The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery
What do you get when you take strong women, crime bosses, and bootleggers, and throw them into a novel set in 1927 Ohio? You get Jess Montgomery’s newest addition to her series, The Stills. Prepare to explore the past in Montgomery’s Big Idea.
When The Widows, my first novel in my Kinship Historical Mystery Series came out, I didn’t know that it was the first novel in my series.
That’s because I didn’t realize I was going to be writing a series.
I knew, of course, that I’d written The Widows, inspired by Maude Collins who became Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925 after her husband was killed in the line of duty serving notice on a speeding violation. In my books, Lily becomes sheriff after her sheriff-husband Daniel is killed in the line of duty—but in this case, no one knows who killed him, or why. In pursuing the truth, Lily connects with Marvena, a coal mining union organizer and childhood friend of Daniel’s, who has her own mystery to pursue—where has her teenage daughter disappeared to? The two women become friends, bond over loss, and find themselves facing a difficult choice: personal vengeance, or save their community from deadly confrontation between mine workers and management?
I also knew that I had a contract for a second novel with the same publisher, Minotaur Books. (And I knew that I was—and am—damned lucky for that.)
But then, my editor asked if I’d thought about turning The Widows into a series.
“No,” I said. (I’ve written series before, under another name, and wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to that.)
“It’s up to you,” she said, “but do you realize you’ve created this great cast of characters in Kinship [the county seat where Lily is sheriff], and a fascinating world?”
“Uhhhh….” Thankfully, I’m more articulate on paper (I promise) than in conversations.
“And I’d like to know more about both, and I think readers might too. Please just think about it,” she said.
So I did. While I wasn’t contractually obligated to build The Widows out into a series, I was intrigued by her complimentary question. And soon I realized she was right, as editors so maddeningly often are, and that the world in which Lily works and lives—Bronwyn County, in the Appalachian area of southeastern Ohio—as well as its occupants are varied and intriguing. There seemed to be a lot more material to explore.
But I needed something to thematically tie the novels together, beyond Lily-solves-another-crime.
And then I got to thinking about that tension Lily and Marvena had in the first novel, between personal desire and serving their community. About those raw, tender, difficult boundaries all of us face at least a few times in our lives between individuality and community expectation. (Note that I define community as family, or any bound group such as a religious group or a club or even a vocation such as the writing world. It can also mean a location or municipality, but not necessarily.)
And I thought about how Lily and Marvena share, by turns, the narration of the first novel.
That’s when the Big Idea hit me: each novel could pair Lily with another community member, together pursuing a criminal event that pits individual desire or need against community expectation or need.
In the next novel, The Hollows, Lily and her childhood friend Hildy—who, at least at the beginning, is very timid compared to Lily—seek to resolve the murder of an elderly woman, and in so doing, uncover the community’s dark past.
My newest novel, The Stills, just out from Minotaur, is set in 1927. Prohibition, in the background of the first two novels, and a sinister bootlegging plot which leads to poisonings and death form the backbone of the plot. In this novel, Lily shares the story’s narration with the bootlegger’s wife, Fiona—a former member of the Kinship community.
These are not women who particularly liked each other when they were simply wives and mothers in Kinship. Lily was for women’s right to vote; Fiona was not. Fiona’s first husband worked as a deputy for Daniel, and later, after Lily becomes sheriff, does not approve of Lily being sheriff. It’s not that she wants her husband to rise from deputy to head sheriff (she also doesn’t like the danger the job entails); she just doesn’t believe women should take on such work. And then, Fiona’s first husband (the deputy) is also killed in the line of duty. Both women are widows, and must find their way as such in the world—but they do so in very different ways. Lily takes on a non-traditional job for a woman, while Fiona ingratiates herself into the world of bootlegger and crime boss George Vogel (inspired by real-life George Remus), who happens to be Lily’s nemesis.
But Fiona is no shrinking violet. She has her own plans and agenda, and grows from being dependent on men toward becoming independent—just in a very different way than Lily. This pits the women against one another—unlike Lily’s relationships with her co-narrators in the first two Kinship Historical Mystery novels.
And yet, in The Stills, as in the other Kinship novels, what really drives the story is the tension between individuals and community—and how each can find redemption and hope in the other.
Several more novels are planned for my Kinship series. I’m excited to see how far my Big Idea will carry the series, and I hope readers will be as well.