Google and the Resurrection of Ghosts

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.

19 thoughts on “Google and the Resurrection of Ghosts

  1. She sounds like a very interesting woman. I would imagine (this post is a wonderful exercise in imagining) that she came from a humble background or she wouldn’t have made up such a glamorous name and such illustrious connections for herself.

    • I wonder, though — if she came from a humble background, how did she pull this off? She was fooling wealthy Americans who summered in Newport and tripped across the Atlantic for their vacations — precisely the sort of Yanks who did their best to mingle with the British upper class when in England. A lot of these people probably knew what “real” British aristos sounded like. So, to fool this lot, she had to have had some familiarity with the upper crust — either she came from a relatively affluent background (or a background that had once been relatively affluent), or she’d had extended contact with the upper crust in Britain (as a maid?).

      I like the idea of her coming from a family that had fallen drastically in fortune, and masquerading this way in order to reclaim the social status that she felt was rightfully hers. 🙂

      Either way, yeah, it’s fun to speculate!

      • Of course, if she inspires a characer in your WIP, you should probably give her the background that would be most dramatic, or most exciting to you.

        I was imagining a humble background because the people she claimed to know or be related to were at such high levels of society, and the name, Eva Fox-Strangway, was so glamorous, that I could imagine this was someone who wanted to have that glamour because her own life had lacked it. I think she could have worked for the upper crust and learned to emulate them, if she was good actress.

        • Yes, of course it could go either way! I like the fact that we both jumped to different conclusions immediately. Also really like your idea that she chose that name because it conjured the glamor her own life had lacked. That’s really lovely, actually…

          • I like the fact that we both jumped to different conclusions immediately.

            I do too. It goes to show that ideas can go in myriad directions.

      • Which is why the broadening expanse of primary materials is so exciting. Browsing through Google Books or the NYT archives brings the cultural values of people in the past right here, sans the biases and/or agendas which we today may filter our approach to the past.

        I actually do find myself unable to really dig into my characters without a primary source to piggyback from. I don’t feel I shall do them justice unless I view them through their “eyes” rather than looking back through the filter lens of my eyes. Particularly when it comes to male/female relations. The dynamics were completely different, yet in some manners the same, which enriches a romance set in a particular setting. It’s looking at the past from the inside out before making judgment.

        • It’s looking at the past from the inside out before making judgment.

          That’s a really good way of putting it. Maybe that is also why I have a strong preference for primary documents when it comes to research (an activity I do not love). With newer books, the author’s contemporary perspective is inserted in, and for me at least, it often acts as an antidote to the magical pull the past can have. Not sure if this makes sense, but there you have it…

  2. Oh, I so completely agree.

    I have to admit, my stories never come together until I figure out that my heroine is lying to everyone about something huge. All my heroines are con artists of some flavor. I can’t help it–I tend to write people in bad circumstances, and I just can’t write women who respond to those circumstances by just sighing and waiting for their prince to come. They have to keep going–even if they need to invent their prince themselves.

    • I have to admit, my stories never come together until I figure out that my heroine is lying to everyone about something huge.

      You know, I’ve never heard it put precisely this way, but what a fabulous encapsulation of the old instruction about finding your character’s unconscious motivation. Figuring out what they’re lying about seems like the key to unlocking them. What a fortuitous remark to read when I’m at the early stages of my WIP. 🙂

      I can’t help it–I tend to write people in bad circumstances

      I laughed when I read this, because it’s so, so true for me as well. I want to write a more light-hearted romp this time around, and I keep coming up with these back-stories that are all gloom and psychological doom. Aargh.

      • Figuring out what they’re lying about seems like the key to unlocking them.

        I tend to be just as interested in what they are lying to themselves about as in how they are deceiving others. That can be tricky to write when I want the reader to realize things the characters won’t admit.

        I want to write a more light-hearted romp this time around, and I keep coming up with these back-stories that are all gloom and psychological doom. Aargh.

        Maybe you could ask what kind of comedy could emerge from these same backstories? I forget who it was who said that comedy is just tragedy with perspective.

        • Ooh yeah, that’s what I meant — what they’re lying to themselves about. I believe you actually posed that question in regard to the characters in BBYT, and it helped me a great deal.

          Maybe you could ask what kind of comedy could emerge from these same backstories?

          Exactly, that’s precisely the stage I’m at. 🙂 As somebody once put it, “A lot of clowns are alcoholics, you know? Doesn’t mean they’re not really good at being clowns.”

          (Okay, so maybe no one actually said that…)

  3. I remember that conversation. It often comes down to the characters’ vulnerabilities for me. Everyone has some core they need to protect. When I figure out what it is, I feel I know where they live and can write from their perspective.

    As somebody once put it, “A lot of clowns are alcoholics, you know? Doesn’t mean they’re not really good at being clowns.”

    (Okay, so maybe no one actually said that…)

    LOL, Meredith Duran has said it. It has I think been pointed out that a lot of famous comedians have died of tragic overdoses. Humor is often a mask…

  4. Egad!
    (that’s my impression of a Brit accent)

    This place looks different. I’ll have to nose around a bit to get used to it.

    I like the latte art and the fountain pen, though….

  5. I love this conversation.

    Everyone has some core need to protect This is so true in life and in writing. It’s like that old Robin Williams quote: “This is the line of death. You cross it, you die. imitates crossing the line OK, this is the line of death. You cross it, you die.”

    It’s that line that we – or our characters – will not cross, the core aspect that defines them or that feeds the lie they tell themselves and/or others. And then it’s just how far will they go to protect it or even to perpetuate that lie? What – if anything – will make them finally give it up.

    Ohhhhh. Good stuff.

    Sherry and Meredith – really, really love your books. I’m extremely psyched for a summer with the both of you.

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