Jennifer Kincheloe’s 1906 Los Angeles mystery series introduces the irresistible Anna Blanc, the Kim Kardashian of her day, willing to sacrifice a life of wealth and privilege and challenge the status quo to pursue her dream of becoming an LAPD detective.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Jennifer explains how much Anna is based on LA’s first woman detective and tells how chronic fatigue got her writing.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode
- How research training benefits her as a writer
- Why starting with screenplays developed her skills
- The first LAPD woman cop who inspired her story
- Her adventures on the Sepik River
- The writer she returns to again and again
- And the mind attitude that’s the secret to her success
Where to find Jennifer Kincheloe:
What follows is a “near as” but not word for word transcript of our chat with links to important mentions.
And now, here’s Jennifer . . Hello there Jennifer and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning . . . .Was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would somehow be incomplete? And if so, what was there a catalyst?
Jennifer: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my forties, so I suppose I thought I couldn’t do it. In fact, I remember saying one time I could write non- fiction because I published various non- fiction articles in my career as a research scientist. But I didn’t think I could make a story.
Then I got chronic fatigue, and I was in bed for two months. I couldn’t work, I just really slept and listened to books on tape. When I awoke from that time of sleeping, my mind was very clear.
I decided I wanted to write something, so I sat down and wrote a screenplay. I knew nothing about writing – I had no training, and I never read a writing book. That was how it started, and I found myself so passionate about it. I would just write all day, and not do anything else. I didn’t want to go anywhere or see anyone, just sit and write. I thought, this is something very special and I would love to do it professionally, so that was how it started.
Jenny: Was any of that writing the work that later became Anna Blanc?
Jennifer: Yes. The first thing I wrote was screenplays – I started with screenplays because I thought they were easier than novels as they were shorter. But actually, I think they’re harder. I wrote a screenplay and it was contemporary, suited to kids.
It was really terrible, but I sent it off to my friend- he’s a screenwriter, who’s written all kinds of kids’ movies including Shrek 2. He’s an old friend, David N. Weiss. He read my screenplay, and he told me it was really awful. I asked him what I could do, and he gave me a bunch of books to read that he recommended. Then I started a second screenplay, which was the Secret Life of Anna Blanc. After I wrote the screenplay, I let it sit for a year and then I wrote it into the novel.
Jenny: Fantastic. I think you’re right about screenplays – there’s quite a lot of necessary formula about them. You really need to understand what they’re looking for. There’s a little bit more freedom in a novel, although they do have their conventions, you do have more freedom – would you agree?
Jennifer: Yes I agree. I feel like because I started with screenplays, I’d written three screenplays before I started writing Anna Blanc into a novel. It taught me a lot about story structure which I thought was useful. But you’re exactly right, you have more freedom in novels so you can deviate.
Jenny: The Secret Life of Anna Blanc introduced us to a whimsical naïve rich girl a “Gibson Girl” who wants to be a police detective and have agency and make the world a better place. In the first book she is struggles valiantly against being controlled by the men in her life – her father and fiancees – because for a woman of her class and time “reputation” is everything. Firstly, why did you choose the mystery genre? And secondly What was the attraction of this time period and setting?
Jennifer: Like I mentioned, the first thing I wrote was a contemporary children’s movie and the second thing I wrote was this historical mystery.
The entire reason I wrote that screenplay was because I came across a short article on the Internet, about the first woman police officer in Los Angeles. She became a cop in 1910. Her name was Alice Stebbins Wells.
I didn’t know much about her, but I was so impressed with her, because I was imagining what it would be like to be the only woman in the LAPD. And I was fascinated, I wanted to learn more and write something in her honour. So I started to write this historical mystery set in her time period, and that’s really how I chose her time and place. I had so much fun with the first novel, that I wanted to make it a series.
Jenny: Did Anna spring to the page fully formed?
Jennifer: She sprung from the page, fully formed. As I say, I had wanted to write something in honour of Alice Stebbins Wells, and my character as she came out and materialised on the page was nothing like Alice Stebbins Wells. She was a middle aged, average, middle class married woman. She had been a minister, but very sober and civil minded.
Jenny: How much was she consciously modelled on the idea of “Gibson girl” – creation of Charles Dana Gibson who became the beaux ideal of the day – the height of fashion and glamor? They were the “Kardashians” of their time…” independent, cool, superior, always upper class, with an aloof spirit of mockery of the male which is irresistible to both sexes . . . “
Jennifer: Good! I did see her as a Kardashian. She’s such a product of he time. Her beauty and her wealth spoil her in a way that had a huge impact on her character development, which I think is an interesting part of the novel.
Jenny: And then her situation takes a tumble in Book Two – The Woman in the Camphor Trunk. Without wanting to give too much away let’s just say it’s the story of “be careful what you wish for” – she at least partly gets her wish to be a detective but it’s not working out the way she might have hoped. I’m very interested to see where it’s going to go in book three!. . . .
Jennifer: Yes, I’m working on book three right now. I was writing it this afternoon. I really rely on screenwriting structure, because that’s what worked for me twice before. I kind of sketch it out like a screenplay, and I know how I want to to end. I’m probably two thirds of the way through, and the last third is baffling me. So I know how it ends, but I don’t know how I’ll get there.
Jenny: Book Two also bravely deals a lot with the Chinese population in Los Angeles. Did you have to face any criticism about cultural appropriation in having so much of the book set in Chinatown?
Jennifer: It’s interesting, I almost want to say that I really had to learn about racism and race in LA, and as a result learnt a lot about racism and the parallels today.
It’s still such a prevalent problem. When I was writing, I thought – who can I consult about this, who is there on this earth today who has much in common with the Chinese Americans in LA in the 1900s. And their situation is so different- what they experienced and what their life was like was so different, different to what anyone experiences today.
It’s almost like it’s a lost way of life, a lost experience. The kind of racism that the Chinese faced back then is so different than the racism faced today. It was such a privilege to learn about that part of LA history and tell that tale.
I really took it seriously, and did a tremendous amount of research to learn about and do justice to their situation. I ran it by a friend who happens to be a scholar on Chinese American Immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. That was fortuitous. I was guided by him. Also a couple of Chinese American friends were able to read the manuscript and give me feedback, so that was super valuable. But it’s a delicate balance and it’s something I try to do with a lot of respect, and carefully.
In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
Jenny: You’re published by Seventh Street Books – a specialist mystery crime and thriller publisher – who found you through a writing contest? Tell us about that . . .
Jennifer: It was kind of funny, I was in a writing contest because I wrote my first book the Secret Life of Anna Blanc and I had no idea if it was any good at all.
I entered it into a contest, and there were 10,000 entries and five categories. I won the mystery category, and there were five winners. The first chapter of the book I posted on their website, and my agent’s assistant found it and read it.
There was no contact information for me, so she contacted me through Linked In. I kept on getting this Linked In invitation from this woman, and I didn’t know who she was. Finally I accepted her invitation, and it was my agent’s assistant contacting me because she was interested in talking about representing me.
When I got that message I was out of my mind with excitement, I couldn’t sleep. My agent Zoe King is with the Blair Partnership and they represent J. K Rowling. I was too excited for words. My agent contacted me when I was a semi finalist, and told me not to sign any contracts.
When I won, she said “don’t sign that contract, I’ll get you a different contract”, so I stepped down. That was a big, scary decision, but I trusted her. I think because I did, I’ve had so much fun with the path that I’m on. I adore Seventh Street Books, I love the people there and how they treat me. I love my editor and my fellow Seventh Street authors, and I’m really grateful for their experience. So that was my very strange way of finding a publisher.
Jenny: And you were a highly qualified scientist – I should be calling you Dr Kincheloe because you have a Ph D from UCLA “developing complex statistical models” . Tell us a little about that part of your life – the life before writing . . .
Jennifer: I was a public health researcher and I studied the organisation and financing of health care- so the American health care system.
I was at UCLA, and I did research there for 11 years. I left UCLA because my husband was transferred, we moved across countries and there was no school of public healthcare here.
So that was a contributing factor to me starting writing. So I was doing some consulting for the State of Colorado and some other organisations. I started writing, and kind of let my researching go because all I wanted to do and think about was writing.
Yet I was realising that I also loved research and I worked hard to get qualified, so I recently got a job about a year ago with a Sheriff’s department studying the jails. So I’m partnering with some academic institutions and now my research focus has shifted from public health to corrections. That’s been absolutely fascinating and I’m very busy.
Jenny: It sounds like it might be quite a fruitful area for future books!
Jennifer: Oh I have so many stories! I keep a notebook and I take notes of funny little things that happen in jail. Just getting a better understanding of what it’s like. When I walk through the jail- it’s bleaker, smaller and sadder than you see in movies. In learning about these things and what it’s like to be incarcerated and to be a deputy and spend your life in that environment, I feel like it’s given more depth in writing about a police matron who handles women and is surrounded by men in jail.
Jenny: So is that the one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success? Or is there something else entirely?
Jennifer: I think it’s the whole 10,000 hour thing. When I started writing, I just didn’t stop. I wrote for 12-14 hours a day, I would write everyday.
I read every book I could get my hands on about writing. I would dissect books and movies, and pay attention to the structure. I would read opening pages and novels and diagram them, paying attention to what authors were doing that was effective.
If there was a book that was popular, I’d read it five times. I’d question everything – how did she deal with description, how much description did she use, how did she use her adjectives and adverbs, what is her character development like, and why am I so moved by this story?
I think it’s just putting in a lot of time, and I did that over the course of a few years. That’s how I got confident enough to produce a novel people would want to read.
Jenny: Yes, I think you’ve said that you treated it like another graduate degree. It sounds like you were utterly passionate about it, also exercising very high analytical skills by the sound of it.
Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. I’m sure I put as much work into it as getting a masters degree. I did, I just wrote and re wrote.
I think it took me about a year to write the Anna Blanc screenplay and another three years for the novel. I have over a hundred different versions of the novel on my hard drive, and that was after I had written the screenplay – I don’t know how many versions of that I had.
I had so many deleted and laughable scenes. But I’m a better writer now, I’ve had a lot more practice, so the later things are better. I think Book Three is going to be far easier to write, and there won’t be as much research to complete for it. I had to learn a lot about Chinese culture, not just the culture but the culture in 1900 Los Angeles. So there’s lots of research in writing historical fiction, obviously.
Jenny: I thought one of the amusing things was in Book One, her favourite sort of swear word is “Biscuits”. And I wondered, is that really what they used to say!
Jennifer: I don’t know where I got that. I researched slang so meticulously for these books. And I did it by reading the newspapers from the 1900s, and reading novels that were written in the 1900s so I could collect slang from the dialogue, the comic strips and the articles.
I also bought this enormous two volume historical dictionary of American Slang, and I used that too. I had long lists of slang words that they used in the 1900s, and I try to pepper my books with them. “Biscuits” is one where I don’t know where I heard it, but it’s Anna’s now.
Jenny: Are you going to help break the “hold” that English regency seems to have on historical mystery – and why do you think readers seem to resist other periods? Is that changing?
Jennifer: Yes, I do think it’s changing. There’s so many wonderful 1900 writers!
Turning to Jennifer 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”
Jennifer: Yes, I’m also an avid audio book reader. So I made sure the Secret Life of Anna Blanc and the Woman in the Camphor Trunk are both available on audio. I had the best narrator in the world- she’s amazing. Her name is Moira Quirk, she’s won several awards.
So when I binge, I audio book binge. One of my favourites is Elizabeth Peters- she wrote late 19th century- early 20th century, about an English woman who was an archaeologist in Egypt. Her book series is Amelia Peabody, she is her protagonist.
Her first one is Crocodile on the Sandbank. But she’s hilarious, and funny, and historically and archaeologically accurate. I love her books, so periodically I’ll read through her Amelia Peabody series.
Circling back to the end
(I see this as a bit of a narrative)
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Jennifer: I would say to start writing sooner. Writing has kind of consumed me. I almost wonder if I’d been willing to give up so much of my life to writing sooner. But I do wish I’d started earlier, because there’s so many things I’d like to do with my writing. I’d like to get better and better, and that takes time. My daughter is 16, and she’s just started her first novel.
Jenny: What is next for Jennifer the writer ? Projects under development?
Jennifer: So I have another contract for a third Anna Blanc novel, and I’m working furiously to deliver that on time. I have four other Anna Blanc books sketched out. I also started a book in between my Anna Blanc novel set in 1900s New Guinea – It’s very ambitious. I don’t know if I’ll get back to that or not, but there’s certainly more Anna Blanc in the future.
Jenny: Where did New Guinea spring from?
Jennifer: I went to New Guinea for a summer, and it was in 1985. We were in the Sepik region, and we had to travel to the ends of the earth, travelling in motorised canoes for 18 hours up the river.
We were in this village with houses on stilts, no electricity, telephones, roads or mail service. There was nothing! It was an amazing experience for me, and I’ve always thought that the New Guinea culture and the various cultures in New Guinea were fascinating, and more stories need to be told about New Guinea.
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line? (And off line – you seem to do quite a few “meet the author” events?)
Jennifer: My website is www.jenniferkincheloe.com. I’m on Facebook- Jennifer Kincheloe Author. I also have a Pinterest page, and on twitter I’m @jenkincheloe. Links to all my social media are on the bottom of my website page.
Jenny: I notice that you post quite a few old photographs on Facebook that look interesting- do you think that Pinterest has developed a good following as well?
Jennifer: Yes, Pinterest is wonderful. I did a lot of my research using photographs to see how people dressed, what they looked like, what they looked like when they’re goofing off, what their idea of romantic was, and so many wonderful things that I could find in pictures.
So my Pinterest page is extensive- I have tens of thousands of photos of clothing from the period- shoes, purses, hats, jewellery, hairstyles and street photography. It was a very important part of my research.
Jenny: Sounds fabulous. Well Jennifer, it’s been wonderful to talk to you today. I’m sorry that technically we’ve had a few little glitches, but we got through it and it’s been lovely to have your company, thank you for taking the time to talk.
Jennifer: Thank you Jenny so much.
Jenny: I look forward to Book Three with anticipation.
Jennifer: Wonderful, I’ll get onto writing it!