K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly: A Concordia Wells Mystery, the first in her mysteries featuring women’s college professor Concordia Wells, sees her heroine pulled into a whodunit after a family member dies and a friend is attacked. In the interview below, Owen discusses her love of the library, method of research for historical fiction, and connection to her protagonist’s scholarly career. A winner of the 2015 LJ Self-Published Ebook Awards, Dangerous and Unseemly is available to read on the SELF-e platform.
Since you entered the SELF-e program, libraries must be important to you. How do you see them as a way to reach readers?
I’ve loved libraries ever since I can remember. As a little girl, my mom would take me several times a week to our local branch. Each time, I’d walk out with a stack of books I could barely carry. In the decades since, I’ve explored the shelves of many libraries, falling in love with authors and series I would not have found otherwise. I’m grateful to be part of that tradition from the other side, as a mystery author, with new readers out there to discover my books. I’m delighted that libraries are instituting ebook programs such as SELF-e to serve this new generation. Libraries have always been essential to a well-educated society, and they will continue to fill that role.
What got you started as a writer? Were mysteries always your focus?
Oh yes, I love reading mysteries and knew these were the kind of stories I wanted to tell. It’s a wonderful genre. In a traditional mystery, readers enjoy a unique intersection of puzzle, adventure, and justice. Depending upon the subgenre, you may also find interesting bits of history, humor, and even romance.
I decided to try my hand at writing a novel during a sabbatical from teaching at George Washington University, DC. My mother-in-law had become gravely ill, and I knew the family would need me. I began outlining and researching a historical mystery in my free time, but the breakthrough came after my mom-in-law’s unfortunate passing. I was helping sort through her papers and discovered fascinating insights into her time as a young adult away from home at Immaculata College, PA. That gave me the idea of setting the story at a women’s college—though much earlier, in the 1890s. Dangerous and Unseemly is dedicated to her. She was a librarian, too.
Part of the fun of reading about Concordia Wells is the historical detail and setting. What research did you do beforehand? Do you prepare to research and let what you learn drive the plot, or do you already know the plot when you start?
It’s a bit of both, actually. At the beginning of the series, the research drove most of the ideas for the story. I had to be sure of what was plausible. As more books in the series have been published—I’m working on Book 5—the character arcs began to drive the plot. These days, I research the gaps that crop up. Sometimes that will suggest a change in outline.
It’s a wonderful time to be a historical author. The wealth of digitized material, through such sites as the Library of Congress and Google Books is amazing. My favorite free website is Chronicling America, which is a search engine for digitized U.S. newspapers published between 1836 and 1922. Advertisements, turns of phrase, dramatic journalism—this site has it all. I have also been fortunate in finding experts at universities and museums who are willing to answer my questions.
While reading your books, I thought that you must have a background in academia. How did teaching affect your writing, if at all?
My teaching experiences definitely influenced my portrayal of the fictitious community of Hartford Women’s College. It influenced the interaction between Concordia, a professor, and her students in particular. Students then and now are not so different. The liveliness of youth is timeless, as are the pressures and expectations placed upon young people. Often a college professor finds herself serving as a mentor as well as an instructor. That, too, is timeless.
Which mysteries do you recommend to your fans?
It depends on what aspects of my series readers find appealing. Do you enjoy the lighthearted suspense and physical action? Try Dorothy Gilman’s “Mrs. Pollifax” series. Historical setting? Check out Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen books, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Margaret Frazer’s Sister Frevisse mysteries, and Anne Perry’s two Victorian series. Bookish intrigue? You will love Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane/Lord Peter Wimsey novels. How fortunate we are to have so many choices!