I have no idea how other authors begin a new project. But with Bound by Your Touch rushing toward the shelves (the first review is already in!) and Written on Your Skin off to print, it’s time to start working on the next book. For me, that usually begins with a backstory that pops into my head, fully formed. (This is not as cool as it sounds. The backstory is what happens before the book starts. Suffice it to say, I would much prefer to have PLOTS pop fully formed into my mind. (Plotters, you have my undying envy.))
The question then becomes: how does this backstory make for a plot? To answer this question, I… procrastinate. I play with random ideas, read everything I can get my hands on, and daydream to a long and inspiring playlist of Music that Deeply Offends My Boyfriend’s Superior Taste.
I also occasionally entertain myself by searching Parliamentary records and date-restricted Google results. During my most recent search, I discovered a Ghost in the Google Machine: Eva Fox-Strangway, birthdate: unknown; death: March 1910.
Eva Fox-Strangway: who were you? Not who you said you were: that much is clear.
Your story seems as extraordinary as any piece of fiction. The internet has only two records of your existence: both New York Times articles, the first of which details your arrest, and the second of which records (after an amusing article on how ladies’ Bible study groups will save us from the evils of suffrage) your death.
As far as I can tell, you were clever, well-educated, ambitious, and beautiful – or “personally attractive,” as the newspaper so delicately put it. You also had a talent for lying. You came to the United States in 1907; to acquaintances on your ocean liner, you introduced yourself as the niece of the Earl of Ilchester.
But you weren’t the niece of Lord Ilchester.
Who were you?
Your new acquaintances were charmed by you; by the time autumn rolled around, you were a staple in America’s most glittering social circles: Newport, New York, Philadelphia. But by the summer, you must have realized that you’d overplayed your hand. You disappeared, leaving behind you a string of creditors who wanted recompense—dressmakers, jewelers, the Savoy Hotel.
You reappeared a month later in Montreal. You must have felt more daring than ever, for now you were not merely the niece of Earl Ilchester, you were his countess. You stayed at Place Viger Hotel. They caught on quicker this time. They seized your trunks for collateral. You fled to Toronto, where you were caught and arrested at the end of August.
How did you get out of custody so quickly? Did you work some magic on the lawmen? For a year later, in autumn 1908, you were back in New York, where you now introduced yourself as Helen Drummond.
Why did you go back to New York? With such talents of deception, I expect you could have moved to a new city and started your game from scratch. Instead, you chose to go back. Was there someone in New York whom you’d decided you couldn’t leave behind?
And why, of all things, did you choose to work as a journalist – side by side with someone who had interviewed you when you were Eva Fox-Strangway? You liked living on the edge; that much is clear. And for a time, you succeeded. Somehow, the journalist didn’t recognize you.
And so you took bigger risks. (Why? What was driving you?) You went to the very police station where your photograph was hanging in the Rogues’ Gallery, to ask questions related to your new job as a journalist. You became a public figure, briefly. You claimed to have known the President, and he never contradicted you. You gave speeches about women’s right to vote. You interviewed U.S. senators and society leaders. You had your articles published in London newspapers. (Was that where you were really from? Were you amused at the idea of former acquaintances from the homeland—former lovers, your mother, your brother or sister—reading your words, all unaware of the success you’d found under your new name?)
But your end was nearing, although you didn’t know it. An acquaintance spotted you and outed you to one of your fellow journalists, who scented a story. (Was his ardent pursuit of the truth motivated, perhaps, by his envy of your sudden rise to journalistic fame?) He confronted you. Asked you if you knew one Eva Fox-Strangway. You bluffed your way through it—successfully, you must have thought.
This was when you should have run. It seems you had the chance. But instead you stuck around (who or what was holding you there? Why was it so important for you to be in New York?), trading on the new friendships you’d made, hoping you could secure a loan and keep your new life going.
On March 3, 1910, they came to arrest you.
You drank poison. It didn’t kill you immediately.
They shipped you off to Bellevue Hospital for treatment. They held a trial while you lay unconscious.
You were sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.
On March 9, you died of the poison you’d drunk.
Eva, if I put you into a romance novel, I would knock that poison from your hand. I would give you a history that illuminated why deception seemed to be the only choice remaining to you. I would give you a mother who anxiously hunted through newspapers for the articles you published – or a brother who was searching for you tirelessly. I would give you a hero who appreciated the extraordinary nature of your talents, and who helped you turn them to something other than petty thievery. I would give you a happy ending.
There’s only one thing I wouldn’t do: I would never, ever strip of you of your incredible nerve.
That journalist who asked you about the criminal, Eva Fox-Strangway?
“I’m very sorry,” you told him, “but I can’t help you in this. You see, I haven’t been in the habit of associating with swindlers of any kind, international or otherwise.”
Such incredible steel. From such steel are heroines born.