Anna Lee Huber‘s dark Gothic-themed Lady Darby mysteries have attracted a strong following and won awards, but she’s not one to rest on her laurels.
HI there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Anna talks about her new mystery hero, World War I spy Verity Kent; she explains why she’s also started Gothic Mist, a new romantic suspense series, and tells of the one thing, that more than any other, is the secret to her success.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why she’s attracted to Gothic mysteries
- Unveiling the ‘unknown’ story of woman spies in WWI
- Movie soundtracks – her ‘secret sauce’ for writing
- Why ‘breathe and let be’ is an important author skill
- How she discovered her natural fit for historical fiction
- The writers she admires most
Where to find Anna Lee Huber:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
And now here’s Anna. Hello there Anna and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Jenny: From what I read on your website you’ve always loved to write. But what got you started on historical mysteries? Was that the first fiction you tried your hand at when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
Anna: Well actually, I started out writing straight historicals. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and so when I was an adult and went back to writing after some years, I realized it was definitely going to have to be an historical setting.
My first attempt at a book though, I kept having romance and all these other things sneak in and it ended up not being a very good book, because I didn’t structure it correctly. Then I tried to write historical romance, but the mystery kept on overtaking the plot. So I realized, OK let’s switch this. Let’s try writing historical mystery, and having romance as the sub plot.
That’s what I realized was the perfect fit for me; it’s actually what I enjoyed reading the most, though I should have probably clued into that earlier! I also enjoy historical romance.
Jenny: That’s great. Also just winding back a bit – why did you go straight to the historical?
Anna: I just like history so much. When I write, I feel like my voice is more of a historical fit. I’d love to try my hand at writing a contemporary, but I don’t know. It just seems so natural to me. It interests me the most and most of my plot ideas would work better historically than contemporaries so I guess that’s the reason.
Jenny: It’s your natural fit.
Anna: Yes, it is.
Jenny: Your award-winning Lady Darby series is rather dark – would you almost call them Gothic – and set in 1830’s Scotland. What led you to that period and setting?
Anna: Well I came up with the idea for Kiera the character first. I realized that I wanted to write an historical mystery with a female protagonist. But I wanted to give her some kind of skill she could bring to the investigations, and I wanted her to be kind of awkward socially- not being the natural social butterfly.
So how could she investigate these crimes, and what could she bring to it? That’s when I stumbled across the idea of giving her knowledge of anatomy, which she gains by force from her first husband.
Then I started looking into history, and the 19th century has always been a big draw for me. And I realized that Burke and Hare are arrested in 1829 and so that was kind of the perfect setting, because of that scare about the body snatchers and everything that was coming out about what the anatomists were doing in order to teach their pupils and advance science in the medical industry.
Also the Anatomy Act was coming up in 1832, so it was a perfect setting, a time slice to use. Also, Regency England tends to have a lot of books set in it, and later Victorian does also. But 1830 is not used very often and it’s such a fascinating period with so much upheaval. So I thought, this can be my little niche. I’m going to set it right here.
Jenny: Have you been to Scotland and done the research on the ground? The stories seem to have a very strong sense of geographic location.
Anna: Yes, I have been to Scotland. I’ve been to a lot of the places I write about. There’s a few that I haven’t been able to make it to. Setting is really important to me, to be able to ground it in where you are- all the senses, and just the feel of a place. Every place evokes a different feeling, whatever it happens to be.
Jenny: Yes. What was the reception like for Lady Darby at the beginning?
Anna: At the beginning it was good, but I was obviously a debut author. I didn’t get a huge budget promotion, which is pretty common. But it kind of gradually started gathering followers and each book was a bigger release. I would say it was a pretty normal debut author experience that you kind of have to just build on itself. I would encourage people that are wanting to write- most authors don’t get a big blowout on their first book. It’s building that audience and building that career up.
Jenny: Sure, and that says something. Because of the subject matter being a little bit dark, it would require a particular type of reader. But I’m sure those readers would also be very loyal readers.
Anna: Yes, I found that. My readers are very loyal and they’re amazing, they’re the best in the world. I’m drawn to that Gothic tone and I know there’s a lot of other people that are drawn to that. They’re darker, they’re not gruesome or graphic but they’re definitely darker than your average cozy.
Jenny: And then you did change tone quite markedly for the next series, your post WWI series, the Verity Kent stories. That features a heroine quite different from Kiera in many ways, a sort of “smart set” gal who has been a WWI spy, which is quite a fascinating thing to set up. But the tone of those is quite different – tell me about moving from one to the other, and how that came about.
Anna: Well I’ve always been fascinated with WWI, I’d always wanted to set a series there but it’s very tricky because you’re getting into the 20th century where there’s so much more known, and there’s so much more research involved.
WWI can be such a complicated subject. I wanted to get it right- it was really important to get it right. I also couldn’t find the right way to approach it.
Then I stumbled across my research about the British Secret Service and you know the women who had served, and I hadn’t heard anything about it. It was so fascinating- the hundreds and thousands of women that served that really hadn’t gotten there due that we know about. In studying about them, it kind of helped me craft Verity, my heroine. The plot grew from there, and it was kind of fun to research a different era even if it’s a darker era with all the sadness from WWI.
But you’re also getting into the twenties and all of that craziness and the language is kind of fun to play with. There’s such a rhythm with the language during that time period. So it was kind of a breath of fresh air to go to switch back and forth between time periods so they didn’t go stale.
Jenny: I was amazed, I honestly did not realize either that they had women spies as early as WWI. Obviously we know about WWII, and you say hundreds or perhaps thousands were involved!
Anna: Yes, the different Military Intelligence Agencies in Britain, they all had varying degrees of women involved. For example, what became MI 5- the home security service- they had a division called the Registry where they kept indexes on all the residents and foreigners in Britain that had any connection to Germany.
They were wondering if they had any spying or conflicts of interest going on. It was a huge registry, and was manned almost exclusively by hundreds of women. There were women in every division, including MI 6, the Foreign Division. They were abroad in the field offices that were in Rotterdam, Holland and Paris, France.
They also worked behind the scenes- there were several intelligence gathering networks at work in the German occupied areas that had thousands of women in them that were gathering intelligence for the allies and sending it through to the British Secret Service into Holland. (Edit Note: Marthe Cnockaert was one.)
So there were so many women involved, most people have no clue about when you say “spies” in WWI and women, you say Mata Hari- that’s the only one everyone knows about. It was a horrible failure, and not the norm for the women that served. It was really fascinating but also important to me when I started writing to let people know about these women and what they did for the cause of the allies.
Jenny: The book does have a wonderful twist two thirds of the way in that we won’t reveal for those who have not yet read it, but a very surprising twist that obviously then influences the rest of the series. You obviously love to do those plot turns as well.
Anna: Yes, I do. It’s funny- when I write, sometimes I don’t intend to have them. Actually, This Side of Murder, the first book- there’s two plot twists. There’s the main one you’re thinking of, which I didn’t originally plan to write. I was just writing the book, and then all of a sudden it happened. I thought, this is so much better than I had planned, so I just went with it! So I like to leave myself some flexibility with my writing, because those moments happen and a lot of times they make the story much better than it would have been before.
Jenny: How important is it for you to be historically accurate? How much “poetic license” do you allow yourself?
Anna: I try very hard to be historically accurate. There’s some instances where it’s really hard to find the information I need, so I end up having to fudge it. I’m hoping that if I can’t find it, than no one can find it so I did my due diligence. But it is really important for me to try and get it right. When I do change something, I usually make a note in my historical notes about that. And with language even, I try very hard to make sure I’m using language for that time period.
But it’s so tricky- I always get caught out in one or two instances in at least every book just because there’s so many words we use nowadays that we think “oh, this is really ancient” and it’s not, or return a phrase. So I tried very hard, and I try to give myself that grace for things that I just can’t find. The book has to be written – I can’t just spend all my time doing research!
Jenny: That’s absolutely right! You’ve got the second one of the Verity’s that came out just a few months ago, didn’t it – Treacherous Is the Night?
Anna: Yes, end of September.
Jenny: The fashion of those must be fun to write too. I mean you can’t do 1920’s without talking about the clothes can you!
Anna: Exactly, yes. It’s great because Verity is a “smart set”, she’s into clothing and fashion and stuff so it’s a lot of fun. Especially as it’s just that beginning of it where the old guard is saying, “no don’t bob your hair!”. She’s young and fresh and so she’s getting into all the trends and things. So yes, that’s a lot of fun.
Jenny: And both Verity and Kiera, they’ve got a few personality traits in common in sense of strong, independent and a little enigmatic as well. I get the feeling you like writing those sorts of female characters, do you?
Anna: I do. I have people say I write very feminist characters, and I don’t really think of them that way, they end up being that way. I’m interested in writing about women who are trying to find their happiness and their place in society that is telling them they need to be a certain way and they don’t know how to be that way. They can’t just be Suzy Homemaker- there’s something else in them that’s driving them to do something different. So I like exploring people that are extraordinary in very ordinary ways.
Jenny: Yes, and I think probably when you look back into history, in almost every period women have had actually quite a lot more agency than we think.
Anna: Exactly, yes. We’re always finding instances of things that they did- everyone thinks of the Victorians of being prudish, but once you get into the research, there’s so many things that they did that we would be shocked about!
Jenny: And then you have started a third series, a romantic suspense series called the Gothic Mist series with the first book Secrets in the Mist . Tell us more about this new series . . .
Anna: Well I have always loved Gothic stories. My favorite author is Mary Stewart, and I love the authors like Victoria Holt and so I really wanted to write a series that was kind of set in that kind of story, and you know it’s not so big now as it was. I think it’s having a resurgence but that’s kind of why I love it. It’s like getting to dabble in something I’m really interested in.
Jenny: Sure. And you see that one as also having quite a reasonable amount of longevity- have you got any idea at the moment how many books you may be planning for that one?
Anna: Well I have at least ideas for three more, so I’m hoping it’s at least four books long. Hopefully I’ll get more and more! It’s kind of open ended at the moment, but I do have ideas for three additional stories and the second book should be releasing next year.
Jenny: If you were going to organize a “magical mystery literary tour” for the Lady Darby series, where would you suggest people go?
Anna: I’ve had readers asking me to put together a little map, and I’d love to do that some day of all the key spots. I would definitely say going through the books, the Highlands and the Western Highlands like around Loch Lomond is where the first book is set. It kind of travels down right there on the coast in Edinburgh, and then in Edinburgh, and then of course the border region.
Kiera’s childhood home I have located- it’s right on the border between Scotland and England. She actually lives on the English side of the River Tweed so it’s right there, almost in Scotland. Then they end up in the Lake District- there’s some scenes which are so gorgeous. They do end up in Ireland, just outside of Dublin in Book Five into Western Dartmoor. They’re in London for Book Seven, which comes out next year.
Jenny: That’s right. They go to Ireland with family interests don’t they?
Anna: That’s separate. Their father asked them to undertake this investigation and they end up back in Dartmoor for his family, his grandfather.
Jenny: Well yes, you should put that map together sometime. I think it would be great for people! Now when you mention her house on the Tweed, is that a real house that people could see? Is there an address that you’ve got in mind.
Anna: I kind of made up the house. A lot of houses are based on real houses- a lot of the time I change the names just because it’s not always easy to get the details right. If I have to fudge it, I do it for accuracy’s sake. But for Kiera, I decided I wanted her house to be completely fictional. The town- I actually changed the name – but it’s called Carham. I drove through that village when I was in Scotland and England. It was kind of a random village we drove through, but I liked it. It was something about it, this little village and the church, that I decided to adopt it as Kiera’s childhood home.
Jenny: And if you did actually choose a real house and let people know what it was, and it is privately owned, there could in the future be inconveniences for the current owners couldn’t there!
Anna: Absolutely! It’s kind of respectful to change it a little bit.
Turning to your wider career . . .
Jenny: Is there one thing have you done perhaps more than any other, that is the secret of your success?
Anna: I think for me, the big part is I heard from someone long ago that you can’t fixate on a lot of things; you kind of have to let them breathe and be. The biggest thing as a writer that you can be doing to help your career is to write more books. So I’ve chosen to put a lot of my focus into just writing, and continuing to grow and to have output.
The more books you have, the more backlist you have; the more chances you have for someone to pick it up. Then I kind of just have to let the rest be, I’d say. But I would say that’s kind of been the key for me, just doing that. If you have a book and you focus too much on that one book, then after they’ve read it there’s nothing else they can turn to. So I think my biggest success has been that- that’s helped me a lot.
Jenny: And you are traditionally published I believe, aren’t you? With several different publishers?
Anna: I am, yes.
Jenny: That’s obviously a choice; you wouldn’t be tempted to go Indie at this stage, or do something Indie?
Anna: It is a choice, yes. I am doing the Gothic Myths series which is actually technically self published. But yes, I have three other publishers for things. With the Gothic Myths, I chose to self publish because I did want to try that avenue, because it’s been so successful for so many people. It’s nice to have different streams and to diversify, to not only rely on publishers.
Jenny: Absolutely. They say the best position of all is to be now what they called a “hybrid author”- doing both.
Anna: Yes, I’ve heard that too, and I’ve seen proof of that.
Jenny: You majored in music and at one time had ambitions to be a Rock Star “more in the mold of Amy Grant than Britney Spears”? Tell us more about that – and does it feed into your writing at all?
Anna: I think it does, just from the sense that the art is really important to me. I chose to make Lady Darby a portrait artist for a reason, other than just that being a portrait artist she’d be good and examining people’s features and reading their expressions. It’s more a mindset, and I kind of have that musician artistic mindset that carries over into different forms of art. So that part leads through obviously.
But I also think there’s a rhythm in language and writing- it’s the same as music, there’s a flow, a rhythm, a way of looking at things. I would say that definitely interplays.
Jenny: What do you like to do with your music these days?
Anna: For me now, it’s just more fun. I don’t do anything professionally at this point, just singing in church and with my kids. Just enjoying those kinds of things.
Jenny: And what’s your taste in music?
Anna: Oh gosh… it’s pretty varied. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of soundtrack music. That’s what I prefer to write to when I’m on deadline, actually! I prefer either classical music or soundtracks that don’t have vocals to them, because the words distract me when I’m writing. I love the instrumental music, that helps me a lot.
Jenny: What soundtracks are you listening to right now?
Anna: Let’s see- it’s funny, some books have a soundtrack that overtake and become the tone of the book. Like for example, Inception- the Inception soundtrack was really big for mortal arts. Whenever I hear that now, that’s what I think of writing! For Treacherous Is the Night, actually the Dunkirk soundtrack was kind of what I listened to a lot while I was writing it. Now, I kind of listen to a lot of the James Bond soundtracks, the Imitation Game, the Penny Dreadful soundtrack. Things like that.
Jenny: Look, this is really fun- one of the authors I spoke to just recently, Timothy Hallinan- he puts down in his books in the little notes the music he listened to while he was writing that book. He gets lots of feedback from readers suggesting other music he could be listening to!
I agree with you about the non verbal, although I quite like listening to ll Divo because it’s all in Italian and Spanish. It just washes over you, but it’s not really intrusive because it’s not your language!
Anna: You’re absolutely right. A lot of the classical music, it’s in Italian or other things. And you’re right, it doesn’t distract me because it’s in another language.
Turning to Anna as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read” ? Any recommendations for listeners?
Anna: Some of my favorites are Mary Stewart– I love all of her I guess what you’d call romantic suspense. They’re Gothic. Susanna Kearsley, Deanna Raybourn – her Lady Julia series is one of my favorites. Ashley Weaver has a fantastic series about the Amory Ames series set in the 1930’s. I could name a lot! Tasha Alexander is great, Christine Trent and Sherry Thomas.
Jenny: Christine Trent is a name that has been mentioned to me. Tasha Alexander is one that your work was originally compared with as being “if people like Tasha, they’d like you”. So obviously you’re in a very similar stable, aren’t you.
Anna: Yes, yes we are.
Jenny: And I think you’re about to do an anthology with some of the other historical writers, aren’t you?
Anna: Yes I am. It’s called The Deadly Hours, and it’s due to be out next year. They’re all stories that are based around a pocket watch that through history, ends up in different people’s hands. The anthology will be with Susanna Kearsley, Christine Trent and C.S Harris, all authors that I love to read. My story in it is actually a Lady Darby story, funnily enough. It’s set between the wedding novella and Book Five, before they leave Edinburgh.
Jenny: That sounds really fun. I must agree with you on C.S Harris; she was one of the first mystery authors that I ever read, and I just adored the Sebastian St. Cyr series.
Circling back to the beginning at the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Anna: I think I would tell myself not to worry so much! I’m by nature a worrier, I get anxious. But I’ve got so much better at it as I’ve got older, and just letting it go. But I was so anxious to have success and so worried, just clinging to everything. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to chill out, enjoy it! Let it be, and it will all be fine! I think a lot of people when they’e younger are that way. They need maturity to grow and let things be.
Jenny: I think with any writer, there is that feeling of are people going to really like it, and worrying about it.
Anna: Yes. I would tell myself, don’t read the reviews! Too many authors, you get in there and you see a bad one and it just ruins your day. So don’t read the reviews!
Jenny: What is next for Anna the writer? An Artless Demise, Book Seven of Lady Darby is due out early next year –
Anna: Well I am finishing the third Verity Kent book, which is out next autumn. But next out is the Book Seven of the Lady Darby series, An Artless Demise. That’s coming out on April 2nd. And then next year is very busy – the anthology book, and also the second Gothic Myths book. So if plans go accordingly, there will be four books out next year.
Jenny: Oh my goodness, that sounds like a lot of work!
Anna: Fortunately most of them are written!
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Anna: I have a website- annaleehuber.com, and I’m also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all at @annaleehuber.
And also at:
Jenny: Do you get quite a lot of interplay there?
Anna: I do, I do get quite a lot of interaction. It’s a lot of fun. I love to hear what people do and say.
Jenny: Look it’s been great talking to you, it really has. I really like the sound of that anthology- it sounds really fun.
Anna: It is. It’s been a lot of fun to work with.
Jenny: Thank you, and have a really great day.
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