Or rather, when it comes to ‘The Case of the Missing Bride’, it started with two words.
‘Imported brides’ had popped into my mind for no apparent reason at all, and with my child at school and the cat asleep on my bed, I could idle away my time on Google (note to writers and readers alike: in our case, it’s never wasting time or procrastination; it’s always research. Always. Bear that in mind.).
Two hours later my jaw dropped, my blood pressure rose, and I startled the cat by thumping my fist on the table. Something had hit a raw nerve.
This something consisted of one meagre paragraph. In 1862, twenty-two girls, poor, all alone in the world, had set sail from Melbourne, Australia, to be married off to Canadians. They never arrived, last seen when the ship stopped over in San Francisco.
One paragraph, in an old newspaper. That was all I could find. One lousy paragraph, to bear testimony that they ever existed.
First I felt pity and sorrow, and then anger. Anger at a world where you don’t matter if you’re the wrong class, gender, skin colour … not that a lot has changed through the ages, which makes it even harder to swallow.
There it was, the germ of an idea. I let it stay in the back of my mind, but the girls would not allow themselves to take a place in the side-lines. They grew, and their identities formed. Then, through a stroke of luck, I got the next piece of the jigsaw – a book with letters from Melbourne, dating from the exact period my girls would have grown up there. Now I could see their world.
But I needed more research; into the voyage itself. What I discovered was a mix of ocean-going sailing ships, early steam ships, expedition vessels… I’d found the ‘Artemis’Delight’, which combined all these things.
Great. I had the characters, the setting, and I had the means to save these poor girls. Well, not all of them, obviously, but most. More than 150 years after their disappearance I could bring them back to life, and give them hope, and friendship, and the hope for a happy ending, if only on the page.
I typed the first sentence. The next. Until I had a finished draft. I suffered with them through a storm, got outraged with Alyssa about the shackles inflicted upon women (the outrage is still there, only now under the surface), and I watched them put on a brave face in every kind of situation.
And what a situation it was. Canada, back then, had only begun with railroad-building. Travels happened by boat, or on horseback. Something remotely resembling a police force was in its infancy. Most settlers, hunters, and goldminers tried to keep peace with the First Nations, but not all of them did so. And there was gold! So much gold.
The Canadians did their best to keep out the rowdiest people from the other side of the border, where the War between the States, as the Civil War was known as back then, embroiled big parts of the country in bitter strife.
My girls wouldn’t have known much about it, but how unsettling that must have been, going into the unknown, with no hope of turning back.
I can only imagine what awaited them when they disappeared into the San Francisco fog. I don’t even know their names; only who they became in my account. But at least they will be remembered. This book is for them.