Monday, June 16, 2014

Recreating a World, a guest essay by Donis Casey, author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries

In today's guest essay, novelist Donis Casey, author of Hell With the Lid Blown Off and six earlier novels in the acclaimed Alafair Tucker mystery series set in 1910s Oklahoma and Arizona, covers a variety of good points related to writing authentic historical fiction and capturing all the details of her characters' world.


Recreating a World
Donis Casey

I’m amused at how often people seem to think that whatever is going on this minute is unique in human history. Hardly! People never change. They are us! They just didn’t have cell phones. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

My protagonist, Alafair Tucker, lives with her husband, Shaw, and their ten children on a prosperous farm outside of Boynton, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but one or another of her ten lively kids will insist upon getting into trouble, and Alafair is the kind of woman who will do anything, legal or not, for her kids. Alafair is an homage to my foremothers, tough as nails but twice as loving, who did whatever needed to be done whether they were supposed to or not.

Boynton was quite the thriving community back in Alafair’s time. It had two banks, five churches, a newspaper, a brick plant, an oil refinery, four general stores, two hardware houses, a furniture store, a farm implement store, and a big cotton gin. The 1916 Directory of Boynton states, “Altogether Boynton is one of the most progressive cities in the state, and its future is full of brilliant promise.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Great Depression did it in, like it did so many Oklahoma farming communities.

I strive to create as authentic a depiction of this woman’s life in that place and time as humanly possible. What is her daily life like? She doesn’t just run off and try to solve mysteries whenever she wants. She has to fix dinner, do the laundry, weed the garden. I want the reader to feel like Alafair is a real person who has a life that matters, to care about her. I wanted to create a world and make the reader believe in it.

Boynton, Oklahoma, ca. 1915 (given to author by Boynton Historical Society)

Therefore, I do tremendous amounts of research. One would expect this of a historical novelist. The writer has to be really careful not to make egregious mistakes about the time period events, language, clothing, tools, conveyances. What mystery-solving methods are available to my sleuth during her time period? Sometimes mysteries set in the recent past are more difficult to get right than those in the distant past. King Henry VIII doesn’t wear a Rolex. That’s easy. But what about Oxydol Detergent for Alafair in 1915? Levi’s jeans for her husband? (Note: Levi’s were available, but not so much in Oklahoma. I know this because the official historian for the Levi Strauss Company told me so.)

But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page. I’m trying to recreate a life in a bygone era, not to write a history book, and it’s amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to a story.

Why, then, do I spend so much time learning everything I can about the times, lives, and mores of my characters when I know I’m not going to write about most of it? Because my own familiarity with the era I’m writing about is going to show without my having to make a big deal of it. The characters are going to move naturally through their world without thinking about it, just like we do in our own world. Sometimes it takes research into ways of life one would never have the opportunity to come across today, such as how to scrape ashes out of a cast iron cook stove or clear a blocked oil well with a nitroglycerin torpedo.

Besides, I love to live for a while in a time and place that no longer exists, and explore beliefs that no one believes any more. I think sometimes that there is something of acting in writing fiction. Actors and novelists both have to dig deep to inhabit our characters and make them real.

Boynton, Oklahoma, ca. 1915 (given to author by Boynton Historical Society)

I have written scenes in which one of my characters does something that he absolutely believes is right, but I, Donis Ann Casey, would never consider justified. One of the joys and perhaps one of the great challenges of writing is that you can explore lives, places, times, people, attitudes that are entirely different from your own. The Alafair Tucker Mysteries feature a protagonist who leads a life that couldn’t be less like mine, nor does she believe the things I do. And yet she’s a human being, with the same fears and loves and desires as any woman in any era. I know her intimately. I grew up around her world and loved a lot of people who were just like her.

I wonder sometimes if readers think  I have the same values and ideas as my character Alafair. I used to wonder how like their characters other authors are until I actually started writing fiction. Now I think the answer often is, “not even close.”

I read an interview with Salman Rushdie in which he said he didn’t have to be religious himself in order to understand quite well how a religious person thinks, and not only to understand him, but have great admiration for him. When I write about the Boynton that Alafair Tucker and her family inhabit, I might as well be writing about Atlantis – a place, a time, a way of life that only exists now in the racial memory of its descendants.


Donis Casey is the author of seven Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, The Wrong Hill to Die On, and Hell With the Lid Blown Off (Poisoned Pen Press, June 2014). The award-winning series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis is a native Oklahoman who now lives in Tempe, Arizona. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site She also blogs biweekly about writing at

From Publishers Weekly's starred review of Hell With the Lid Blown Off: "A huge tornado brings unexpected trouble to the people of Boynton, Okla., in Casey’s excellent seventh Alafair Tucker mystery.... Casey provides an engaging portrait of the close-knit society that was commonly found in the rural Midwest at the time. Alafair Tucker, her large family, and their friends are a pleasure to spend time with."

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