An Interview with Ann Parker


Writer Ann Parker’s award-winning Silver Rush series of historical mystery is set primarily in the 1880s silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. It features Silver Queen Saloon owner Inez Stannert—a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. The series was chosen a “Booksellers Favorite” by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. Her first book, Silver Lies, won the Willa Literary Award and the Colorado Gold Award, and was a finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award as well as for a Western Writers Association Spur Award. It was chosen a best mystery of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune. Iron Ties won the Colorado Book Award for Popular Fiction and Leaden Skies was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Genre Fiction. Her latest book, Mercury’s Rise, won the Alexander Bruce Historical Mystery Award and was a finalist the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, the Colorado Book Award, the Macavity–Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award and the Willa Literary Award.

photo by Charles Lucke

As for Parker herself, she has degrees in Physics and English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and balances writing novels with a career as a science and corporate writer. Her ancestors include a great-grandfather who was a Leadville blacksmith, a grandmother who worked at the bindery of Leadville’s Herald Democrat newspaper, a grandfather who was a Colorado School of Mines professor, and another grandfather who was a gandy dancer on the Colorado railroads.

Ann Parker reside in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can visit her website here.

EB: Your Silver Rush series is set in the real town of Leadville, Colorado. How did you decide to write about Leadville in the late 1800s?

AP: The genesis of my historical mystery series has its roots in my own family history…. and I can thank my Uncle Walt, in particular, for setting my feet on the road to Leadville. Both my mother and my father were born and raised in Denver, Colorado, but ended up meeting in New York and relocating to California, where I and my siblings were born. When I was young, our family would trek out to Colorado to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the holidays and during the summer, and I have very fond memories of those times. But it wasn’t until a family reunion in the mid-1990s that my Uncle Walt told me that my paternal grandmother—aka Inez Stannert Parker or “Granny”—had been raised in Leadville. This was a big surprise to me: When Granny was alive, she’d often told us stories of her life as a young woman in Denver, but she’d never mentioned Leadville nor anything about her life as a child.

I asked my Uncle Walt, “Where the heck is Leadville? I’ve never heard of it.” My uncle became very excited and said, “Why, Leadville is just the most amazing mining town anywhere, with an incredible history!” He told me a bit about Leadville’s beginnings and the Silver Rush, which started in the late 1870s. He ended by saying, “Ann, I know you’ve been thinking about writing a novel. I think you should research Leadville and set your novel there!”

I started poking around, researching Leadville and the Silver Rush that first made it famous. (You can find a general overview of the “Colorado Silver Boom” in Wikipedia). I was doing all this preliminary digging around in about 1998, at the height of the dot-com boom craziness, when everyone came to California, thinking they would make millions easy as pie by joining an e-company. (For those too young to remember, Wikipedia again has a short history here.) The parallels between the two periods of time—past and present—were fascinating to me. It seemed as if the desire to “get rich quick” just abolished all common sense. I realized that the psychology of “boom times” has remained a constant. It was this resonance between the past and the times I was living through that encouraged me to begin writing Silver Lies, the first in the series.

I gave my protagonist my granny’s maiden name—Inez Stannert—in recognition of the part she played in bringing me to Leadville’s history in the first place. I’ve yet to name a character after my Uncle Walt, but that time is coming.

EB: Your protagonist Inez Stannert is part owner of the Silver Queen Saloon? How typical was she as an independent women in the West?

AP: It’s interesting how reviewers and readers interpret Inez. Some call her a “woman of her time.” Others say she is “a woman ahead of her time.” She is, perhaps, atypical in some ways in her profession, but financially independent women, and women who worked in a variety of fields that we might not ascribe to women of those times, did exist.

The census records are a wealth of information in this regard. For instance, in the 1880 census for Leadville, 228 men and only 3 women claimed occupations as saloon keepers/bartenders. The same Leadville census also includes 4 women physicians/surgeons (compared to 69 men), 1 female journalist (sharing the field with 30 of the male persuasion), 4 women who were miners (compared to 3204 men), and so on.

I haven’t checked, but I’d bet if you looked at the census records of various Western boomtowns in the 1800s, there would be any number of women popping up in other male-dominated occupations… in small numbers, of course.

Independent” women were also found in the more traditionally female-dominated fields of the time, running all sorts of businesses, such as boarding houses, laundries, millineries, and restaurants.

EB: Your books contain a lot of historical detail—and have won a number of awards—what’s your research process?

AP: Usually, I begin by reading the newspapers of the time I’m interested in (right now, I’m working my way slowly through the year 1880… the current book takes place in the autumn). I look for events that catch my attention, that can become historical “pegs on which to hang my hat.” For Leaden Skies, for instance, the historical “peg” was Ulysses S. Grant’s five-day visit to Leadville in July 1880. For Iron Ties, it was the coming of the first railroad to Leadville.

I’m a bit of a magpie in research, always on the lookout for shiny objects (i.e., facts) that catch my eye. It can be a newspaper advertisement for Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral (“…not to be confounded with any ‘cough syrup,’ ‘lung balsam’ or ‘elixir’…”), or a passing mention of the escalating feud between a couple of posh hotel/resorts in Colorado’s Manitou Springs in a history of the area. I meander through websites, photographs, books, and talk to experts when I get stuck on the details of certain subjects (such as the laws and ramifications of divorce in Colorado in 1880).

One particular treasure in my home library is a copy of transcribed letters from George Elder, a young lawyer who came to Leadville from Philadelphia in 1878. George’s detailed and fascinating letters to his mother and father and sister date from 1878 to 1880. I also have a book of etiquette, copyright 1880, titled Our Deportment or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, by John H. Young, A.M., which helps my characters keep their manners straight.

Once I start a writing session, I try not to break the flow for research unless absolutely necessary. If I come to a place where, for instance, I find myself wondering what shoes a character would be wearing in the rain, I put [TK] (which stands for “to come”) in my manuscript and keep going. If I stopped every time I was uncertain of a detail, I’d never finish!

EB: In Iron Ties Ulysses S. Grant and the railroad come to Leadville. What was the impact of the Civil War on boomtowns like Leadville?

AP: Well, since my series takes place in 1880, the Civil War is 5 years in the past. However, the effects of the war for those who lived through it didn’t just disappear at war’s end. A good book that explores the long-term effects upon the veterans and those close to them is Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War by Eric T. Dean, Jr.

Too, at this time, the veterans of both sides had dispersed across the country, and many came West to start new lives, explore the territory, look for work, and all the other reasons that people leave homes.

One of the fields where you would find veterans from both sides was in the railroad business. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroads were being built at a frantic pace as the owners tried to be “first” into those areas where money was to be made. Leadville was a prime example: All the ore taken out of the mining district had to be refined in smelters—the silver didn’t come out in nuggets, as in the Gold Rush, it required chemical processing to separate the silver from the other minerals. Leadville was at the 10,000-foot mark in the Rocky Mountains: material and people flowed in, and ore flowed out. The railroads could carry all this much more efficiently than wagons and stagecoaches.

EB: In Mercury’s Rise you explore the spa tourism? Was it really that shady?

AP: I did take some fictional license in spinning my tale. But from my reading and talking with historians in the area, it appears that there was a great deal of competition between the resorts to capture the tourist trade and to cater to those who came to the area “chasing the cure” (i.e., looking for a cure for tuberculosis). The mineral springs in Manitou in particular were a big draw. At the time (1880), the cause of tuberculosis was as yet unknown (Dr. Robert Koch’s discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacillus responsible for TB, was still a couple years away). So, some of the things TB sufferers believed would “cure” them were palliative (fresh air, healthy food, rest and exercise), while other prescriptions were downright dangerous (mercury in various forms) or noneffective (one prominent doctor firmly believed that, for men, growing a beard would prevent TB).

When people are desperate and dying, they will grasp at straws, no matter how slim. You see that same behavior today. There are standard, medically-proven treatments for cancer, for instance, but, sadly, they don’t always work. Sometimes patients turn to “cures” that have no scientific validity, out of hope, out of desperation.

EB: Which aspect takes longer? The historical research or the fiction writing?

AP: That’s hard for me to say. I don’t write or research steadily; everything progresses in fits and starts for me. Since I also have a “day job” as a contract editor/writer for several clients, that work must come first, and fiction writing must fit in here and there as I can squeeze it in. It takes me usually three years from book to book, but I’m not researching or writing full time or even half or quarter time during that period.

EB: How has your background as a science writer been a help in crafting the fiction?

AP: As a science writer, one of the skills I’ve developed is the ability to come rapidly “up to speed” on any topic that I’m assigned to write. I can research and write quickly and effectively, once I’ve zeroed in on what I need to know. And, writing to deadline is a very useful skill as well. I often say that, in writing, I’m propelled by panic and deadlines. When a deadline is looming, I can gear up and crank out a credible first draft in a short timeframe. After all, a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to “be” (i.e., exist).

EB: I rather enjoy the author’s notes on the historical research. What prompted you to add those?

AP: I’m glad you like them! They are fun for me to write. The author’s notes are a way for me to share some of the lovely bits and pieces of research that I’ve found along the way. Also, historical fiction readers as I’ve discovered often want to know “what’s real and what’s not.” My notes provide that information, for those so inclined. And, if someone gets interested in the railroad wars in Colorado, for instance (the fight between the Denver& Rio Grande and the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe is one of the famous events of that war), they can find a source or two in my notes to get them started.

EB: What’s coming next in the Silver Rush series?

AP: I’m rolling up my sleeves to seriously attack Book #5 (the titles always come late to me, so right now it is the-book-with-no-name). This is the autumn 1880 book I mentioned earlier. It will take place in Leadville, and I’m intrigued/interested in a number of things that were going on at that time, so we shall see.

EB: I know that collecting artifacts is part of your research process. What have you collected that has appeared in your books?

AP: You are so right… I love objects! A few that have made an appearance here and there: a boot hook, a mourning fan, a cupel (used in the silver assaying process), and a small blue bottle with gold cross-hatching that once held poison. One of my prized possessions is a cabinet card featuring a photo of Williams Canyon in Manitou Springs, taken by a woman photographer, Mrs. Anna Galbreaith. I became fascinated by this card and its creator, and as a result, Mrs. Galbreaith (a fictional interpretation of her, in any case) and Williams Canyon play important roles in my fourth book, Mercury’s Rise. I spent a lot of time—probably more than I should have—trying to track Mrs. Galbreaith: who she was and what happened to her. Alas, as often happens when trying to track down women from the past, I caught a few tantalizing glimpses of Mrs. Galbreaith before she disappeared into the mists of time. You can read a blog post I wrote about the cabinet card and my search for more information about Anna Galbreaith right here.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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