Kitty Burns Florey

The Writing Master

The novel begins with one fateful letter and ends with another. In between, it tells the story of a summer in the life of a young man named Charles Cooper, a teacher of writing. Charles’s anguished attempts to come to terms with the tragic accident that killed his wife and baby son are complicated by Lily Prescott, his sometime student – an unconventional woman with a shady past and an uncertain future that she is trying her calculating best to improve. When a brutal murder takes place just outside the city, Charles – as an expert penman – becomes involved in its solution, along with Harold Milgrim, an amateur detective in the mold of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The consequences of his involvement are both unexpected and far-reaching.

The book is strongly influenced by my love of 19th-century fiction (Middlemarch is far and away my favorite novel) and my interest in New England history. I spent long hours immersed in old documents, photographs, and city directories at the New Haven Museum and the Wethersfield Historical Society (Charles is from Wethersfield, and parts of the novel take place there -- a charming town with the largest historic district in the State of Connecticut: more than 150 pre-1850 structures.) During the hot Connecticut summer when I was writing it, imagining myself into the world of 1856 -- the heyday of top hats and hoop skirts (a brief but widespread fad) and other sweat-inducing fashions -- was great fun. (I was delighted to discover that a movement for dress reform was beginning to grow, and I allowed one of my characters to indulge in a bit of that progressive thinking.)

The Writing Master evokes an age of not only extravagantly inconvenient clothing, horse-drawn carriages, and sooty railroad journeys, but strict social codes and severe penalties for their transgression. I loved writing about all this. But, mostly, I loved the characters I created who inhabit this world. It’s always difficult for a writer to leave her imaginary universe and its people, but this book was especially hard to let go. When I’m on a New Haven street, in the midst of cars and streetlights and yogurt shops and people in shorts talking on cellphones, there's another world entirely that lives inside my head, where Lily writes in her diary by candlelight with a quill pen, and Charles strides across the Green, lovesick and much too warm in his black frock coat!

I am not unaware of the irony of producing this script-centric tale as an e-book! But, just as fashions in clothing were changing radically in the 19th century, the way we read is changing in the 21st. I'm pleased to be able to offer The Writing Master in this format -- to use an electronic device to transport readers to a time when the fountain pen was a barely emerging technology and the typewriter was more of an idea than a reality. (And I admit that I also hope to make The Writing Master available in a print edition in the near future....)