Q: How did you come up with the idea for your characters Lily and Marvena?
A: Lily Ross, the main protagonist of the Kinship Mystery Series, is inspired by Ohio's true first female sheriff in 1925.
In real life, the true sheriff (Maude Collins) knew who had killed her sheriff-husband in the line of duty, a man who did not want to be hauled in on traffic violation charges. Maude became sheriff to fulfill her husband's term; she then ran for sheriff in her own right and won by a landslide in 1926.
Lily, on the other hand, doesn't know who killed her husband or why, and she takes the position of sheriff to investigate. Later, she decides to run for sheriff in her own right. But all of Lily's motivations and emotions and dialogue, and certainly the mysteries she investigates, are from my imagination.
As I wrote The Widows, I realized that Lily knew her husband well as his wife, but she didn't know much about his childhood or early years.
Marvena emerged in my imagination as a childhood friend for him. Together, the two work to solve the mystery of who killed him, but also face a grave threat to the community. In facing these challenges together, they eventually become friends.
Q: Did you know from the beginning that you’d write more than one book about them?
A: I didn't! I actually wrote The Widows as a standalone. My editor convinced me to consider writing more books about these characters by asking if I realized what a vast array of characters and an in-depth world I'd created. She said she wanted to read more, and thought readers would too. What writer could resist THAT?
So I wrote The Hollows, and now The Stills. I do write each novel so that it can be read as a standalone, but series readers can also enjoy reading them in order.
Q: How do you think your characters have changed over the course of the series?
A: Lily has grown more confident as a sheriff. She's also realizing that she cannot possibly do this work alone, and needs the support of not just a few deputies, but of friends, family and neighbors. This realization fits with her goal: whenever the equilibrium of the community is upset by a crime, she wants to restore peace.
At the same time, Lily does very much believe in the value and sanctity of individuals. So the tension between individual identity and needs coming into conflict with community expectation is the thematic background of the novels.
Lily always wants to restore the balance of individuals respecting the community, but also the community honoring and respecting individual needs. It's a tricky balance--then and now. Lily, of course, would not phrase her motivation in this way. It's a deep down, subconscious motivation.
Marvena has softened a bit, but I aim to keep her fierce!
Q: What kind of research do you do to write your books, and have you learned anything that especially surprised you?
A: I do a lot of online research and reading, visit museums, and conduct interviews.
My visits (pre-Covid!) to the Anti-Saloon League Museum in Westerville, Ohio, and to the Bootleggers, Bandits and Badges exhibit at the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, were very informative for The Stills. For The Widows, I interviewed several retired coal miners and visited coal mining towns and museums.
So far, I have indeed found specific historical events that have surprised me, and I work them into my novels.
For The Widows, that was the Battle for Blair Mountain in West Virginia, a huge uprising of coal miners wanting safer, fairer working conditions.
For The Hollows, it was the existence of the Women's KKK as well as fascinating asylum history.
For The Stills, I learned a lot about the complex, nuanced history of the nearly 14-year social and political experiment we call Prohibition. We still live with the ramifications of that experiment, 100 years later.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on the fourth novel in the Kinship Mystery Series. I've also started writing a regular column for Writer's Digest, "Level Up Your (Writing) Life."
--Interview with Deborah Kalb