alfred Shuster and his cipher machine were slightly ahead of their time, such devices were already appearing in Europe, and it is not unreasonable that a clever mathematician would come up with such a machine at this time.
How much research did you have to do for this book?
Tons and tons. I started with Bowdoin College, where the first few scenes are set. What buildings were there in 1915? What were they called then? Where would a mathematics professor be likely to have an office? And so on.
Other topics for hours of research included the Navy in 1915, and in particular the Signal Corps; trains and trolleys in the Arlington/Washington/Fairfax area at the time; telephones at the time; telegraphy; clothing, foods and everyday life. All of this on top of the events leading up to the United States entering the war; wartime events in Canada and Europe; sabotage, espionage, passports, labor unrest, and other pertinent data concerning the home front; and, of course, codes and ciphers. I built quite a library on this topic alone, from the general to the specific to the highly technical.
What are some of the most interesting things you found about this subject that you weren’t able to use in the story?
What inspired and surprised you while you were writing the book?
I was inspired by the people who held the line against the saboteurs, especially an organization called The American Protective League. These were more than 250,000 everyday citizen volunteers who worked under the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation to report and investigate suspicious behavior. Thanks to these businessmen and workers who gave of their time, the sabotage in the United States fell dramatically after it was formed in March, 1917.
What do you hope the reader takes away from the story?
The same thing Emma learns—that no matter how out-of-control this world seems, God is still in charge.
What is the next project you’re working on?
Right now I’m writing Love Finds You in Prince Edward Island, my next book for Summerside. In 1860, Queen Victoria sent her son Albert Edward—the heir apparent to her throne—on a goodwill tour of Canada and the United States. This royal tour is the backdrop for my story of romance.
What do you do when you have to get away from the story for a while?
I like to do something silly and random with my kids, or read someone else’s book, or pet the cat, or work a logic problem. Lately I’ve revived my childhood interest in cipher, thanks to writing The Crimson Cipher.
Please give us the first page of the book.
Emma Shuster hurried across campus against the cold wind coming off Casco Bay. Six inches of powdery snow draped the college’s brick buildings in glittery icing, and Emma’s heart sang.
A man in a blue wool coat with epaulets on the shoulders and a peaked hat of the same hue approached the Searles Science Building from the opposite direction. Navy, Emma concluded—a fine-looking officer. She looked away before he could catch her eye.
He reached the door of the brick building just as she did. “Hello.” He smiled brightly and opened the door for her.
“Thank you.” As she entered, she tucked the large envelope she carried under her arm, pulled off her knit gloves, and headed for the stairs.
“Excuse me,” the man said.
She paused and turned toward him. “Yes?”
He unbuttoned his overcoat, revealing a uniform beneath. “I wonder if you could direct me to Professor Shuster’s office.”
Emma relaxed and smiled. “I’m just on my way up to see him, sir. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll take you there.” Her father was a Navy veteran. She wondered what the young man wanted with him.
He walked beside her to the third floor landing. The handsome stranger towered nearly a foot over her.
She supposed she should break the silence if she didn’t wish to be thought rude. “Several of the mathematics and science professors have their offices up here.”
“Indeed. I expect the climb keeps them fit.” The young man smiled. “I’m John Patterson.”
“And you’re with the Navy, Mr. Patterson?”
“Yes. Lieutenant, actually.”
They’d reached the door of her father’s office. Emma gave a quick knock and turned the knob.
“Father, I’ve brought someone to—” She broke off with a gasp. Her father’s slender form lay sprawled on the floor. Blood seeped onto the varnished oak boards and the papers strewn near him. “Father!”
She dropped her envelope and knelt beside him. Bending close, she touched his arm. The awful stillness of his body sent chills through her. A dry, fierce ache filled her throat. Pushing his shoulder slightly, she tried to speak again, but a sob wrenched her chest.
Patterson knelt on the other side and put a hand to the fallen man’s throat. After a moment, he reached across and gently touched Emma’s sleeve. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“No, no! We need to call a doctor.”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing a doctor could do for him.”
She wept then¬¬—great, hot tears splashing down her cheeks.
“Miss Shuster. Come and sit down.”
Emma raised her hand to her mouth, staring at the blood. She struggled to stand, but her knees buckled, and she grabbed the lieutenant’s outstretched arm.
He caught her as she wilted. “There, now. Let me help you.”
He turned a wooden chair to face the door, holding her upright with his steel-like right arm.
“Sit down, miss.”
Emma sank onto the chair and held her hands over her face.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No,” she managed. “Thank you. Just...please, see to Father. Make certain...”
He left her side, and she shivered. She wanted to look over her shoulder and see what Patterson did—to assure herself that she’d been mistaken and only imagined the ghastly scene.
She didn’t move.
The lieutenant came back, his jaw tense. “I’m sorry, Miss Shuster. I’m afraid it’s too late.”
Wow! I can hardly wait for my copy to arrive. How can readers find you on the Internet?
It’s easy: http://www.susanpagedavis/. Come visit me!
Thank you for sharing with us today, Susan.
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