Cheryl Marceau is a human resources executive at a technology company near Boston. Her first short story, “Unleashed” appeared in Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers. She is also working on her first novel, a historical mystery. When not exploring the back roads and ice cream stands of New England, she and her husband live in Arlington, Massachusetts.
Your story in Dead Calm, “Nameless” is about a desperate woman traveling north. The editors loved it’s great atmospherics and strong, very real New Enlgand setting. How did you come up with the idea for this story?
I read a short news item in the Boston Globe about a mysterious woman found dead in a Vermont motel room. All of the tags had been cut out of her clothes. She had died in a way that seemed really gruesome. The death was ruled a suicide, but the local police were skeptical that it could have been self inflicted. I started thinking about what might have driven this woman to such lengths. How fearful or desperate (or both) would she have been? The town in the story is fictional, but it is based on a real town in northern New Hampshire, near the Canadian border. For me, setting becomes like another character in the story. I want the reader to feel as if he or she is there in that place along with the character.
Though it’s a relatively short story, “Nameless” is written in a narrative structure where two stories told from two different points of view move forward in two close, but different time frames. How did you come up with the structure for this story?
It was trial and error, to be honest. I wanted the story to open with the discovery of the body, and to build the tension as the victim was driven inexorably to her fate. I also wanted the victim to come alive and to have the reader care about what happened to her. In order to have the emotional impact I wanted, the story had to start and end with the woman’s death. The police were important for the story, as a way to underscore the desperation and horror of the victim’s situation. The only way I could make it all come together was to cut between the present and the past.
Your long form work, a historical mystery, is set in 17th century Massachusetts. Your two Level Best short stories have been contemporaries. How do you manage the time travel in your fictional worlds?
Both of my Level Best short stories are drawn from actual events, and there was so much material to work with. I find it much easier to write about the present. The idea of writing a novel set in the past came from learning about local history and visiting house museums in the area. I became intrigued by what it must have been like to live in colonial New England – to wear the clothes, eat the food, feel the cold. It was also fascinating to read written records of the time, showing that these were people with the same emotions and drives that we have. They were not cardboard people. The “time travel” is easier if I surround myself with sights and sounds that remind me what it was like in the 17th century. I’ll put on some music of the period, and put out photos of antique New England houses to look at as I’m writing. The biggest challenge has been trying to figure out how investigations would have been carried out – and evidence evaluated – in a time before modern forensics.