The Lady Darby book series can be an escape for many readers. Through detailed historical research and writing, best-selling author Anna Lee Huber transports them from the 21st century to 19th-century Scotland and England.
But when Huber was writing “A Stroke of Malice,” the eighth book in the series, little did she know how the book would start to mirror unpredictable real life events.
The novel begins in January 1832 as Lady Kiera Darby and her second husband, Sebastian Gage, are at a party in Traquair, Scotland. A corpse is found in a castle's crypt and Lady Darby is tasked with yet another mystery to solve.
But the characters are starting to see signs of another challenge – the cholera epidemic.
“My last Lady Darby book was released in April of last year, right after lockdown,” says Huber, who lives in Fort Wayne. “It just so happened that I got to the point (with the series) in early 1832 when there was a cholera epidemic. There was no way I could have known that there would be a pandemic.”
The disease hit Scotland and England in 1832, and eventually killed 32,000 between the two countries.
And the epidemic will be ongoing as the Lady Darby series continues with “A Wicked Conceit,” which will be released April 6.
“(The COVID-19 pandemic) definitely informed my writing and how these people might have seen what was going on and what was happening. ... It informed the characters' emotions.”
Growing up in Hicksville, Ohio, Huber was always a fan of books. She attended story time at the library with her mom. As she grew older, she would ride her bike to the library. And her favorite gifts were books.
“I started writing my own little stories in elementary school,” says Huber, who moved to Fort Wayne a decade or so ago.
However, as she went from elementary to middle school and middle to high school, reading became more work than fun. So when it came time to choose a college and a major, she pursued another passion.
“Music was my other big love. My writing fell off. You're assigned a text, you almost forget how much you loved the other stuff,” says Huber, who is married with two young daughters. “Music came to the front, and I thought that's what I wanted to do. It's all the same creative brain.”
She graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, with a degree in music and dreams of becoming a rock star.
However, she says, she was more destined for an opera stage than a concert hall. And when she tried to navigate her post-collegiate life, she once again turned to the pen.
“I've always just made up stories in my head. Daydreaming. I can't imagine not doing that,” Huber says. “For me, writing is just an extension of that. It's just taking that and putting it on the page.
“Whether I was published or not, paid for it or not, I think I would always be writing. It's like breathing a little bit.”
There are far more books that go unfinished than those that are completed and then published. Hopeful authors get distracted by another project, another idea and abandon the pages already written.
So Huber did not necessarily welcome the arrival of Lady Darby.
“I was in the middle of writing another book when Lady Darby first kind of came to me,” she says. “I was like, 'No, no, no. Stay off to the side. I need to finish this one first.'”
But over the months that followed, Huber began to develop the character of Lady Darby – a portrait artist from the Scottish Highlands who is confronted with the prejudices of other aristocrats because of her connection to her first husband, a macabre anatomist.
“It's almost like they live in a part of you,” says Huber, who has always been interested in history and mystery. “You have to consciously form them – decide what is their past and what do they look like. It's almost as if they have always been there and you are tapping into that creative space.”
To better understand her characters, she thinks a lot about their psychological makeup – their past, the things that have affected them.
For Lady Darby, it could be the death of her first husband. For Verity Kent, the central character of another Huber series, it's World War I and the aftermath.
“I think for both of them, I pretended that I was writing letters to family members to really get a feel for who they were. Or diary entries where they might be really raw and open because they are writing for themselves,” Huber says. “That really helped trigger for me who they were.”
Huber is a two-time winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense for books in the Lady Darby series.
The first book in the Verity Kent series, “This Side of Murder,” was published in 2017.
At the time, Huber wanted to write another series and was interested in British life after World War I. Verity Kent is a spy who is uncovering just who her husband was as she learns how to navigate war-torn Europe.
Each book presents a new case for Verity Kent to solve as readers learn more about her family.
But writing the fifth book, “Murder Most Fair,” which is due out in August, had its challenges. There was a pandemic, stress from stay-at-home measures, the change to daily life and political unrest.
“A lot of creative types struggled last year because of the weight of everything on your mind,” Huber says. “ ... Even if you don't know anyone who has been sick, you're still grieving for the life you used to have and the world you used to know.”
Sitting down in her home office, it could be difficult to focus as she balanced writing, editing and promoting her books. She also wrote “A Wicked Conceit” in 2020.
While there were times when she had to force herself to get it done, writing historical mysteries afforded her a way to leave the chaos of 2020.
“It was an escape at time to write about an era that wasn't dealing with what I was dealing with. That's why readers gravitate toward books.
“Reading picked up (in 2020) because they were at home but also because they wanted that escape,” Huber says. “Mysteries really picked up because there's justice. There's a resolution at the end, and the good guy wins and the bad guy loses.”
But who is the bad guy?
It can be hard to know when you are reading one of Huber's books. The storyline can often have five potential suspects for the protagonists to investigate.
And while readers try to unravel the mystery alongside Lady Darby or Verity Kent, they might be surprised that Huber often has to dig into the story before she has figured out the murderer.
“I have found that if I plot too stringently, I tend to rebel against it. My creativity wants to go in different ways,” she says. “I need that structure to know where I'm going but I like to be able to give myself that room to play and let my characters guide me in ways I might not have thought of. The book usually turns out way better for it.”