Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and university lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She’s written four mysteries set in the 1920s: The Jazz Files, The Kill Fee, The Death Beat and her latest, The Cairo Brief. Fiona has previously written for stage and screen which gives her a unique background for historical fiction. I’m delighted to host Fiona as part of the blog tour introducing The Cairo Brief to readers.

Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books  by Fiona Veitch Smith

The Poppy Denby Investigates books are murder mysteries set in the early 1920s. At the beginning of the first book, The Jazz Files, it is less than two years since the armistice that ended the Great War, resulting in the death of seventeen million people, and only eighteen months since the height of the Spanish Flu that wiped out a further seventy million. Poppy Denby, who is just starting out on a career in journalism, is full of hope – but sorrow is never far away.

That is something that really attracted me to the period and why, ultimately, I decided to set my books in the 1920s. I wanted to write stories that balanced darkness and light. On the surface the books are fun, frolicking adventures, but you don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find some serious social issues. While some characters are living the high life, others are in misery. The 1920s – alternatively known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the decade of the Bright Young People – is characterised by a generation desperate to leave the horror of war behind them and to create a ‘bright new world’. Little did they know, the world they were so blithely building would crash into economic darkness within nine years, and be at war, once again, by the time Poppy turns 40. I find that thought deeply poignant, and it is never very far away from me when I am writing.

But in the early 1920s they did not know this and they danced to new jazzy music from America and wore skimpy dresses and cropped or ‘shingled’ hair that scandalised their Edwardian mothers. Everything was new, daring and very self-consciously turning its back on the past. There is a certain romance about the 1920s, and a rich vein of material to draw upon for any writer setting work in that period. It is the decade in which moving pictures became popularised and much of the film footage is available to us today. In addition, the music and fashion are iconic, providing a fabulous soundtrack and wardrobe for Poppy and her friends.

As I have previously written for stage and screen, my writing is very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I would create the mis en scene by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of the period, I do the same in my novels. Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process– I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. I even made an outfit from an original 1920s pattern for my first Poppy Denby photo shoot!

In terms of the historical background I take a more academic approach. I have a degree in history (simply a BA) but it is enough to ground me in the techniques of historical research. I prepare for writing in the same way I used to prepare for my university exams – sketching timelines and flow charts and trying to reach an understanding of the broad historical, political, social and economic backdrop, rather than memorising ‘details’. The details can, and are, easily added later. But I do not start writing until I have a feel of what it might have been like to live in that period – I try to read diaries, biographies and novels written at the time – as well as how the period ‘fits’ into history.

For my latest book, The Cairo Brief, I signed up for a six-week online course in antiquities theft, run by Glasgow University through Future Learn (a totally free service!).

But then I stop, switch brains, and start to focus on the story, the characters and the mystery. That for me is the most important part. The history is certainly the skeleton of my books, but the muscles, the flesh and the beating heart are Poppy, her friends and their adventures.

I build my fictional worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the mystery. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. In The Cairo Brief, Emmeline Pankhurst, Arthur Conan Doyle and archaeologist Howard Carter all make an appearance.

The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.

Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today. In the end that is what readers will connect with most: real, authentic human beings.

The Cairo Brief by Fiona Veitch Smith

“I’ve heard all about you, Miss Denby. Everyone knows you have a nose for murder.” Poppy Denby is intrigued when she is invited to attend the auction for the Death Mask of Nefertiti. Held on the country estate of Sir James Maddox, a famous explorer, the auction promises to be a controversial and newsworthy affair. Representatives from the world’s leading museums are gathering to bid on the mask, which was discovered in Egypt. Poppy quickly sniffs out that the mask was not the only thing found that night: the underground chamber also contained a dead body. Poppy and her colleagues from The Daily Globe, who are trying to stay one step ahead of their rivals from The London Courier, dismiss rumours about the mask’s ancient curse. But when one of the auction party is murdered, and someone starts stalking Poppy, the race is on to find the killer before ‘the curse’ can strike again…

Many thanks, Fiona. Having written three novels featuring WWI, I can appreciate the perspective you want to bring to your novels. Best wishes for success with The Cairo Brief. Fiona appeared earlier on the blog discussing the magic ingredients that make historical fiction so successful.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.


Resurrect the Past by JP Robinson

JP Robinson and I connected when I saw the cover for his new novel In the Shadow of Your Wings. As most of you know, I love war stories and JP’s cover is enticing. I’m delighted to welcome JP today with his take on creating the past for readers.

Resurrect the past by JP Robinson

One of the best parts about being a historical author, is the power to recreate or, as I like to say, resurrect the past. I have conducted workshops on this topic and have a “how to” book called Write History releasing in January of 2019.

Some think that history is dead. They couldn’t be more wrong. Historical authors have the power to bend time itself to our will. With a few well-chosen words, we can have our readers join a swirling mass of colorful dancers, as I did in my novel Bride TreeOr we can spark a rush of adrenaline as they charge with our characters across no-man’s land, as I did in the epic first installment of my upcoming trilogy, In the Shadow of Your WingsNo matter what the era, our words should be the time machine that conveys an authentic, convincing picture of the past.

This is not an easy job. It takes effort, focus, time and practice. Imagination is not enough. It must be married to thorough research in order to do justice to those whose lives have shaped history.

Every aspect of what I write has been vetted to the best of my ability. For example, I typically take about two days to research names that were popular in the era I’m writing about before naming my characters. Clothing styles, weapons, even family genealogies all come into play as I seek to recreate a world that once existed.

This is what made Bride Tree—an allegorical novel set during the French Revolution—such a fun piece to write. One of my favorite chapters opened up with a detailed description of the Palace of Versailles during a lavish ball. In order to do the scene justice, I employed Google Maps, pored over historical documents about the importance of dance and watched several YouTube clips on current Versailles galas.

But I didn’t stop there. Tracking down Maximilien Robespierre’s family history, and what his relatives had to say about him as a child, enabled me to get a better perspective of the man that unleashed the Reign of Terror.

Beyond developing a character’s personality, historical authors can better resurrect the past by recreating the atmosphere of the given era. Let me explain. My next novel, In the Shadow of Your Wings, is set in England, France and Germany during World War 1. Getting the social atmosphere is critical because it’s going to determine the outlook of the people (my characters) which will, in turn, affect the twists and turns of my plot.

Before starting our research, and also during the first draft process, we authors need to ask ourselves questions that only research can answer. When penning this novel, some key considerations were things like: how did Zeppelin attacks affect Londoners? What was spy mania like in London? Was there, in fact, a credible threat of German espionage?

My job as a historical author, is to convey the feelings that characterized the English and German people not just the facts. Again, imagination is not enough here. I need to read documents, visit websites and read old newspapers to capture the feelings of a generation that lived 100 years ago. So when my protagonist, Leila Durand, confesses to her British father-in-law that she’s actually a German spy, I know what his reaction is going to be.

Beyond online research, personal travel also helps me convey a real world to my readers. As a French teacher, I’ve been to France, so I can write convincingly about its architecture, language and history. Video footage of the trenches let me throw the reader into the heart of it all.

Another tool I use are the details. I love to transport readers by sprinkling in details—some of which I uncover while researching other things. Instead of saying a “rifle”, I’ll use the type of rifle British soldiers commonly employed during the war (a Lee Enfield).

The names of popular songs, pieces of art that perhaps still are recognizable are tidbits that help me take you, the reader, on an unforgettable ride. Couple that all with a powerful, inspirational plot and the result is an enthralling book that I can be proud of writing.

That’s not to say, however, that historical authors can’t bend some aspects of history, especially when writing historical fiction. But in those instances, it’s best to let the reader know that this is alternative history or key in the facts in the Author’s note.

So as you’re biting your nails, turning page after page of one of my historical fiction novels, I hope you’ll be able to pull yourself away from the dialogue, romance and action to appreciate the subtler elements that make the story a “JP Robinson”.

Keep an eye out for all three books in the Northshire Heritage series: In the Shadow of Your Wings (Fall 2018), In the Midst of the Flames (Spring 2019) and In the Dead of the Night (Fall 2019).

In the Shadow of Your Wings by JP RobinsonWhen the world goes to war, is there really any safe place?

The shadow of the Great War looms over Europe, affecting everyone in its path.
Leila Durand, an elite German spy charged with infiltrating the home of British icon Thomas Steele, sees the war as a chance to move beyond the pain of her shattered past. But everything changes when she falls in love with Thomas’s son, Malcolm. Is there a way to reconcile her love for Germany and her love for the enemy?

Thomas Steele sees the war as an opportunity for his profligate son, Malcolm, to find a purpose greater than himself. But when Malcolm rebels, it falls to Thomas to make tough decisions.

The war’s reach extends to the heart. Eleanor Thompson finds her faith is pushed to the breaking point when her husband disappears on the battlefront and her daughter is killed in a German air raid. Where is God in the midst of her pain? In the Shadow of Your Wings presents inescapable truth that resonates across the past century. Then as now, the struggle for faith is real. Then as now, there is a refuge for all who will come beneath the shadow of God’s wings.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Transported in Thoreau’s time and place

Glen Ebisch has written stories that combine suspense, romance, and humor with a hopefully thought-provoking mystery.  Most recently he has started writing historical fiction with Dearest David being released in February 2018.


Many of us like to read fiction because it takes us to physical locations where we’ve never been. We have a chance to travel without ever leaving the comfort of our homes. The uniqueness of historical fiction is that it also takes us to a time in the past that we’ve never experienced.  When writing Dearest David, one of my goals was to take the reader back to the year 1841 in Concord, Massachusetts, a time and place where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all lived in close proximity to each other.

When I visited the Emerson house in Concord, Massachusetts and sat in Emerson’s study I really felt as if I had gone back in time and entered into the fictional world of my book. This is a feeling I had never experienced before when writing pure fiction, and it made the story particularly intense for me. To actually sit in the room where much of the story takes place blurred the line between reality and imagination.  Another thing I felt sitting there is that, although we often think of the people in the Transcendentalist circle as being emotionally cool, they were extremely passionate not only about ideas but in many cases in their feelings for each other.

A fairly high level of historical accuracy is necessary in order to convince the reader that he or she is actually living in that time. In addition, the author must try to recapture the concerns, the issues, and the view of life that was prevalent for people living then. It is challenging not to transpose our contemporary viewpoint into the past as if people have always seen things the way we do. At the same time, we must recognize that many contemporary issues had their roots in the past. Dearest David discusses the role of feminism, which was an important topic of the time, especially in the context of the right to vote. Also considered in the novel are the opportunities available for people born into the less privileged classes in society, and what a relatively abstract philosophy such as Transcendentalism might mean for them. And, of course, since Dearest David is essentially a love story, we must also think about the role of romance in that period.

So good historical fiction will take us into the past by showing us how life was different then, while at the same time not neglecting those common human concerns that transcend history.  In this way we gain a new perspective on our own times and on ourselves.

Many thanks, Glen for sharing your perspective on being transported in time and place.

Dearest David by Glen Ebisch – When seventeen-year-old Abigail Taylor turns down the proposal of her suitor, Tom Dawkins, her family feels that she must go out and make her own way in the world. So a position as a servant is secured for her in the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Dearest David is the story of the few months in the year 1841 during which Abigail experiences life in the Emerson household at the peak of both its intellectual and emotional intensity. She falls in love with the free spirited but emotionally cool Henry David Thoreau. She discovers the power of the prophetic and frightening Lidian Emerson. She meets the charismatic and radical Margaret Fuller. And she learns to respect but also to recognize the limitations of Emerson himself.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.