Southern Writer Spotlight: Genevieve Essig
Author takes readers on a journey to Amelia Island, Florida.
Name: Genevieve Essig
Book(s): The Cassie Gwynne Mysteries
Book 1: "A Deception Most Deadly"
Book 2: "A Plot Most Perilous"
Book 3: "A Truth Most Treacherous" – On pre-order, releasing Aug. 14, 2022
Instagram: @essigauthor (primary SM)
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Gives us a brief description of your book(s).
My series, set in Gilded Age Amelia Island, Fla. (1883), features amateur sleuth Cassie Gwynne. Cassie has recently lost her father, a prominent New York attorney, so when she discovers a packet of letters from an aunt she never knew hidden in the scullery, she sees an opportunity for a fresh start and heads south. Amelia Island, with its vast natural beauty, elegant winter tourists, and friendly residents, is endlessly charming—as is Cassie’s Aunt Flora, a purveyor of perfumes with a soft spot for animals in need. However, when Cassie discovers the body of Flora’s least-favorite neighbor at the foot of the harbor pilots’ lookout tower, Flora comes under suspicion for murder, and Cassie must find out what really happened, or else risk losing the only family she has left.
"A Deception Most Deadly": Cassie Gwynne, heartbroken over the recent loss of her father, returns to the southern island town where she was born to meet a mysterious newfound aunt and uncover the truth about her family's past—but finds herself tangled in a murder inquest instead.
"A Plot Most Perilous": When a traveling theatrical troupe comes to the island to perform a charity production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s recent comedic hit, "The Pirates of Penzance," a dramatic accident turns out to be murder, and Cassie must take center stage to track down the killer.
"A Truth Most Treacherous": As Cassie delves into troubling questions surrounding her father’s death, one of her friends, a Chinese merchant-sailor, is accused of murdering the very hateable Collector of Customs... and confesses. Convinced of his innocence, Cassie must put aside everything she thinks she knows, including about her own past, to solve the mystery.
What brought you to write these stories?
This series was inspired by the setting, along with my own love of history. Whenever I visit a new place, if there’s a house museum or other historical site nearby, that’s where you’ll find me. So, when I was introduced to Amelia Island, which has dozens of beautifully cared-for 19th-century homes and also a Victorian-Era commercial district, I fell in love immediately. And the more research I did, the more fascinated I became—and convinced I needed to set a story there.
1880s Fernandina (now Fernandina Beach) on Amelia Island, Florida, was a special place, one far less traveled to in literature than the larger Gilded Age American cities so often written about—which is why I so wanted to bring readers in for a visit. Dubbed the “Newport of the South” and “the Island City” by contemporary travel publications, Fernandina enjoyed its own short but significant golden age during these years as not only an important rail and shipping crossroads but also a popular retreat for well-heeled tourists, including members of the Carnegie, Du Pont and Vanderbilt families. At the same time, Florida, which has always been a bit of an outsider to the other states, and, therefore, a haven for outsiders as well—including at various points in history persecuted monks, British settlers fleeing the Revolutionary War, pirates, escaped slaves, consumptives and itinerant “cracker cowboys”—still had a touch of the wild about it. And late 19th-century Fernandina, a place where the glittering social elite and patrons of rough-and-tumble saloons shared the shade of the same palm trees, was no different.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Absolutely everywhere. I spend so much time down the “research rabbit hole” I likely qualify as a part-time resident. My resources have spanned from contemporary newspapers and novels, fashion plates and graduate theses (these can be SO beautifully specific…I once spent an afternoon reading a paper on the history of swimming pools in the U.S. and their tie to public health initiatives), to nonfiction tomes (I can recommend a particularly interesting book on the history of Florida sheriffs if anyone is interested), blogs (I still can’t sew my own corsets, but I might get close), Youtube videos (one resulted in an extremely enlightening exchange with a professional technical director about the mechanics of ropes and pulleys used backstage to move scenery), and my front balcony (I live in the French Quarter in New Orleans, so I don’t have to try very hard to discover new characters…all I have to do is post up with my coffee and watch).
Having mentioned contemporary newspapers, I want to take this opportunity to thank the generous soul(s) at the University of Florida library—whoever you are, wherever you may be, bless you forever—who spent what must have been countless hours scanning in over a decade’s worth of weekly newspapers from 1880s Fernandina so that, one day, I could read them on the internet from the comfort of my own home. Poring over those newspapers, which I did, with relish, for over a month, let me meet the locals, see what and where their businesses were and learn what they cared about. The papers contained fascinating editorials about important topics such as gun violence, political candidates, and immigration (along with the dangers of letting livestock roam free in the streets), of course, but I particularly enjoyed the “Housekeeping Notes” column, which relayed recipes and tips about common problems like stomach upset and how to keep the dye from running out of hosiery during washing, and the “Town Talk” column, which ran somewhat like a Twitter feed. Here’s a choice Town Talk excerpt for your enjoyment: “Our friend -----, who keeps his office as neat as a lady’s boudoir, tells us, confidentially, that the next man who fires tobacco juice into the waste-basket, will be fired out of the back window.” (Florida Mirror, 3/13/1880).
Where does the story(stories) take place?
All three books in the series take place in the port town of Fernandina on Amelia Island, Florida, over the fall/winter of 1883-1884. The third book concludes at a celebration of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year in January 1884.
How does setting play in the telling of the story?
In my books, I’ve tried to tie the storylines to as many real people, places, things, and events as possible. Many characters are inspired by real residents of the time. The Three Star Saloon, the Egmont Hotel, and the Florida House Inn are real places—you can stay in the Florida House Inn to this day (highly recommended), and, while the Egmont Hotel and the Three Star Saloon are no longer, you can still view Three Star’s three-star façade on Centre Street, as well as a series of houses made with woodwork salvaged from the Egmont.
Another example is the fire on Centre Street that features in Book 1, "A Deception Most Deadly," which was inspired by a real fire that took place in town in the fall of 1883, covered extensively by the local newspapers. The central action of Book 2, "A Plot Most Perilous," which involved a traveling theater troupe that has come to perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s then-recent and wildly popular (and widely pirated, if you will excuse the pun) "The Pirates of Penzance," was inspired by an account I read in the newspapers about a local group who tried to put up their own production of the show.
Mr. Green’s character (and to a degree, Mr. Hu’s story) in Book 3, "A Truth Most Treacherous," was inspired by references I discovered in the newspapers to a Mr. James Cook (aka Sim Cook), the proprietor of a restaurant off Centre Street known for its oyster dishes. In the summer of 1881, the Fernandina Express reported that Mr. Cook, “a Chinaman,” had been arrested and incarcerated on suspicion of arson with respect to a restaurant he had previously managed in town. The paper declared: “We are loath to believe Sim guilty of the crime charged against him, as he generally enjoys a good reputation and was considered one of the best of chinaman [sic].” (July 30, 1881). Fortunately, Mr. Cook was quickly acquitted. On August 6, 1881, the same paper reported with relief: “It affords us much pleasure to announce that at the trial the evidence was totally inadequate even to fasten the ghost of suspicion on [Mr. Cook] and he was honorably discharged. This but confirms our opinion, as we have known Sim for a number of years, and have never known aught against him. He has many friends in this community who will rejoice at his complete acquittal.”
The discovery of Mr. Cook was particularly special to me and presented the opportunity to explore a part of my own heritage (I am half Chinese) through this story. While my own family immigrated to the United States much more recently than Mr. Cook (and the fictional Mr. Green and Hu family) and came from the north of China, whereas the bulk of the Chinese in the United States in the mid-1880s came from the south, I still found much to identify with as I researched and felt greatly enriched by the work. The overall topic is obviously enormous, so I can’t get into much here, but I wanted to make one key point as relates to "A Truth Most Treacherous": The early 1880s were an incredibly impactful time for Chinese immigrants in America given the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, further amended in 1884. The law not only had immediate and sweeping effects on people’s lives, as it effectively halted Chinese immigration to the United States—which would not meaningfully resume until the 1960s—but was significant from a legal history standpoint, as well. It was the first major federal law to restrict immigration into the United States, and it did so on the basis of ethnicity and national origin. Know, however, that many affected by this law (and similarly discriminatory pieces of state legislation) did mount fierce legal challenges, and a number of those challenges resulted in precedents that would lay the groundwork for important future achievements in civil rights.
What do you think makes a good story/book?
If I get to the end of a story and I’ve smiled, gasped, cried, awwed, aha’d and laughed out loud at least once each, I’m happy for days. My highest hope is for at least one person to have that experience reading my stories.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I was a voracious reader as a child, and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write a book “some day.” It didn’t work out until more recently, as my first book was published in January of this year, but my earliest efforts included penning stage adaptations of stories from Greek mythology in the fourth grade and forcing my friends to act them out on the playground. (Though my very first piece I can remember was a play involving fairies and/or will-o’-the-wisps in the woods. I typed it on a Commodore 64, I believe, around age eight).
Is writing your primary job or do you have another career?
I practice law with a boutique environmental firm but am fortunate at this point in my career to be able to make writing a priority, too.
What does your family think of your writing?
Everyone has been beyond supportive. There are not enough words to express my gratitude.
What was the most surprising thing you learned writing your stories?
I don’t think I can choose—historical research surprises you constantly when done properly. I do try to fold odd discoveries into my stories as much as possible, though. I think most people appreciate my efforts on that front, but I do get the occasional reader who is surprised enough to question the “historical authenticity” of my work. For example, following the publication of "A Deception Most Deadly" (Book 1), a number of readers, upon noting Cassie’s affinity for chewing gum, asked me if there really was chewing gum available in 1883. The answer is yes: The first mass-marketed chewing gum, Adams New York Chewing Gum (basically, flavored chicle), came out in the 1870s, offering flavors including sour orange and licorice. Cassie, however, enjoys peppermint-flavored Yucatan gum, created in 1880 by William White, who had been working on how to get gum to hold flavor longer and finally did so by adding sugar and corn syrup to the chicle (soon thereafter, he and his partner came out with Chiclets, which may sound more familiar…). However, to all that I say, if a reader has questions like this and brings them to me, GREAT! That means I either uncovered something unique or I made a mistake, which is great, too, because then I get to learn something…which I will never, ever tire of doing.
Did writing your book(s) lead you to other things?
Still too early to say… 😊 However, if anyone wants to adapt my stories for film/television, the rights are available through my publisher, and I’m an actor as well…
What suggestions do you have for aspiring writers?
Write every day, whether you like what comes out or not. Don’t wait for inspiration because she is notoriously uncooperative.
How can readers find and purchase your books? (Please list all outlets and links.)
You can always find the latest on my website, genevieveessig.com, but you can also go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. (PLEASE remember to leave a review! It’s the best thing you can do to help out a new author!). Paperback, ebook, and audiobook (narrated by the fabulous Lauryn Allman) formats available!
Weird, Wacky & Wild South is written by travel journalist Cheré Dastugue Coen, who also writes novels under the pen name of Cherie Claire. You can learn more about her Southern-based mysteries and romance at CherieClaire.net.