Death of a Dancing Master

No, this is not another post about poor Michael Jackson, dancing master though he was.

My guest today is M. E. Kemp, author of historical mysteries set in Puritan New England. Staid? Dull? Not so much! Marilyn points out that Puritans were Elizabethans, after all, and you know how THEY were.

M. E. Kemp is the author of an historical mystery series featuring two nosy Puritans as detectives. Her ancestors settled in Salem, MA in 1636 and in her home town, Oxford, MA, in 1713, so her roots are deep in New England history. She lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack and two kitties: Boris and Natasha, but returns frequently to visit her family in Oxford.

Take it away, Marilyn!

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I write a series of historical mysteries featuring two nosy Puritans as detectives. I figured that Puritans were supposed to be nosy to keep the neighbors on the Godly Path. Nosy makes a good detective. Originally my detective was supposed to be a young minister, a cousin of Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan cleric. (This was partially in reaction to all the medieval mysteries that came after Brother Cadfael, with their priests, monks, nuns, rabbis – American history is just as bloody and colorful as medieval Britain!) To be historically accurate, young Cotton Mather was a complex person with a tendency to break down under pressure. I’m talking nervous breakdowns here. This worked in my favor, for it gave my original detective, Creasy Cotton, a chance to investigate. Clerics were political and community leaders in colonial Boston, as well as religious leaders. In fact, ministers were the rock stars of the era.

When I wrote my first book, Murder, Mather and Mayhem, I introduced Hetty Henry, a mid-twenties widow with wealth and connections to high and low society. Hetty is such a pushy broad she stepped right in and took over the book and the series. I had no control over her, and that’s the way it should be. When a character takes over like that the writer is wise to give him/her their head. If you try to force a strong character into a mold the character is apt to come out like cardboard, and Hetty is a pretty feisty female. She has taken over the business of her late husbands and runs them with success, owning a merchant fleet of ships. Yet series characters have to grow within the books. I’m not sure yet how Hetty is growing but perhaps the signs are there. She’s always been quick to hop into bed with a man she likes – I want to make the point that our colonial ancestors were a lusty people, closer in age to the Elizabethans – only Hetty is taking it slow in the fourth book of the series when she meets a handsome Huguenot refugee. (Alexandre is fashioned after a former member of the New York City Ballet upon whom I had a big crush, so I guess I do take some characters from real life besides Cotton Mather!) In the second book, Death of a Dutch Uncle, Hetty met and romanced a handsome hunk of a Mohawk called Billy Blue Bear. (Or William, as Hetty persists in calling him.)

We find out what the consequences were in the third book, Death of a Bawdy Belle, set during the Salem Witch Trials. So perhaps Hetty has shown some wisdom in taking it slow with her Huguenot refugee.

I find that other writers have this problem of character growth. I asked fellow writer Anne White, who writes a mystery series set in upstate New York’s Lake George, a popular resort, about her main character. Loren Graham is mayor of a small village and a “buttinski” whose actions put her on a collision course with murder. “Loren sees how her actions create problems for herself and for others, but she can’t seem to change. So far, anyway,” says White, whose latest book is A Cold Winter Night.

I was told by a member of a writer’s support group that she could see the growth in Creasy Cotton. That observation pleased me no end, except that Creasy is such a callow young man there was no place for him to go but up…. He is perhaps learning a little about women, though. In the beginning he was absolutely clueless. Now he knows enough to keep quiet when Hetty is in one of her rants. That’s an important lesson for a man. Another character of whom I am fond is a Bible-quoting constable named Phillymort. Acting as the only police force in Boton, Phillymort does make appearances in several books, especially in the latest: Death of a Dancing Master. Constable Phillymort is set in his ways, and as a secondary character I don’t expect him to show any amount of growth, although he is learning to be afraid of Hetty. That is more like Pavlov’s dog learning, though. I expect he’ll just go on being an officious, Bible-quoting prig.

So what I’ve actually learned is that characters create themselves and you’d better stand back and let them!

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Thanks, Marilyn, and thank you for visiting and sharing! Questions, anyone?


Visit Ms. Kemp’s web site for an excerpt and more!

WRITING PROMPT: Look into the history of where you live. Pick a time when a lot was going on and draft a three-sentence story plan.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Death of a Dancing Master

  1. Nancy Means Wright

    December 20, 2010 at 12:05pm

    Great blog, Marilyn, and I highly recommend her new book! It’s a delight to read. I agree that characters will find their own way, although they do need a bit of help from the author. Anything that happens to any of us, I feel, sits in the psyche and alters our thinking in some way, whether we realize it or not. In my new series in the persona of real life 18th century Mary Wollstonecraft, I was lucky because through her letters I can see how she becomes a little less naive, more cognizant of the cruelties of the world, less susceptible to exploitative men!
    And I think Marilyn’s Hetty also sees through sham and holds her own and continues to change her views as she grows through each experience.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 20, 2010 at 3:22pm

      Good points, Nancy–I absolutely agree that authors need to nudge characters from time to time, no matter how willful the characters may be. 😉 Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters are a fantastic resource for you, not only for writing her but informing all your writing–as you say, it all goes into our psyche. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  2. Jacqueline Seewald

    December 20, 2010 at 4:21pm

    I’ve always found the Puritans fascinating–maybe because I had a double major in English and Social Studies back as an undergrad. This sounds like an original mystery series.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 20, 2010 at 6:04pm

      Jacqueline, I never thought of them as being so hearty, although I read and loved THE SCARLET LETTER, so I should have realized! Thanks for stopping by.

      Monti, it’s never too late! The books are out there for purchase, or you can request your local library buy copies. 🙂

      Marilyn, thank you so much for guesting with me–you’ve been a big hit!

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  3. Enid Wilson

    December 21, 2010 at 4:34am

    Congratulations M.E. I agree with you about strong characters. They don’t listen to their authors at all. But that’s the fun of writing. It can go anywhere.

    Fire and Cross

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