Friday, November 2, 2018

Stealing from the dead! Amy Stewart 'fesses up to where she found the Kopp sisters


HALLIE EPHRON: Recently I had the pleasure of meeting New York Times bestselling author Amy Stewart at the wonderful Ladies of Intrigue luncheon, sponsored by the Orange County Sisters in Crime and Mystery Ink bookstore. I was enchanted by her description of her series. 

The first one,
Girl Waits with Gun, introduced her detective hero Constance Kopp, the only female officer in the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department in New Jersey in 1915, and her two sisters. The fourth novel is just out, Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit Amy is tart and hilarious and takes no prisoners talking about her novels, and I was fascinated hearing her talk about how she based her characters on real ones she researched in Ancestry.com.

AMY STEWART: Has anybody here built their family tree on Ancestry.com? I used it to build the plots of my last four novels.

I stumbled across a newspaper article from the 1910s while I was looking for something else. This happens to writers all the time, of course, when you do research…you go looking for one thing in an old newspaper, run across something else far more interesting, and think, “Oh, there’s a novel in that!”
One look at the Kopp sisters’ news coverage told me that I hadn’t found one novel. I’d found several.
Before long, I’d dug up this story of a woman who defended her sisters against attack, which led to her being offered a job as deputy sheriff. The lives of her two sisters changed as well, in ways I don’t want to reveal because it will spoil future books in the series, but suffice it to say that all three of them went on to work in crime fighting, law enforcement and detective work..
Once I assembled my collection of newspaper clippings, I took my first deep dive into Ancestry. There they were, in the historical record: I found them growing up in Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century, the daughters of immigrants. I traced them to Wyckoff, NJ, where they lived on a remote farm in the 1910s. I followed them forward in time, discovering how their lives played out long after the conclusion of any book I might write. I went backwards in time, tracing their grandparents back to Vienna and Czechoslovakia in the mid-1800s.
Imagine: Your characters’ entire backstory, all laid out in Census records, immigration documents, and death certificates. Building that family tree was like a treasure hunt. It was wildly exciting. (1910 U. S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com)
Another extraordinary thing happened because of Ancestry: I tracked down living family members who were working on the same family tree. They were surprisingly open to hearing from a complete stranger who was planning to write a series of novels about their ancestors. They’ve sent me photographs, and even a letter that Constance wrote. In return, I’ve given them all of my research, so that they have a much more complete family tree than they’d ever assembled on their own.

Over time, I started to do the same for secondary characters, like the sheriff who hired Constance as a deputy, lawyers she had dealings with (such as this one, below), and some of the young women who came through the jail while Constance worked there. In many cases, I found their family members, too! Many of them have shared photos, letters, and their own memories of family stories passed down from the previous generation. (Photo of John Ward courtesy of Patricia Mott Meckley Becker)


I keep my Kopp family tree private on Ancestry, to respect the privacy of the many family members I’ve met (and also to keep my spoilers safe!), but readers are actually digging into the Kopp
family history on their own, and building their own trees. It’s weird to go on Ancestry now and see the plots of my novels—past, present, and future—sketched out in other people’s Ancestry trees.

Any genealogy nerds out there? I’d love to know how you’re using family trees.

And…I would love to give you some books! I made a contest just for Jungle Red readers. You can win a set of all four Kopp novels, signed not just by me, but by my characters! With Ancestry’s help, I tracked down many of my characters’ signatures on documents and put them on rubber stamps so that they can sign their books, too. Have you ever had a dead person autograph a book? Now’s your chance.

GO HERE to enter by November 15
-->

59 comments:

  1. What a fascinating way to approach writing a series! I have never used ancestry.com, but now I'm tempted to check it out. And I love that the Kopp family was so open to sharing their stories. It sounds like a win-win for everyone involved.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amy's series really stands out... cheeky historical fiction with a strong female protagonist

      Delete
    2. I'm addicted to Ancestry. I've done my own family tree now, and if anybody tells me, "Oh, I've always wondered about my great-grandmother..." I start demanding birth dates, maiden names, and other personal details so I can look it up!

      Delete
  2. This is fascinating, Amy . . . I never would have thought of ancestry research leading to a series of wonderful books! Congratulations on your newest book.

    I think it’s always interesting to see where you’ve come from, so we’ve traced our family tree back a way, but we haven’t really done anything with it other than to satisfy our own curiosity . . . .

    ReplyDelete
  3. These books sound wonderful! Since they are novels, you must imagine so many of the details about the stories. Can you tell us more about how you flesh out the story around the facts? How far do you take creative license. Thanks! (I include a real supporting character in my Quaker Midwife mysteries, which take place in a real town, but the rest is fictional - so I'm curious!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, my approach is that if it really happened, I want to use it. I move events around in time slightly if it helps me shape the story, but I'm really trying to tell their true story. I rely on fiction for their day-to-day lives, the motivations behind some of the things people did, and all the gaps in the historical record. But even in those cases, I try to adapt real events and people. For instance, many of the women inmates under Constance's watch are fiction, but based on real stories of women who got arrested at that time.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Amy. Sounds like a great way to mesh fact and fiction.

      Delete
  4. What fun, Amy! I think I first spotted "Girl Waits With Gun" in the Bas Bleu catalog, and thought it looked intriguing, but never actually (ahem) pulled the trigger. Looks Iike I'm going to have to do that! I have heard stories of famous crimes, remembered in local legend, often over the years, and I believe one of my own ancestors was murdered sometime after the Civil War, but have not had the time or the focus to do that kind of research. Back when I was dipping into my family's background we did not yet have Ancestry.com. Maybe it's time to go back and see what I can find with more modern tools. I'm wishing you and the Kopp sisters lots of success.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's amazing what you can find. Of course, I had to go do more research on the ground...records in courthouse basements, etc...and I hired a professional genealogist to look for records I didn't know how to find. But more turns up on Ancestry all the time.

      Delete
  5. What an amazing story behind your books!

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is so cool Amy! Both of my parents grew up in Bergen Co NJ, so I bet my grandparents knew your characters LOL.

    Since you are so careful about research, do you ever find that it gets in the way of your fictional story? Like you feel you have to stick with the facts when the story might call for something else?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just guessing, Amy never met a fact she couldn't deal with...

      Delete
    2. I have changed things in some cases, and I always explain what I changed and why in the historical notes at the end of each book. Often it's because of my own shortcomings as a writer, I realize! For instance, I killed off the Kopp sisters' mother prematurely because I just could not figure out how to write four women under one roof. Something similar happened with the wife of my first villain, Henry Kaufman. I just couldn't get her character right, for some reason I can't quite explain, so I did away with her and gave him a sister instead.

      There have been a few times when I just did not have room to fully explore a case Constance worked on--and I didn't know how to bring those cases to a satisfying conclusion when the real outcome was not at all satisfying. For instance, Tony Hajnacka in MISS KOPP JUST WON'T QUIT has a long and tragic backstory that I really wanted to use, because it involved a neglect case, and the mother had epilepsy. I really wanted to dig into how people with epilepsy were treated back then. I wrote all those scenes, but then I took them out. I might use them again in some future book, with the circumstances changed slightly.

      Delete
  7. The signatures! That is so brilliant ! And the covers of your books are absolutely captivating… What did you think when you first saw them?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree - the covers are amazing. They look... DIFFERENT. Now that's a hard thing to accomplish these days.

      Delete
    2. I'm really happy with the covers. Jim Tierney designed them--go check out his work. I knew that I'd be getting that call from my editor: "Hey, we're starting to think about covers, do you have any ideas?" and I was ready for that. I'd made a Pinterest board with all my ideas. It included a few modern book covers I liked, a lot of examples of book covers from the 1910s, real photos and newspaper clippings about my characters--and art of the era. I think the iconic art of the 1910s is protest posters. Suffrage posters, war posters--it's all very bold, two-color, with great hand-drawn art.

      So I passed all that over to them and said, "Since our titles are meant to sound like newspaper headlines (and in many cases are real newspaper headlines), I'd like the covers to look like newspaper articles, but I'm not sure how to make that look cool." Newspapers were still illustrated with hand-drawn images at that time (like the one I shared above), and Jim really got it. We have loved his covers right from the beginning.

      My only quibble with the first one was that Constance had a bob! It's too early for bobbed hair, and Constance wouldn't have cut hers anyway. I lost that argument, but after that, you'll see that her hair is tucked up under her hat, as she really wore it.

      Delete
    3. Love that! I'm going back to look at the bob now..

      Delete
  8. How fascinating! I'm with Edith - how do you flesh out the fiction around the facts? Does anybody read for "personality checks" (for lack of a better phrase)?

    Mary/Liz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As for the personalities...that's where I do have to rely on fiction. Nobody who's alive today really remembers the personalities of these people, or if they do, they're remembering very elderly people from when they were a small child. But I get great hints from the families. For instance, I tracked down Fleurette's son (she was the youngest, he was born later in her life, which is why he's even still with us!), and he was the one who was able to tell me about the middle sister Norma's personality. She was a very difficult, disagreeable woman, which is fantastic--she's so much fun to write. He remembers her, and of course after she died, he would've continued to hear stories about her from his mom.

      I had a great hint about Constance, too, from the granddaughter of Constance's older brother. She told me that her mom (Constance's niece) was TERRIFIED of Constance. I found that really helpful. I could imagine a little girl being scared of this large, loud, commanding woman.

      A few times I've heard from family members of minor characters and I've had to say something like, "Hey, I turned your great-aunt into something of a boozer. Hope you don't mind." They've all been fine with it. So far!

      Delete
  9. Guilty as charged! I confess to being a genealogy nerd. Talk about going online and falling down a rabbit hole of research! Hours can slip by as I work to flesh out my family history. I especially love making an intuitive leap, connecting the dots between ancestors, and later finding the evidence to prove the connection.

    The Kopp sisters sound fabulous--can't wait to dig into their shenanigans--and absolutely not surprised by the level of cooperation and help you've received from fellow genealogists--it's quite a tribe!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Flora, my husband's the same on genealogy research. I listen and try not to look too bored. But he has found out some VERY fascinating stuff about his family (mine's a snooze.)

      Delete
    2. It is SO addictive. What's really magical for me is running across a signature, or some piece of paper (like a draft registration card) that some ancestor actually touched. It just makes it all so real.

      Delete
    3. Amy, yes--I have copies of a gr-gr-xtimes-grandfather's appeals to the federal gov't regarding land grants after the Revolutionary War. Apparently there was another Herrell O'Bryan and the government kept telling my ancestor that he already had his land grant. Took quite a while to sort it all out, poor guy!

      Delete
  10. Amy, this is so very interesting! I've played around a little bit with genealogy, but I'm an adopted child and so don't know about my birth family. Your interest in a family that is not related to you by birth makes me think that I should go ahead and research away with not only my own family, but my husband's and others. I haven't read your books as yet, but I have certainly heard such good things. And I also think the signature stamps are clever beyond belief. Best of luck with all your writing!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are amazing stories in every family, I'm convinced of it. And sometimes the true stories you uncover are different from the ones the family has told! Even among the family members connected to my novels, I've had to tell them that family lore doesn't match the historical record. For instance, Sheriff Heath's daughter liked to tell her family that she was born in jail, because the sheriff was required to live at the jail with his family. But she wasn't--she was born before he became sheriff. So far everybody's been OK with hearing these corrections to the record.

      Delete
  11. How clever you are, Amy! Love the rubber stamp signature idea. I've done some genealogy research and can my ancestors back a good long way. But I have found a mystery in my family tree, at least a mystery to me. I guess it will remain one of those things we'll never really know for sure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now that's quite a tease... you're not going to tell us what the mystery is?

      Delete
    2. Hallie, I would be happy to talk about the mystery but I don't want to hijack Amy's blog.

      Delete
    3. Well, I'm always interested in family mysteries. That is the best thing about telling these stories as fiction--I get to decide what's behind the mysteries. There's a big family secret at the heart of these novels that I uncovered--but much about it remains a mystery, and always will. So I had to work out my version of how and why it happened.

      Delete
  12. Fascinating! My husband has done all the family genealogy research, but hasn't come up with a compelling set of characters. Looking forward to reading your books.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Amy, did you try to track of the characters' back stories as they played out against local/world events?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yeah, I'm fascinated by the events happening around them. For instance, in the first book, Constance goes up against the owner of a silk factory in Paterson in 1914. The Paterson silk strike of 1913 is a really important historical event in the history of labor organizing. So I wove that in via a fictional worker in his factory.

      Obviously, WWI is coming, and in future books I'm going to place them in real situations, doing work that women really did during the war, even though I don't know for sure what they were doing at that moment.

      But lots of small local events are also true--for instance, there's a scene in LADY COP MAKES TROUBLE where Constance is walking up Fifth Avenue in NYC and there's a tailor's strike. All the tailors are out on the street passing out leaflets, and it's very windy, and the leaflets are blowing around everywhere, as are the measuring tapes draped around their necks. I pulled that event directly from the newspaper--that's what was actually going on in that day in 1915.

      There's something like that in GIRL WAITS WITH GUN--Constance and Fleurette go into Paterson to watch a movie being filmed. There really was a movie being filmed in Paterson on that date. I love that stuff. Plus, it's always better than anything I could make up.

      Delete
    2. p.s. Another example that's a way-back backstory: Constance's grandparents immigrated (with Constance's mother, then a teenager) in the 1870s. One thing I'd heard from the Kopp family was that Constance's mother was anti-Semitic, which is actually relevant to the events in my books, so I wanted to use it. But I wondered: What drove that? Where did she get her views? Well, looking at the world events of the time, it turns out that a lot of middle class and wealthy families left Vienna when Constance's parents did, and the reason was that Jewish people had recently gained a lot of civil rights. Some people didn't like that, and didn't want Jewish families moving into their neighborhoods (which wouldn't have been allowed before), so they left. Ironically--where did they end up? Brooklyn! What a surprise that must've been. While I don't know that Constance's grandparents moved for that reason, I took that historically accurate set of facts and used it to explain their prejudice.

      Delete
  14. What a splendid idea Amy! Truth is often stranger than fiction, and researching family trees is so much easier than it was in the days when it involved a trip to Salt Lake City. I look forward to your books.

    I found a first cousin once removed on 23 and Me. And no one in the family knew about him. He was born to my first cousin and his girlfriend while they were in college, and he was given up for adoption. He's got his, therefore my, whole family tree done, back to 1725. And we've developed a virtual relationship although I hope to meet him one day. He may be my favorite person on that side of the family!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know someone who did 23andMe and found out that his daddy wasn't his daddy! Fortunately, this did not come as bad news, nor did it seem particularly shocking. The funny part is that when he moved to a city with a large Italian population, the local Italian-Americans would always insist that he was Italian. He would say, "No, no, I'm German. There's no Italians in my family." He has those classic good looks of Italian men, and he's a great storyteller like many Italian-Americans I know, but he insisted it couldn't be true--and it WAS true! His real dad, who was just a one-night stand, actually WAS Italian!

      Delete
  15. Hello Amy- I love the Kopp Sisters! I'm delighted by the "serendipity" that brought you, a gifted writer, in touch with these amazing, strong women. Thank you for telling us their stories.

    About ten years ago I started a search on Ancestry for details about my family. I was armed with some photos, a couple of baby books, where a grandmother had filled in the family tree portion, and a lot of family lore. Part of the family history had a great grandmother widowed at a young age and leaving her sons on the family farm so she could go into the city to earn a living. Quite heroic. However...not quite accurate! When I discovered the "dead" husband alive and well I decided to quietly close the search and leave well enough alone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES. The same thing happened with the Kopps. Mrs. Kopp (their mother) presented herself as a widow when their dad was alive and well and living in New York. Divorce was scandalous and legally difficult to procure in those days, and I think this is one way people handled it.

      Delete
  16. I remember when you were here for GIRL WAITS WITH A GUN, Amy. I thought the Kopp sisters were fascinating then, and I'm thrilled to find you've continued on with their story.

    Digging into my ancestry might be good for an historical novel - family members fought in the French and Indian War and in the Revolution - but the most colorful thing they did (on both maternal and paternal sides of the family) were to have So. Many. Children. Seriously. Anyone in the US with the last name McEacheron (or the many spelling variations thereof) is related to me. The original Archibald McEacheron arrived in the colonies in 1720-something and had 13 children who survived to adulthood. Most of them had 9 - 10 kids who survived to adulthood, etc, etc. They build 'em tough in Scotland.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Amy, what a fabulous idea. I can't wait to meet the Kopp sisters, and I want to know what Edith asked above. How hard is it to write around what you know actually happened?

    I don't know much about my family. I've done 23 and Me but have yet to dip my toes in Ancestry.com--mostly because I'm afraid if I fell down that rabbit hole I would NEVER get a book written!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Ancestry took over my life for a while. I answered some of that above, but I will say--I actually love having a real historical record to fall back on. I remember one day, early in the research, when I said to my husband, "I wonder what Constance's mother thought of her going out and working as a deputy sheriff?" That night, I found a long newspaper profile of Constance in which an interviewer asked her that very question and she answered it! It made me cry, honestly. To think that I can ask questions about my characters and they can answer them, across the span of one hundred years.

      Delete
  18. Wow! What a unique way to write a series! Congrats, Amy! Researching the past can bring both good news and bad, and I wondered, Were any of the Kopp family ancestors unhappy about the books?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They have all been great about it so far. Two different Kopp descendants, who had never met each other, each said to me separately, "We always thought they were the Charlie's Angels of the 1910s." They really weren't at all surprised that somebody wanted to write about their legendary ancestors.

      Delete
    2. That's a fantastic description!

      Delete
  19. I've been following the Kopp sisters' adventures since book one! I haven't read the fourth yet, but so far they have all been a treat. I did the DNA feature of Ancestry, as did my sister. My brother, being different, skipped the DNA and bought a membership to build a family tree. I am leaving that all to him! Maybe I'm a simpleton but I have trouble reading the info and figuring out what is what. And at what point do you stop following branches? At that rate everyone is related eventually.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I have learned that Ancestry takes some skill, because you can pick up a person with the same name who is not actually your relative, and that can really mess up your tree. I've done it! The records get patchy as you go too far back, and of course for many of us, you have to go overseas at some point to get early ancestors. But you raise a good point--because we are all related when you go very far back, it actually starts to get easier to find your ancestors on a really well-made tree done by someone who clearly knows what they're doing. My grandmother might only show up on my tree and the trees of a couple other people who are related to me, but my great-great-great-great-greats are actually on many trees, some of them quite professionally done, so I'm more confident about adding their research to my tree.

      Delete
  20. Wow! This series sounds like way too much fun. And what a great way to use Ancestry. I haven't used it, but I love how you are using it.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I have been performing a few deep dives into Ancestry.com as well. While doing family research I have found interesting (and tragic) stories such as a distant cousin's wife dying in a hospital for the insane (as they called it in the 1920's). What was the reason she was there? Why was the women's building SO MUCH larger than the men's? Anyway, there are so many stories embedded in these facts. Sounds like a great way to develop crime stories and I will have to check them out!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly. It gets those "what if" questions going, and there's your novel.

      Delete
  22. Amy, I bought Girl Waits With a Gun because of a blog post you made, maybe here? And have loved all three books. It's fascinating to read the story of the Kopps, but since my college major was Police Science, it's doubly interesting to me. The history of women in law enforcement is full of tough, persistent women who refused to take no for an answer.

    My own great grandfather may or may not have died in a mine accident in West Virginia. My great grandmother moved to Ohio, remarried, and started a dry goods store. It's highly possible she was a bigaamist, which would have been less embarrassing than admitting her husband wandered away on purpose.

    Looking forward to the new book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Yeah, I've really become interested in the history of women in law enforcement as a result of writing this book. There are all these debates over who was the first policewoman, and you get into these fine distinctions about what we mean by "policewoman." One way of looking at it is: Did she have arrest authority, just like a male officer? By that definition, Constance was VERY ahead of her time. Police departments weren't legally required to give policewomen the same job as policemen until 1972!

      Anyway, it's a fascinating history. I hear from a lot of women cops who read the books, and it's so interesting to hear how their jobs are different or in some ways the same as Constance's.

      About your great-grandmother--sometimes pretending to be a widow was the only way to move on! And in those days, a person really could disappear easily, so I think lots of spouses wandered off like that.

      Delete
  23. I am so thrilled to see you here today on Jungle Reds, Amy! I must apologize that I haven't started the Kopp Sisters series yet, but it's going to happen, and soon. I have the first one in my short stack of TBRs. It's fascinating that you used Ancestry.com to get background (and future ground) information for not only the Kopp sisters, but you delved into other characters, too. Wow. That is so clever.

    I have a lovely connection to you, Amy. My wonderful friend and a long-time favorite author Elly Griffiths/Domenica de Rosa went on that fun book tour after Bouchercon with you and Mario Giordano. I loved the pictures of you all in those quirky little places. I'm wanting to read Mario's Auntie Poldi books, too. You three were such a talented trio to go on that short tour. Kudos to whoever thought that up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES! Thank you! We loved that tour and we are BFFs now. In fact, we wrote a little essay about it, but we haven't posted it yet. Stay tuned....

      Delete
  24. This is fascinating, Amy! Congrats on such a brilliant series. I have to go to Anecstry.com now!

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm late catching up with these posts. What a fun series of books and a fascinating way to research.

    ReplyDelete
  26. This sounds like a really interesting series. It's amazing how much research and genealogy research that was done for the books. I would really like to read about the Kopp Sisters, they sound fascinating. Having rubber stamps made of their signatures is really an innovative idea, I've never heard of that being done before.

    ReplyDelete