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Guest Janet Dawson: Write What You Know–or Find Out

Write What You Know–or Find Out: That piece of advice is usually attributed to Mark Twain. Writing what you know is useful, but it’s limiting. As writers and readers, we don’t want limits. I find that I work better if I add two sentences to the quote: If you don’t know, find out. The search will lead you in all sorts of directions.


by Janet Dawson

That piece of advice is usually attributed to Mark Twain. Writing what you know is useful, but it’s limiting. As writers and readers, we don’t want limits. I find that I work better if I add two sentences to the quote: If you don’t know, find out. The search will lead you in all sorts of directions.

As the author of 19 books and a dozen short stories, I’ve found out some interesting things and traveled in many directions.

My latest book, Death Above the Line, is the fourth in my historical mystery series, which features protagonist Jill McLeod and the train known as the California Zephyr (the original, not the Amtrak version). The books are set in the early 1950s and Jill was introduced to mystery readers in Death Rides the Zephyr, followed by Death Deals a Hand and The Ghost in Roomette Four.

Jill is the only female member of the train crew, something like the train equivalent of a stewardess. Other rail lines had similar roles and called them by different names. On the California Zephyr, they were known as Zephyrettes.

I decided a Zephyrette would be a perfect sleuth. After all, her job was to make sure the passengers had a wonderful journey and that involved being observant, ready to solve problems as soon as they happened, if not before. Zephyrettes had to be intelligent and resourceful, and my protagonist Jill is all of that.

Write what you know. Well, I didn’t know much about Zephyrettes and I had to find out what it was like to ride the rails on the California Zephyr, both as a passenger and a member of the crew.

I’m writing about the original California Zephyr, not the Amtrak Version. The old California Zephyr (CZ) was sometimes called the Silver Lady, because of its sleek stainless-steel cars. The CZ began in March 1949, created in the heyday of luxurious train travel after World War II. It was a joint operation of three railroads—the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), the Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), and the Western Pacific (WP)—with two trains daily, one westbound from Chicago, the other eastbound from Oakland, California.

CB&Q locomotives and crews operated the train between Chicago and Denver, where the D&RGW took over. From Salt Lake City west, it was the WP. The last stop was the Oakland Mole, a two-story train shed on the bay shore, where passengers bound for San Francisco would board ferries. For payroll purposes, the Zephyrettes were considered WP employees.

There was a lot I didn’t know, but I found out. I used all sorts of resources—books, articles, casting my net on the Internet. The research libraries at railroad museums in California and Colorado provided a trove of information. I also rode on trains and climbed around on railroad cars. I even drove a locomotive!

Best of all were the personal contacts—rail enthusiasts I met on several train trips, people who own and restore private rail cars, and the Zephyrettes themselves. I discovered that two retired Zephyrettes lived in the area, and one of them had worked on the trains in the early 1950s. One evening I took them to dinner, started my recorder, listened to them talk for over two hours. Oh, what stories I heard! Especially the one about the clandestine poker games in the baggage car. Invaluable!

Novel synopsis:

Zephyrette Jill McLeod rides the rails on the California Zephyr, but in Death Above the Line, she’s on a movie set, playing a scripted version of her real-life role. This temporary stint as an actress would be fun—if it weren’t for the emotions and conflicts swirling around the cast and crew. Secrets and hidden agendas abound. And nobody likes the visiting studio executive. When someone winds up dead, Jill takes on the role of detective. Can she expose the killer before the real-life villain catches up with her?

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Janet Dawson is the author of two mystery series. The first features Oakland, California private eye Jeri Howard. The first book in the series, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye novel and was nominated for several awards. Jeri usually sleuths in California. Her territory is the Bay Area, but she ranges farther afield, heading for Monterey and San Luis Obispo in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, and Sonoma County in Bit Player and Cold Trail. The thirteenth book in the series, The Devil Close Behind, finds Jeri even farther from home, as a vacation in New Orleans turns into a case.

Author Janet Dawson

Janet has also written four historical mysteries set in the early 1950s. The California Zephyr series features protagonist Jill McLeod, who is a Zephyrette, the only female member of the crew of the sleek streamliner that runs between the Bay Area and Chicago. Her job is to see to the passengers’ needs and be aware of any problems that interfere with a smooth journey. Problems such as murder! Jill began sleuthing in Death Rides the Zephyr, which was followed by Death Deals a Hand and The Ghost in Roomette Four. Now arriving in the station is Death Above the Line. Jill, who has been roped into playing a Zephyrette in a film noir, finds yet another body.

Other publications include her suspense novel, What You Wish For, a novella, But Not Forgotten, and numerous short stories, including Shamus nominee “Slayer Statute” and Macavity winner “Voice Mail.”

Janet recently finished a novel titled The Sacrificial Daughter, which will be published in January 2021. She has just started a historical novel.

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16 replies on “Guest Janet Dawson: Write What You Know–or Find Out”

That’s good advice, and reminds me how researching outside my knowledge base is stimulating and makes for better writing. Talking to the Zephrettes must have been so interesting. I’ve always found train enthusiasts to be VERY enthusiastic about all aspects of trains and train history.

Train enthusiasts are the best, so generous with their knowledge. And I have to get it right, because if I don’t, I’ll hear about it from the railfans. When I did a signing at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, I was approached by one of the volunteers who works there. He told me he’d read the book and he wanted me to know that I got both the history and the train info right. Music to my ears! Because I really do make the effort to sound as though I might know what I’m talking about.

I recently bought the book and can’t wait to start it. These personal insights are only going to add to the read. And having read some of Ms. Dawson’s other work, The Jeri Howard Series, I know it’s going to be a wonderful read. Thanks so much.

I’ve always wanted to take a cross-country train trip, but never found the time. the series sounds like the next best thing. Good luck.

Well…. I wanted to take a train trip that’s popular in our area. So I did, and then wrote a mystery novel that opens on that very excursion. (“A Journey to Die For.”) I have ridden the A&M Excursion Train several times since then, and one of the short stories in my newest book takes place during their Mothers’ Day Banquet Ride. (I rode before I wrote. I love research!)

This story brings back memories of my parents taking my brother and I to the Grand Canyon on the Santa Fe El Capitan. From that point on, my interest in trains was piqued. Whether it was an opportunity to walk through a Pullman car in the Sacramento Train Museum, watching the restoration of the Pacific Electric Red Cars at the Perris, CA museum, or riding the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, I loved the railways. Janet Dawson’s, “Death Above the Line,” is a story I definitely need to read.

You should definitely get up to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California, up in Plumas County. They have all sorts of rolling stock and if you give them your credit car, they will let you drive a locomotive for an hour, under the watchful eye of a volunteer, of course. I did this and it was invaluable. I hadn’t planned on including a locomotive scene in the first book, Death Rides the Zephyr, but after driving the locomotive, I had to work it in.

Great insight into your research Janet. I read “Death Rides the Zephyr” and loved it! For those of you who haven’t read her books, Janet is a fabulous writer and I felt as if I were a passenger on the train. 🙂

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