Q&A: M.E. Kemp weaves dark tales from historical accounts

M.E. Kemp wallows in sex, murder and acts of revenge. The grandmother of four scours Early American
M.E. Kemp
M.E. Kemp

Categories: Life & Arts

M.E. Kemp wallows in sex, murder and acts of revenge.

The grandmother of four scours Early American history books for tales of intrigue — a Puritan with a past, a poisoned Patroon and plundering pirates on the Hudson. And then she spins these tales into mystery novels that have been hailed as page-turners “full of vivid details and fascinating characters.”

M.E. Kemp, a pen name for Marilyn Rothstein, is the creator of the Hetty Henry and Creasy Cotton mystery series. These two nosy Puritans emerged as keen detectives in “Murder, Mather and Mayhem.” Kemp continued their partnership with “Death of a Dutch Uncle,” a nominee for the 2007 Adirondack Center for Writers Best Fiction Award.

She follows that with her most recent release, “Death of a Bawdy Belle.” Published by Hilliard and Harris, the third in her series focuses on the beautiful Arabella Edwards, the mistress to the king’s secretary, who is found hanging with condemned witches in the gallows of Salem, Mass.

Kemp, who lives in Saratoga Springs, sets all of her novels in Colonial America. She feels an innate connection to the time and place as her family has lived in Oxford, Mass., since 1713.

“I love that time period. I love history. It was my minor in college,” said the author, who attended Worcester State College and then Siena College for her master’s degree in English. “My father loved history. He always took us to historic places. And my grandmother always had stories about our family. They fought in the Revolution. They fought in the Civil War. They went out to the Gold Rush. New Englanders are up on their local history.”

Under her married name, Rothstein, Kemp has written nonfiction articles for several national and regional magazines, including Americana and Soccer America. She also wrote a textbook, “What Every Citizen Should Know.” Her recent short story, “A Pillar of the Community,” won fifth in the Deadly Ink Press contest. The 2008 anthology will include her story.

Her success should come as no surprise, as fiction has been her passion since childhood. At age 9, she would weave yarns to entertain her large family at holiday gatherings. And today, her vivid imagination continues to reel.

Q: You wrote a lot of articles for magazines. How did you get started writing novels?

A: I always wanted to write novels. At some point, I decided I had to do it and I did. My first novel was a long time ago, probably 40 years ago. Like most writers, I have a couple of unpublished novels in my desk drawer. I finally quit nonfiction to write fiction.

Q: Your first book in the series did not have a publisher?

A: I published it on demand. I don’t regret that. I think it is a great way for a writer to get started. You pay a company to publish the book and you promote it yourself. It’s not that expensive. And it’s a nice product. I tried agencies. They were encouraging, but no one ever bought.

On demand is a great way to break in. It worked. I went to a writers’ conference with my book. A publisher there was impressed with it. So they published my second book. It’s the same publisher for my third.

Q: Why mysteries? Aren’t they harder to write?

A: Actually, they are easier. They have a structure. You have to have your detective. You have to have your victim. You got to have your suspects. You have to have your clues. You have to have your red herrings. So there is an inherent structure.

Q: How do you come up with ideas?

A: I open a history book and there is a plot. I found a passage about all these ministers who died in this brief period. So I wondered, what if someone was killing off these ministers? That was my first book. For ‘Death of a Bawdy Belle,’ I thought about the Salem Witch trials. And I thought, what if they found another witch hanging that wasn’t supposed to be there? So, that was the plot.

Q: So history books are your source for inspiration?

A: Yes. I love old history books. I pick them up for a quarter, 50 cents in Boston. The new ones are too academic. The old ones were more focused on the social aspects. There was one author, Alice Morse Earle, she’s just wonderful. She has her details down. What clothes they wore, what they ate, what they drank. Those are the things I need to know. I use her a lot.

Q: She has taught you a lot about Puritans. What are the misconceptions about Puritans?

A: People think they are dour and wear black clothes. They weren’t like that at all. They dressed to keep up with the times in London. The early Puritans were asked to dress nicely by John Winthrop so they would not look like savages or country bumpkins, especially when they went to church.

Q: Why do you use your maiden name?

A: It’s easier to remember than Marilyn Elizabeth Rothstein. Another reason, men won’t pick up a book written by a woman. M.E. Kemp, you can’t tell.

Q: And your next book?

A: ‘Death of a Dancing Master.’ It’s kind of based on history, about a dancing master in Boston. They didn’t kill him, but they drove him out of town. They kept fining him, bringing him before the magistrate. So again, I thought, what if somebody killed him? There would be a lot of suspects.

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