Today, we bring you an interview with our wonderful friend Liz Milliron, author of the Laurel Highlands Mystery series and the Homefront Mysteries, who kindly agreed to answer some questions about her latest book, The Lessons We Learn (coming soon)! Please join the Chicks in giving her the warmest welcome!
What made you interested in writing about World War II?
It wasn’t so much that I was interested in WWII. The whole idea started a couple of years ago with a short-story challenge in my Sisters in Crime chapter. Then challenge was to submit to as many anthologies as possible. When the call for the Malice Domestic anthology, Murder Most Historical, went out I figured that was one I’d pass on because I didn’t write historical. The idea intimidated me. But then I started thinking. My grandmother had worked at Bell Airplane during the war. What if a young woman, who worked at Bell but really liked fictional detective Sam Spade, showed up at work one day to find a dead body on the production floor? Things just sort of took off from there.
How did you develop the character of Betty Ahern? Did you know everything about her upfront or did she take any unexpected turns?
As mentioned above, Betty is inspired by my grandmother, whose name was also Betty. But the name and the profession is where the similarities stop. I don’t think Grandma wanted to be a private detective or liked Sam Spade as much as fictional Betty.
I knew a little bit about my Betty – her family, where she lived, her friends, her interests – but I’ve learned a lot about her as the books have gone on. The ending of this one finds her in a place I didn’t really expect to be and it has a big impact on future books (no spoilers!).
Betty’s airplane factory work and detective work are both so interesting. Did you explore real-life inspirations for those (aside from Rosie the Riveter)?
I spent a lot of time researching how the P-39 was built. I viewed online photos and even found a video that shows a tour FDR made of the factory in the early 40s. The big research score was connecting with a man at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, which is built where the Bell factory was. They have a P-39 on display and he recommended some books as well. I planned to visit, but…pandemic.
As far as detective work, because Betty is an amateur, I had a little more freedom than I usually do with my contemporary series. But I still read a lot about what kinds of forensics were available in the 40s, methods of transportation, the availability of telephones, and other things a budding gumshoe would need to use in her investigations.
How did you approach writing about Buffalo, NY—where you grew up—in the 1940s? What kind of research helped to make the historical setting so vivid? What were some of the challenges and/or happy surprises along the way?
Research, research, research! I asked my father a lot of questions. He was born in 1947, but he’s a history buff so not only does he know a lot, he was happy to help ferret out details. I spent a lot of time looking at old maps and researching the history of buildings and geography – GM, General Mills, Bethlehem Steel, Central Terminal, and the various districts such as the First Ward and the Fruit District. Fortunately a lot of information still exists and the basic Buffalo geography hasn’t changed much. It turns out Buffalo has a lot of history. The German American Bund (The Root of All Evil) really was active in Buffalo and the Polish Government in Exile (The Stories We Tell) really did visit. And I’ve found a lot of other interesting tidbits that are fodder for future books (for example, Buffalo’s role in what was call the Cornfield Navy – that’s book 4 – and the existence of a extensive tunnels under the city, which is for some future book).
The Homefront Mystery titles—The Enemy We Don’t Know, The Stories We Tell, and The Lessons We Learn—follow a similar pattern. How did you come up with them and was it easy or difficult?
Usually titles are the bane of my existence and I don’t come up with them until the very end. But these books have been pretty easy. I’ve come up with them by asking “What is this book about?” Book one was about enemies who are hiding in plain sight. Book two was about the stories people tell about themselves – whether or not they are actually true. And book three is about the things you learn about yourself and the people around you. I already have the title for book 4, The Truths We Hide, which is (you guessed it) about the things about ourself that we hide from the world for various reasons, some of them nefarious, of course.
Who would you cast to play Betty, Lee, Mom, Pop, Dot, and Sam in a film adaptation?
Oh gosh! Talk about another thing I’m not good at. I think Hailee Steinfield (who is in the new “Hawkeye” series from Disney and the MCU) has the right look and attitude for Betty. I think Ryan Reynolds could carry off Sam, the slightly exasperated professional but he admires Betty’s spunk. I like Sam Waterson, of Law & Order fame, for Pop. Mom would have to be someone who is no-nonsense, but has a hidden soft spot. Maybe Rachel Weisz? Emily Osment (or someone like her) might be good for Betty – someone who looks sweet but is fiery when she has to be. I like Tom Holland for Lee, although he’s not quite tall enough. He has a new movie coming where his role is not as innocent as Peter Parker and I think he could do the “protective friend” well.
What’s next for you, book-wise?
I am currently trying to complete the fifth Laurel Highlands book, Lie Down with Dogs, which is due to the publisher in early February (gulp) and will come out in August of this year. Then I have to start writing the fourth Homefront mystery, The Truths We Hide, which is schedule for release this time in 2023. This one takes Betty into new territory both professionally and personally, so it’ll be interesting.
Thanks for having me – and for such great questions!
Thank you for visiting us and giving us a peek inside The Lessons We Learn! This interview is so rich–readers, what questions do you have for Liz? Or what would you like to hear more about from all of the interesting topics raised here?
Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound. lizmilliron.com
About The Lessons We Learn : March 1943. As the Buffalo winter ends, the father of Betty Ahern’s friend, Lee Tillotson, disappears. At first his absence is a relief, providing Lee, his mother and sisters refuge from the man’s frequent drunken rages. But when Mr. Tillotson is discovered drowned in the Buffalo River and the police charge Lee with the murder, the family’s newfound peace shatters.
Worse, Lee becomes secretive and unwilling to cooperate with Betty or the police. Betty is certain of Lee’s innocence, but there she has very little time to investigate before he must enter his plea in court. To prove Lee’s innocence, Betty digs into Mr. Tillotson’s life, discovering a seamy and dangerous underside to Mr. Tillotson, and to Buffalo itself. With time running out, Betty soon learns who her friends really are, how much Lee loves his family and friends and is loved in return, and just how far the corruption leaking from Buffalo’s City Hall has reached. But can she prove Lee’s innocence before it’s too late?