History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 November 2012

Welcome to Anna Lee Huber!

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to Anna Lee Huber, whose debut historical mystery, The Anatomist's Wife, hit the shelves yesterday.  Here's the official blurb:

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage-a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim...

The book has already garnered praise from both the fabulous Deanna Raybourn and Julia Spencer-Fleming, among others.

Anna very generously took time out from a busy book launch schedule to come visit us today and talk about research, writing, and the joy of uncovering historical absurdities.  Welcome, Anna!

First off, thank you so much to Lauren Willig and the other History Hoydens for having me.  I adore so many of your books, so this is very exciting for me. 

What drew you to write historical fiction, and more particularly historical mysteries, over any other genre? 

I’ve always had a deep love of history.  It was always my favorite subject in school.  Of course, there were certain time periods and locations that interested me more than others, but overall I found the entire area of study fascinating.  It was impressed upon me at a young age by one of my wonderful teachers—I wish I could remember exactly who—how history repeats itself, and how important it is for us to learn from the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.  That concept captivated me, and I’ve been examining it in one form or another ever since.

After I finished college, and found time to read for pleasure again, I immediately gravitated toward historical fiction, which led me to historical romances and historical mysteries.  So when I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, it was absolutely a no-brainer that it would be a historical of some kind.  I just couldn’t imagine writing anything else.  Most of my daydreams and plot ideas happen somewhere in the past, and my voice just seems to naturally fit historicals.  Deciding which sub-genre of historical fiction to write was the hardest.  I tried several, but the first time I sat down to write a mystery, I knew something magical was happening.  For whatever reason, all of the elements seemed to combine in the right manner. 

Looking back at my earlier manuscripts, it seemed I had always been trying to write a mystery.  I just hadn’t consciously realized it.  This probably grew out of my deep and abiding love for the mystery genre.  I have a very analytic brain, and I love the puzzle that a good mystery provides.

Your debut novel, The Anatomist’s Wife, is set in 1830 Scotland?  Is there a particular reason for this?

I chose the year 1830 precisely because it fell after the trial of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare and before the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.  Prior to 1832, British medical schools had difficulty procuring cadavers for their anatomy classes, because only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for this purpose, which amounted to only about two to three bodies annually per school. This led to the practice of body-snatching, where recently buried bodies were stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools.

It was a lucrative trade, and Burke and Hare, two laborers in Edinburgh, sought to take advantage of the practice. Rather than risk being caught while performing the difficult labor of disinterring bodies from the local cemeteries, they began inviting victims to their lodging house, plying them with alcohol, and smothering them to death. They then sold the bodies to the Surgeons’ Hall at the University of Edinburgh, namely to well-known anatomist and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox.

Burke and Hare were caught in November of 1828, but not before they murdered sixteen people.  The people of London and Edinburgh were panicked by the idea that similar enterprising criminals might be at work, murdering hapless citizens and selling their bodies to anatomists and medical schools.  Public opinion turned sharply against anatomists like Robert Knox for their part in providing incentive for these murders.  Medical schools were forced to pay closer attention to where their bodies were procured, and legislation reform became a necessity.

All of this feeds into the public’s reaction when they discover that my protagonist, Kiera, Lady Darby has assisted her late husband, a great anatomist, with his dissections, regardless of whether she did so willingly or not.  Kiera is feared and vilified, and her removal from London becomes necessary.  She runs as far as she can go, to her sister’s home in the remote Highlands of Scotland. 

It wasn’t common in 1830 for a woman, particularly a lady, to take part in a murder investigation.  What skills does Kiera, Lady Darby bring to such an inquiry?

You’re right.  During that time period, gentlemen would have attempted to keep ladies sheltered from such grim realities.  There would need to be a strong reason why they would allow a female to become involved with such a gruesome undertaking.  First and foremost, Kiera is a talented portrait artist, with keen observation skills.  But more importantly, thanks to her late husband, she also has a knowledge of human anatomy.  Though she never wished to acquire such information, it comes in handy during a murder investigation, especially when the closest official who can help is four days ride away. 

What kinds of research did you do for this book?

Lots of reading—from encyclopedias, to journals and diaries, to detailed research texts.  Some were for cultural reference, while others pertained to more specific areas of study, like nineteenth century medicine, or the practice of grave robbing.  I also visited the UK—strolled through the Highlands, toured castles, and tried to get a feel, a sense of my environs.  My visit to the Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was particularly insightful.  There you’ll find the famed would-be-body-snatcher-turned-murderer Burke‘s death mask, skeleton, and several articles made from his tanned skin, including a book cover.  I also always keep an etymology dictionary handy, as I find making sure the terminology and turns of phrase I choose to use are historically accurate is often the most difficult thing.

Any interesting historical tidbits you stumbled upon that you’d like to share?

Early in the writing of THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, I decided to give Kiera the hobby of putting together puzzles, an interest I also enjoy.  However, I didn’t know if this would be historically accurate.  I quickly discovered that John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker, created the first jigsaw puzzle in 1750 by affixing one of his maps to a sheet of hardwood and then cutting around the borders of the countries. This production resulted in an educational tool used to teach British children their geography, and until about 1820, jigsaw puzzles were used almost exclusively for this purpose.  Given this, it seemed feasible that in 1830 a friend of Kiera’s brother-in-law would be experimenting with other types of puzzle designs geared more toward adults.  Though not yet in mass-production, there could be prototypes. 

But jigsaw puzzles were not known as such until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when the treadle saw, a type of jigsaw, began to be used to cut out the pieces. Until that time, jigsaw puzzles were known ironically, at least for Kiera, as dissections. I stumbled across this absurd bit of knowledge during a late draft of the novel and found it highly amusing, but elected not to call the jigsaw puzzle by its early nineteenth century name to avoid confusion.  Instead, they are only referred to as puzzles. 

To learn more about THE ANATOMIST'S WIFE, visit Anna at her website, www.annaleehuber.com.


Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Putting this one on my MUST HAVE list! Jigsaw puzzles, lady detectives, 19th century anatomists, murder at a house party - I'm in heaven! I love historical turning point in which you have set your story. The years of Burke and Hare juxtaposed with the year of the Anatomy Act are just perfect for all sorts of squeamish reactions and daring do!

6:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Welcome, Anna! Sorry to be chiming in late - somewhat crazy week between travel and the election. I've been eagerly anticipating your book since reading about it on Facebook and other places on the web. It's such a wonderful angle to give your heroine a background in anatomy combined with art. 1830 is a fascinating year, the cusp of Parliamentary Reform, close to the 1832 uprisings on the Continent. And I love Scotland as a setting!

3:38 PM  

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