Writing the 20th Century Historical Novel by Janet Dawson

IMG_8950 (1)Janet  Dawson has written two novels featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod and eleven novels with Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel. It was nominated in the best first category for three mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.

The California Zephyr series, a historical mystery series with Zephyrette Jill McLeod, includes Death Rides the Zephyr and the latest, Death Deals a Hand.

The twelfth book in the Jeri Howard series, Water Signs, will be published by Perseverance Press in spring 2017. Other Jeri Howard books include Till The Old Men Die, Take A Number, Don’t Turn Your Back On The Ocean, Nobody’s Child, A Credible Threat, Witness to Evil, Where The Bodies Are Buried, A Killing at the Track, Bit Player, and Cold Trail. She has written twelve short stories, including Macavity winner “Voice Mail.”

Janet has also written a stand-alone suspense novel, What You Wish For.

In the past, Dawson was a newspaper reporter in Colorado, and her stint as a U.S. Navy journalist took her to Guam and Florida. As an officer in the Navy, she was stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area. After leaving the Navy, Dawson worked in the legal field and at the University of California.

Dawson is a long-time member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


I write a historical mystery series set aboard a train called the California Zephyr. The time frame of Death Rides the Zephyr is December 1952. Death Deals a Hand takes place in April 1953.


How can the Fifties be historical? I must admit the era doesn’t seem that far distant to me. I was alive back then. However, 1953 was more than sixty DeathDealsHand_c1_hi-res (1)years ago. Dwight Eisenhower had just been elected president. The Korean War was raging. It had been less than eight years since the end of World War II.


My protagonist, Jill McLeod, is a Zephyrette, a train hostess. Her job was to keep an eye on the passengers and whatever was going on aboard the train. The Zephyrettes were the only female members of the train’s crew. They were resourceful, observant, and unflappable – excellent qualifications for a detective.


The California Zephyr, jointly operated by three railroads, ran daily trains between San Francisco and Chicago, one eastbound, one westbound. The journey took two-and-a-half days. Also called the Silver Lady because of its shiny stainless steel cars, the train operated from 1949 to 1970.


The post-World War II era was the heyday of the luxurious trains known as streamliners. But it wouldn’t last. Societal changes such as air travel, interstate highways, and the American love affair with the car made trains less viable to travelers.


Traveling on the Silver Lady was a wonderful journey, though. Imagine sitting in the elevated Vista-Dome, with its 360-degree view of the spectacular Feather River Canyon in California’s Sierra Nevada, or winding through Colorado canyons for 238 miles beside the Colorado River. Imagine sleeping in your comfortable roomette or bedroom aboard a Pullman car. Think about eating in the dining car at a table set with white tablecloth, china, silver flatware, and flowers in a vase.


For the journey between San Francisco and Chicago, the most expensive berth on the train, the drawing room, cost $62.95. A fried chicken entrée in the dining car cost $3.50. Remember, though, than an excellent yearly salary in 1952 was about $5,000.


I write the California Zephyr books surrounded by photocopies of timetables, price sheets and menus that tell me what food was available in the dining car and the coffee shop aboard the Silver Lady, and how much it cost.


While researching the first book, Death Rides the Zephyr, I interviewed two former Zephyrettes, one of whom had been riding the rails in the early Fifties. What would the conductor do, I asked, if confronted with the murder of a passenger? Would he radio ahead to the next station, to ask that the authorities meet the train?


The former Zephyrette smiled and shook her head. Radio from the train to a station in 1952? No, that didn’t happen. The technology didn’t exist at that time. The conductor would stop the train and the brakeman, another member of the onboard crew, would climb up a telegraph pole, tap into the wires and send a Morse code message to the next station. Now that we live in a world where cell phones, email and text messages are ubiquitous, Morse code is hard to imagine.


Another aspect of writing the 20th century historical novel is looking at societal roles and how they were back then. Sexism and racism were pervasive. The Zephyrettes, who were young, unmarried women in their twenties, often had to fend off the attentions of male passengers. If a Zephyrette got married, she lost her job.


The porters who catered to the needs of the passengers in the Pullman cars were overwhelmingly African American, as were the waiters and cooks in the dining car. These members of the train crew were likely to be called “boy,” and worse, by the white passengers. My challenge was to convey this, to give the readers a sense of what it was like to live and work in these times – and not overwhelm the story.


I wish I had a time machine. I’d travel back to 1953 and take the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, just to see what it was like. But I don’t have that time machine, so research and recollections will have to suffice.


5 thoughts on “Writing the 20th Century Historical Novel by Janet Dawson

  1. amreade says:

    Great post. I loved reading about the Zephyr lines and I cannot wait to get my hands on your books!

  2. judyalter says:

    Wonderful post. I must read these because I have wonderful memories of trains in the early fifties. My family and I often traveled overnight between Chicago and Toronto, and I remember Pullmans and white linen and wonderful food. Thanks for bringing all that back to me.

  3. radine says:

    Fascinating–love train stories. My husband and I long wished to travel across Canada on the Trans Canada RR. We do have several short train rides on vintage trains available in my area of the Ozarks. I used one as a partial setting in “Journey to Die For.” And yes, someone did.) (Die.) Of course I had to ride the A&M Excursion Train more than once to do research! I will love your book(s)

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