Thursday, November 12, 2009
Kelli's Question for Vicki Delany
You’ve written books about the Klondike Gold Rush … can you tell us more about that era, the unique setting, and the research you did to capture it?
As well as the Cst. Molly Smith series, I also write a historical series set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The first book is Gold Digger, and Gold Fever will be released in Spring 2010. Both are from the Canadian publisher Rendezvous Crime.
These books are different from my other work in that they are intended to be quite lighthearted. A mad-cap romp through the muddy streets of Dawson in 1898. They are a lot of fun to write and I doubt if I'll ever run out of material.
You may have heard the phrase by the late Sir Peter Ustinov that Toronto is “New York run by the Swiss.” I like to say that Dawson, Yukon, in 1898, was Dodge City run by the North West Mounted Police.
Imagine a place in the wilderness, close to the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation. A place with no roads, no cars, no trains, no telegraph, no telephone. Accessible only by water, for just a few weeks a year, or over mountains so steep horses couldn’t make it. Then imagine tens of thousands of people arriving in this place within a matter of months.
What you would get in almost any other place and any other time would be bedlam. Chaos and anarchy and lawlessness.
But in the Yukon there was the North West Mounted Police (precursors of the RCMP). The border between Canada and the U.S. was at that time in dispute. The Canadian government established a police presence in order to strengthen their claim. What all those miners and dance hall owners, prostitutes and pimps, bartenders and adventurers, and businessmen (respectable and shady) found when they finally arrived in the promised land, was the long arm of the law waiting for them.
At that time prostitution and gambling were illegal in all parts of Canada. The NWMP recognized that some things were going to happen whether they were legal or not, and the police would be better off having some control. Thus prostitution was practiced openly and dance halls all had a gambling room. Police oversight was strict and they could, and did, close down any business stepping over the line. At the same there were things the Mounties didn’t bend on – the use of ‘vile language’ was an offence, and Sunday closing was strictly observed. People were jailed for chopping wood for their own homes on a Sunday. Guns were strictly banned. Every person coming into the Territory was required to have a year’s supply of goods with them: A lesson learned during the previous winter when the town nearly starved. Not only did all those adventure-and-gold seekers have to climb the Chilkoot Pass, they had to do it about 30 or 40 times to get all their gear up. Tougher people than me I can tell you.
In 1898, the year of the height of the Gold Rush, when the town of Dawson had a population of 40,000, there was not one murder in town. Not one. Reports I have read say that people were comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and their possessions out in the open.
In a town where a one minute dance with a dance hall girl cost a dollar, a bottle of champagne would set you back 40 bucks, and successful miners were known to drop a thousand, ten thousand dollars (all in 1898 funds!) in a night in the casino, a Constable in the NWMP earned $1.25 a day (which was roughly the rate for a labourer in the Outside). Yet the police were largely incorruptible. A large part of the fondness Canadians have for the RCMP, as I mentioned above, derives from this time.
Because Gold Digger is, after all, a mystery novel, I have had to ignore the no-murder record of the NWMP. And in Gold Fever there are two murders.
Sometimes, you just can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
As for research, Kelli, it was easy. There is a lot of information about the era. I went to Dawson and visited the fabulous collection at the library there; there are quite a good number of books, of which Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush,by Pierre Berton, is probably the best.
One of the reasons the Klondike Rush is so well known is that it was the ‘last great gold rush’ and the only one to leave a rich photographic record. The age of photography was just beginning, and the camera was becoming portable enough to be transported out of a confided studio and stiffly posed portraits to come into the street (and to the gold fields) and capture scenes and people unaware.
The pictures are all so amazing – I’m sure you could write an accurate novel just by looking at the photographs and not reading a word of research. A wonderful resource for photographs is The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay also by Pierre Berton.
Vicki Delany’s newest novel, Winter of Secrets, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which said, “she uses…artistry as sturdy and restrained as a Shaker chair.” Vicki writes everything from standalone novels of suspense (Burden of Memory) to the Constable Molly Smith series, a traditional village/police procedural series set in the B.C. Interior (In the Shadow of the Glacier, Winter of Secrets), to a light-hearted historical series (Gold Digger) set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. Vicki lives in rural Prince Edward County, Ontario, where she rarely wears a watch. Visit Vicki at www.vickidelany.com. She blogs with five other mystery writers at http://typem4murder.blogspot.com and about the writing life, as she lives it, at http://klondikeandtrafalgar.blogspot.com
Posted by Vicki Delany at 12:01 AM