My great Aunt Mary was a real person. After attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she went off to Monastir, Macedonia as a foreign missionary in 1888 and did not return until 1920, when I believe she was sent away by Serbian authorities for being an American spy.
During her tour of duty running a school for girls, she acted heroically through one crisis after another: the end of the Ottoman Empire; the Young Turk Revolution; Balkan Wars I and II; and, especially, the relentless German bombardment of her school and city during World War I.
In an age when women were taught to keep a low profile and be guided and protected by men, Aunt Mary became a force of her own in Monastir, dealing with Turkish, Bulgarian and Serbian governors; providing a haven and provisions for victims of war (she did not discriminate along ethnic or religious lines); becoming in every sense a strong feminist against the Victorian odds.
And she left thirty-two years’ worth of diaries, letters and pictures for her family to peruse, transcribe, and donate to her beloved Mount Holyoke—where she had received the Medal of Honor for her work in the Balkans.
After a year of immersion in the Mary Matthews collection, intending to publish it as a diary, I realized I needed to take a different tack. With two mysteries under my belt, DEADLINE ISTANBUL and DEADLINE YEMEN, I had my aha! moment: I am a mystery writer, not an academic researcher. Aunt Mary will be available to academics once the Collection is archived and opened by Mount Holyoke in fall of 2015. For my tribute, I needed to turn her into a sleuth.
At first I thought it would be easy. Having read all her first-hand material, I knew Mary Matthews’s mind and heart. I have researched the Victorian era until I am practically wearing bustles. Much about life in Monastir echoed my own experience in central Anatolia as an early Peace Corps volunteer. Even the street names were in Turkish!
Miss Matthews, as she was known, wrote in detail about daily events at her school and in her town—and many of those events cried out to be tweaked just a bit to make them murderous. She was the “go-to” person when any crisis occurred, whether it be a sick cat, a needy neighbor, disgraceful behavior by her girls or an epidemic of scarlet fever or flu. I would have all the names and the descriptions from Mary herself…
Except that Mary Matthews edited her own papers ruthlessly before she died. I know that “Mr. Eftim picked a rose” in 1917. I know nothing about the 23-year-old missionary’s feelings as she embarked from her protected life across the Atlantic on a Cunard liner, spent a few days in London when Jack the Ripper held the city in fear, or ate oysters and prime rib aboard the luxurious Orient Express. (Since this was all pre-electricity, one almost doesn’t need to invent mysterious deaths among the passengers!)
I believe Aunt Mary deleted all this interesting material later in life when she feared it might not look “missionary” enough. We are left with a paragraph from one of her mother’s letters naming the ship, the dates in London, and the fact that Mary and her woman companion “made their way across Europe to Constantinople.” The only way they could have visited the cities mentioned was by the newly-opened Orient Express.
Despite not having much to go on, I wanted to start my series with the journey of that young woman. This meant inventing characters who might have been with her or at least could have been with her. I put in a few people who are mentioned later in the actual diaries (Miss Ellen Stone, a British nurse, kidnapped in 1901 and who eventually went to Monastir) or about whom I had read (the British journalist who made his career following Miss Stone’s adventures in the Macedonian mountains.)
As I made up characters and incidents, I had fun imagining Mary’s interactions with them. It was delightful to research what London and Paris were like at that time. (Did you know the Eiffel Tower was being built in Fall of 1888?)
I love dining-car scenes and began to immerse myself in the gossip and putdowns and kindly remarks exchanged among the passengers. To do that, I had to place people at tables, sketch them out – and, where necessary, go back to the S.S. Bothnia or the respectable little hotel in London to position red herrings.
I wish I were a writer who could plan out everything before she starts! I’m not. I’m as surprised as anyone when something untoward is found under the berth or in a lady’s purse.
The working title for my book is UNHOLY DEATH ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. So…don’t expect all the religious people making the trip to be saints. Don’t get too attached to a character who might, just might, become a victim.
Trust Aunt Mary. She was a problem-solver in life. She will be a problem-solver in fiction!
Peggy Hanson is an author and travel blogger who loves to share her international life with her readers. Peace Corps, Voice of America, teaching of English–all these have played major roles in her life. Growing up in a series of small towns in Colorado, the daughter of a mountain-climbing Congregational minister and teacher, probably helped mold her affinity to nomadism. In her adult life, she’s lived for extended periods in Turkey, Yemen, India and Indonesia.
Her first two books are mysteries in the Elizabeth Darcy series set in other countries: DEADLINE ISTANBUL and DEADLINE YEMEN. She is currently working on the third in that series, DEADLINE INDONESIA, and is also compiling and editing her great aunt Mary’s diaries and letters and pictures from 1888-1920 when she was a missionary teacher and principal in the Balkans. The working title of the diaries is UNHOLY DEATH ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It is a story of early feminism and a woman’s bravery in the face of war.