Dangerous and Unseemly: An Interview With K.B Owen
It is with great pleasure that I introduce author K.B. Owen. Kathy has been a wonderful cyberfriend, and our appreciation for women’s history
and chocolate connected us long ago. I love reading Kathy’s blog and following her on Twitter, and now her mystery Dangerous and Unseemly: A Concordia Wells Mystery is out, you guys!
You want to know what K.B.’s book is about? Okay. It is 1896. Professor Concordia Wells must discover who is behind malicious pranks and attacks at her college, before she is the next target.
RASJ: Receiving a college education was pretty new for women when Concordia was around. I attended Hobart and William Smith College, a coordinate college, where women had dormitories separate from the men. What is Concordia’s living arrangement like? And what challenges did she face?
KBO: Although Concordia is a professor rather than a student, her living situation certainly poses some difficulties. At Hartford Women’s College, there is little separation between one’s teaching duties and one’s personal life. Women teachers are required to live in the cottage dormitories with their students and act as surrogate mothers/chaperones. They are assisted by house matrons – one to each cottage – who have light housekeeping and supervisory duties. What is grossly unfairly, of course, is that the male teachers have it easy, and aren’t given such responsibilities. This is the norm throughout all women’s colleges at the time.
Concordia has faculty quarters in Willow Cottage, which houses about two dozen female students. Her rooms, which consist of a study and a bedroom, are on the ground floor, so she is subjected to a lot of noise from the heavy-footed students above her. While she enjoys spending time with the girls in her care, they can be a rambunctious lot. They play pranks upon each other, engage in illegal cooking in their rooms (fudge, hot cocoa, etc), and have a heightened sense of drama when things go wrong. Concordia’s greatest challenges are managing her time, and keeping her students out of mischief.
RASJ: Rambunctious girls? A heightened sense of drama? I can’t imagine what you might be talking about. *ahem* While living in the dorms, I had to share a bathroom with a lot of women who were always trying to look their best. Back in the 1980s, I wanted to be Stevie Nicks, so I dressed in flowing skirts. Who would Concordia have wanted to look like? What was the fashion like back then?
KBO: Concordia isn’t exactly a fashionista, although she likes to look fashionable for special occasions, such as balls and teas. She and the other female academics typically wear simple shirtwaists (blouses) with serviceable full skirts in wool or cotton lawn, depending upon the season. She is especially fond of smart-looking jackets, however, especially if they are trimmed in an attractive braid or the lapels are faced with a contrasting color that complements her outfit.
Since she is a redhead with a pale-freckled complexion, she’s very aware that certain colors look dreadful on her. The 1890s style is leg o’ mutton sleeves and tapered waists, with a significantly diminished bustle. The 1896 sketch at right, titled: “Bicycling: The Ladies at the Wheel,” by Francois Courboin, gives a good idea of what the typical outfits looked like.
RASJ: When I wasn’t in class or studying, I danced in an on-campus organization, that’s still around today. I wore leg-warmers, a leotard and tights. Fraternity life was a big part of the social life on campus, as sororities were not allowed. At night, I studied in the library, then — later, after hours, I went to local bars to dance and, even later, I came back on-campus to attend fraternity parties. What was a woman like Concordia allowed to do for fun in the late nineteenth century?
KBO: There are limitations to what proper 1890s ladies can do. Their skirts are their leg-warmers, LOL. And a bar? Never. There are ladies’ restaurants, tea shops, and soda/ice cream parlors where women can go for refreshments and to meet with friends. Several of the ladies’ restaurants in Hartford (the setting of my story) are located in department stores like G. Fox and Brown Thomson’s, so it’s a win-win: shopping and lunch! All of these are just a quick trolley ride away from campus. The street rail system in Hartford has just been upgraded from horse-drawn to electric-propulsion, so it’s even more efficient.
There are events on campus: teas, socials, play productions, recitations, picnicking on the grounds in the nice weather and “coasting” (sledding) in the winter, hikes, bicycling, lawn tennis…the list is endless. Concordia, for example, is an avid bicyclist. The one challenge for students, of course, is that they have to follow the “ten o’ clock rule” – in bed, lights out, by ten p.m. This is standard practice at women’s colleges.
RASJ: As a student, I developed close relationships with female faculty members at my college. Toni Flores was a Women’s Studies professor, and I babysat her children. Deborah Tall was a poet who helped inspire me to publish my first poem. Both of these women became mentors whom I could go to if I needed help. When Concordia finds herself in trouble, in whom does she confide?
KBO: The mentoring and friendships one develops in college/grad school are wonderful, aren’t they? It was that sort of atmosphere I wanted to create in the novel’s college, too. While Concordia does her fair share of mentoring troubled students, she finds herself needing confidants to lean on in the story. Lord knows she’s faced with enough difficulties: the college as a whole is dealing with arson, malicious pranks, threatening notes, and other bits of skullduggery that I won’t spoil for you, and compounding that is Concordia’s personal trouble with her mother and sister, and a mysterious death close to home.
Her best friend is Sophia Adams, a very unconventional young lady (the same age as Concordia), who lives and works in the settlement house in Hartford. She works with the poor and advocates for women’s suffrage and other progressive social issues. Sophia is someone Concordia enjoys spending time with, and can turn to in times of trouble. Two other people she relies upon are Chemistry professor David Bradley and Lady Principal Hamilton. Although the “lady principal” designation is becoming outmoded by this time, it’s still in use. A lady principal is second in responsibility and position to the college’s president, and she is in charge of matters dealing with the faculty.
RASJ: How is Dangerous & Unseemly a story only you could have written?
KBO: I have always been a mystery-lover, especially of the classic, detective tradition. I wanted to write a book that I would enjoy reading myself, so that’s why it is in the “cozy” style.
I taught literature and writing for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, so that gave me plenty of experience with eccentric teachers, student peccadilloes, and some of the unique faculty-student interactions. I have a doctorate in nineteenth-century British literature, which provides me with a good background in the time period, although I still had a lot of research to do in writing the novel. I lived in the Hartford area for five years, and fell in love with the locale and its history. All around, it seemed a good fit for me.
RASJ: What do you love about this book?
KBO: I thought at first that I would say I love the plot, but in thinking about it, I love the characters even more. They stay with me: their convictions, their inner demons, their eccentricities; and I love how they respond to events in the novel. It’s cool to be puppet-master. Bwahaha.
RASJ: Oh, Kathy! I know mystery lovers and folks who enjoy women’s history would like your novel as well. How can people get it?
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And now a little mystery fun. Remember the game “CLUE”? Each stop in K.B. Owen’s book launch tour features a mystery question to answer. When you have them all, unscramble the answers to which ROOM, WEAPON, and SUSPECT, and email Kathy at kbowenwriter (at) gmail (dot) com. Click HERE for details on how the game works. She’ll announce the winner (chosen from the correct entries) on the last stop of the tour. Then she will email the winner!
What can you win? A free ebook copy of Dangerous and Unseemly, and a $25 gift card of your choice to either Starbucks, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble! If you run into a few stumpers – no problem! Check out K.B.’s Mystery Quizzes page for links to the answers. If you’ve joined us in the middle of the tour, the complete list of Book Tour hosts can be found at kbowenmysteries.com. Good luck! (Deadline to email K.B. with your answers in April 1, 2013.)
The special question for my readers is as follows:
Nate the Great, a “soft-boiled” kid detective from a popular children’s series, eats a favorite food when he needs to think out a case. What is it?Q) hot dogsR) pancakesS) DoritosT) broccoli
Go ahead. Ask K.B anything about women in higher education right around the 1900s. I’ll be she knows the answer!