Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What We're Writing: Rhys Researches


RHYS BOWEN:  For once I am actually not writing. Earlier this month I sent off my latest stand-alone, ISLAND OF LOST BOYS, to my editor, did the copy edits on my next Georgie called PERIL IN PARIS, and the page proofs on ALL THAT IS HIDDEN, the next Molly book, written with daughter Clare.

Clare should have been here now, staying with me in California while we work on the next Molly book, but alas she is stuck at home with Covid. After being so careful all this time her husband had to take a group of students to El Salvador where they promptly all got Covid. He waited until he tested negative to fly home but then still gave it to Clare.

So we are both working remotely but we’re still in the hunter/gatherer stage: this is the part of the writing process that I love—searching the internet, finding out new and exciting things that can be part of our story and deciding how to weave them in. The new book is set in the Catskills—in the fledgling bungalow colonies. At that time the exodus of Jews from the city to escape the summer heat and disease was still new. There were as yet no resorts. Enterprising Jewish  farmers offered rooms or built primitive outbuildings at reasonable rents and quickly saw the possibilities.  Anyone who could escaped from the packed conditions of city life, where typhoid and other diseases ran rampant during the steamy summer.




And so we decided that Molly’s neighbors Sid and Gus would have to visit Sid’s grandparents who live in the Catskills. That was the starting point: and then we discovered the artist’s colony to which they would obviously be drawn. A theater director Clare knows is putting on summer stock in a theater in the Catskills, AND the theater was in existence in those days. Perhaps Sid wants to be in the show.

When I was in New York for the Edgars I met up with an old friend who is well-connected in the New York Jewish community. We’ve had fun adventures over the years, once being locked in Gramercy Park and having to be rescued. She’s offered to help with research and vet what we write. “Well of course I know Grossinger’s grandson if that helps,” she said. She will also be invaluable in getting the tone right—Sid’s family coming from Germany two generations ago , educated, worldly and well-established yet other characters new immigrants and much more conservative in their religion and habits.

Clare’s research has turned up other gems. A newly formed state park near where we want to set the story. Also near was a bluestone mine—an early form of cement vital for New York street building. An environmental theme, we ask ourselves?

And so the pieces of the story come together from the research. We already knew what the main thread of plot would be (not going to tell you). But this is how environment will enrich and twist the plot. Such fun.  I start out knowing where I want to set a book, who might be murdered and why. Then I do my detailed research. Usually it involves going to the place, walking the streets my heroine will walk and noticing what I see. Sometimes I spot something that will come into the story, maybe change it.  But just soaking in details makes it a richer story: for THE VENICE SKETCHBOOK the basket being lowered from an upstairs window into a boat below and being raised again with the morning newspaper. Little gems you can’t make up. 


For my upcoming WHERE THE SKY BEGINS I visited the old air bases in Lincolnshire, climbed inside a Lancaster Bomber, looked at flight suits, parachutes, read letters home from pilots.

I’m not going to be able to visit the Catskills before we write this which is annoying. I have driven through the area before so I know what it looks like and thank you to Google Earth—I shall be visiting in often, I suspect. Also I have Clare to do the lion’s share of research now. We know about the bungalows and the kochalayn (the bungalows that had their own kitchen!) But would they have played mahjong in those days? Would there have been entertainers? Maybe a family’s entertainment is so good that others come to watch and a tent is set up and…

A challenge will be how we bring Molly, good Irish girl, into this Jewish setting.

So we get ready to start writing. And dear Reds and readers—if any of you have bungalow memories or heard your grandparents talking about their time in the Borscht Belt, please do share.

53 comments:

  1. So many little details that come together to make the story . . . this is fascinating, Rhys.
    Hope Clare is better soon . . . .

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    1. Clare: Thank you! I am out of isolation today and headed to California tomorrow.

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  2. I am breathless after reading: ..."I sent off my latest stand-alone, ISLAND OF LOST BOYS, to my editor, did the copy edits on my next Georgie called PERIL IN PARIS, and the page proofs on ALL THAT IS HIDDEN, the next Molly book..." WOW! Congratulations!

    Your research sounds so much fun. I adore historical research and have to be careful not to get lost while running down rabbit holes.

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  3. I love that kind of research, Rhys. I'm no help at with the Borscht Belt, though.

    Feel better soon, Clare!

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  4. RHYS: A new Molly book set in the Catskills sounds great.
    CLARE: Hope that you feel better soon!

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  5. Poor Clare, so sorry she's under the weather. Covid just won't leave us alone! On another subject, for several years, we went to the Poconos for a tennis tournament with several other couples for a few years running. It was a different world! If I was researching the Catskills, I'd start with rewatching one of my favorite movies, Dirty Dancing.:)

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  6. Rhys, I grew up in the Borscht Belt. If your setting incudes Sullivan County, especially the area around Liberty (home of Grossingers), I may be able to steer you to some additional resources.There are several historical organizations and a number of FB groups devoted to the history of that region, some of them specific to the Jewish resorts.My mother's family ran a farm/boardinghouse in the area for generations before and during the era you're writing about. I'm at KathyLynnEmerson at Roadrunner dot com.

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    1. Kathy Lynn, we'll definitely be coming to you for insights, I'm sure! Thank you.

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  7. I know I say this every time, but Rhys, I am in AWE. My mother was a poor kid who grew up in the Bronx and went to summer camp sponsored by unions in the Catskills. Then she and my dad were counselors one summer (he chased her there, claiming to be able to coach baseball which he could not) became counselors... and on their night off during those weeks they got married. They always told us the camp chef made them a wedding cake with green icing. Funny the things that stick in your memory... Can't wait to see what you do with it and glad you're enlisting some 'experts' to help you get it right.

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    1. You HAVE to write that family biography, Hallie. You have so many fascinating stories about your parents.

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  8. Living as I do somewhere between the Catskills and the Adirondacks, I am very familiar with the area you will be writing about, although I don't have any first-hand knowledge that would help you much. I'm trying to think how your characters would have travelled to get there. Would they take a boat up the Hudson and then a train from Catskill? I recently learned that an ancestor of mine was a steamboat captain on the Hudson but I know nothing else at all about him. Or would trains go directly from the city? There is so much to learn.

    A sleepy little village next to where I live was once a booming resort area for Jewish tourists who were drawn by the mineral springs and baths. At one time, the place more than rivaled Saratoga Springs, so they say. I believe this was before both world wars when the trains brought them up. No sign of trains today and while some of the hotels and boarding houses are still standing, they are for the most part, beyond rehabbing. The tourists came well into the Sixties but no longer, as far as I know.

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    1. Kathy Emerson here, former Borsht Belt resident. Before there were bridges from NYC to NJ, folks headed for "the mountains" took a ferry to Weehawken to catch a train to their destination. There were special "husbands trains" on weekends in the 1920s and 1930s, possibly later. The family came for the summer. The husbands had to go back and forth to the city to work.

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    2. Clare: There was a train line up the Hudson at that time and a steamer. There was also a Catskills train going west from Kingston that passengers could use to get to the communities and farmers and miners could use to get their products to the Hudson.

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  9. So sorry to hear about Clare, and I hope she recovers quickly, with no lingering symptoms.

    What a happy coincidence, that your New York friend knows a Grossinger, Rhys! That is so random.

    Hallie, you have the best stories about your parents! Have you ever thought of writing a biography of their story?

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  10. Rhys, do you take your batteries out at night so you can sleep? Or does John just plug you in to the charger? You are amazing! Looking forward to all of the books in their various stages of completion and love the glimpse of your research into the next Molly.

    Clare, sending hugs--hope you dropkick Covid to the curb soon!

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    1. Clare: Thank you!

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    2. Flora, I've been sick for a week, stuck in bed, so forced to slow down. Maybe my body is telling me something?

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    3. I'm so sorry to hear that, Rhys!

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  11. Healing thoughts for Clare!

    Looking forward to the new books, especially Peril in Paris. Did the puppies get names?

    No help from me on Catskills or Poconos. I have only travelled through them, usually in bad weather.

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    1. Sent from my phone, so Anonymous. This is cd

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  12. Oh, Rhys, I can't wait to read this one! Yes, isn't the research so much fun? Though my family never vacationed there, I know other people who did and I heard stories. What fun it will be to read. There have been some maybe useful PBS documentaries. And an Edgar winner, very scary novel about the beginning of the grand hotels - Hotel Neversink by Adam O'Fallon Price.

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    1. Thank you for this tip! Will read, cautiously if scary

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  13. That is me, Triss. I don't know why I keep needing to change from Anonymous.

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  14. Feel better soon, Clare! I hope that everyone in the family who has Covid recovers completely and fast.

    Looking forward to all of your new books, Rhys. I adore Georgie and think I'll preorder that one from Poisoned Pen. Don't you have some fantastic, amazing, terrific news about Evan Evans, too?

    NYC Jews also came to farms in Connecticut, and I grew up in an area with a rich history of farms turning into resorts. I wish my dad was around because he was a font of information about that time.

    We used to go to a Catskill resort every Mother's Day weekend for many years in the 1950's and 1960's. My father's mother's family used to reunite there and fill up the rooms. It was such a joy to see all of those cousins all together! However, that does not give me any insight into what it was like in the 19-teens when Molly would have been visiting. As for mahjong, think cards instead. My grandmother (same age as Molly!) who was Jewish and from NYC and her sisters gathered for a weekly game of gin rummy until my grandmother moved from NY to NJ in the late 1960's. I do not know when mahjong became "the game" for Jewish women but they had to have rubbed elbows with Chinese immigrants to pick it up. That is intriguing to consider.

    Have fun doing your research.

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    1. You're right, Judy. There must have been a Jewish-Chinese connection for Mahjong suddenly to have become popular. I have pictures of ladies playing Mahjong in the Catskills in the 20s. We'll look into this.

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  15. This sounds intriguing with all the research. Best of luck to Clare on a full, speedy recovery!

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  16. Sorry to hear about Clare, but the details of the next Molly sound fascinating!

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  17. Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Clare. And thanks, Rhys, for this fascinating explanation of how a book begins in your mind and imagination and then takes shape with research. So intriguing!

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    1. Oh, I've just remembered something about the history of summer communities here in Manitoba that may also have (shamefully) occurred elsewhere, for example the Catskills -- not sure, but here's a link explaining how Jewish families were not welcome in Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg, so they established their own summer community elsewhere on the lake.
      https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/when-manitoba-s-beaches-were-forbidden-to-jews-1.5448883

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    2. I'm afraid this was true everywhere. How strange it seems to me.

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  18. Wondering what sources you use, other than Google search to do a deep dive for your research? Jill

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    1. Usually I go to the place. Local historical societies are great. Local museums. In the past reference librarians. Old postcards. Maps from the time. Railroad timetables. Restaurant menus. Etc. Etc. The exciting thing about research is that you never know what you'll need until you stumble upon it.

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  19. There are many Facebook groups for those interested in Catskills lore. Just search FB groups under Catskills Hotels. Let me know if you need help with anything in Yiddish newspapers or literature that is on topic. I have a Yiddish novel set in a Catskills hotel published serially in newspaper in 1948 which I hope to translate someday. SabinaBrukner@gmail.com

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    1. Thank you, Sabrina. We do have a couple of helpful Yiddish speakers at our disposal and I belong to the local JCC where they still have some seniors who can speak Yiddish. I'll tread carefully with this.

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  20. RHYS: Great post! Interesting that you mentioned the Irish - Jewish connection. My 2x great grandfather was Jewish though he looked like George Bernard Shaw. My Jewish grandfather looked like Louis Mountbatten (not Irish though). I had a Jewish boyfriend who looked Irish (Black Irish). Bummed about the COVID. I am so sorry that Clare caught it and hopefully everyone is vaccinated. Hope that Clare feels better soon. I've had to cancel so many social engagements because of covid. My college roommates had a reunion and I was invited. I had to regretfully decline because of the pandemic. Though I am boosted and so far I do not have covid, I worried that I would pass it on to other people (most of the people in my building NEVER wear masks). I always wear mask, wash my hands and socially distance at six feet.

    Look forward to reading your novel. Your writing plan sounds similar to my writing plan. I already have an idea of the setting and who will be killed. Now I have to do the research.

    Diana

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  21. Feel better soon, Clare!! And, Rhys, what fun! I'm glad you can keep all your story threads straight!!

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  22. My Jewish dad told me about the start of the bungalow colonies. They were called kuchalanes. (S) Yiddish for cook-alones because you could cook in your bungalow. One of my best friends grew up going to the Catskills every summer. Her 100-year-old mother still has a condo home in the modern version of a bungalow colony. The only time my family ever went to one was for a cousin's circle weekend gathering. (Although it may have been a summer camp and not a colony - I don't remember!) But I remember we drove by the famous resorts to see them - the Concord, Grossingers, and the Nevele - which was eleven spelled backwards. Can't wait for your book!

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    1. Thank you, Ellen. Yes, the kochalyn ( spelled several ways I’ve seen so far) had a very primitive kitchen. It must have been such a fun time to have whole summers of freedom for kids. Rhys

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  23. Sounds like you are off to a great start. Looking forward to reading it.

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  24. Oh, Clare, that stinks! And crossing fingers you are better soon. Rhys, there's a book called Last Summer at the Golden Hotel which might have some fodder and direction for you--I think the author interviewed the Grossingers'...heir? Daughter? Someting like that. Apparently it was quite the swinging place. :-) Cannot wait to read all! HOW do you do it???

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  25. Sounds like you have quite the handle on the research. It will be interesting to see how Molly fits in!

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  26. I love the Catskills! This is going to be such a fun book. You and Clare are dynamite together!

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  27. Celia - So sorry about Clare’s COVID, sending healing karma to her and the family. I just finished The Venice Sketchbook and loved the story. Kept on hoping the Countess would survive. With my background I’m not much help on the Catskills Colonies but I think it was the second season of Mrs Matzell has them at a summer resort and the details were delightful. Also there’s an old PBS special on the NY Yiddish theater.

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  28. Molly in the Borscht Belt - that I have to see! I love seeing all the research you do, Rhys. It reminds me of one of the reasons I love historical fiction - and also why I'm never turning my hand to it!

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  29. Rhys, you are so busy all the time, but your readers do so appreciate it. I finally found the article from the other day touting Where the Sky Begins as one of the upcoming historical fiction books to "highlight resilience amid war." I couldn't figure out why I hadn't shared the FB post to my page, and then when I found it I remembered. The article is from the Washington Post and probably has a paywall. I have an online subscription to the WaPo, so I don't know if it's accessible to everyone or not. Anyway, I'm sharing the link to it here. I'm so looking forward to reading it. https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/06/20/historical-fiction-summer-2022/

    And, I love that you and Clare are sharing the wonderful writing experience with the Molly books. I can't think of anything more perfect than to co-write with one's adult child. Really. I would love to do that with either my son or daughter. The Catskills book with the Jewish summering community sounds fascinating. Oh, and Georgie in Paris is exciting, too, but Georgie anywhere is exciting for me. I feel like I've missed you talking about The Island of Lost Boys somewhere. Can you give a few lines about it?

    Hank, I so meant to comment yesterday and the day got away from me. I just want to say that I so love the cover of The House Guest and can't wait to read it. I love that you enjoy the copy editing part of the writing process. I always thought that in another life I would have been happy being an editor of some sort with books. I try to be cognizant of those repeat words, such as "something," or for me, repeating the same descriptive words in reviews. As for hyphens, I tend to favor them, and I'm now looking at copy edit and wanting to put a hyphen in it.

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    1. I put up the link to the WaPo article on my Facebook page. And I’ve only just finished Island if Lost Boys do more on that later

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    2. Hank Phillippi RyanJune 22, 2022 at 10:41 PM

      Oh, thank you! This is so lovely to hear… Yes baby, I do enjoy it, and can’t wait to get there in the next book. 90,000 words to go :-)

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  30. The book sounds like a lot of fun. I'm not much help except I remember on the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, they had some episodes at a summer resort in the Catskills. Might be fun to watch, although the Mrs. Maisel series is set quite a bit later than Molly, I think in the 50s/60s. Looking forward to all your new offerings, Rhys, and your new one, Clare. Hope you both feel better soon!

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