In SERPENT IN THE THORNS, a simple-minded tavern girl stirs up trouble for ex-knight turned detective, Crispin Guest, when a body is found in her room, struck down by an arrow. Making matters worse, the murdered man was one of three couriers from France, transporting a religious relic with grave diplomatic implications. Now, as time runs out, Crispin must unravel the conspiracy behind the murder to save not only his country, but himself as well.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Writing Historicals
By Jeri Westerson
Writing historical mysteries comes with its own set of problems. There’s already the problem of writing a mystery but on top of that is this layer of history swathed on like frosting. As with science fiction or fantasy, there is a certain amount of world-building that needs to happen, and by that I mean that the reader must be thoroughly placed in that time and place. The smells, the sounds, the feel of it all must be part of the prose without devolving into a travel log or documentary. Everything must be real for the characters and no one should seem out of place. And because readers of historical fiction and mysteries are very particular and have purposely stepped into your world to time travel, the history has got to be authentic.
But how does that work when you are writing a work of fiction to begin with?
I consider the history the skeleton of my story and the fiction—the fictional life of my ex-knight turned detective, Crispin Guest—the flesh and muscle I hang there. If the skeleton isn’t sound, that is, if it’s made of fictional history, then it doesn’t give enough structure to the rest of it. It’s also more of a challenge to bend the fiction to suit the history rather than the other way around.
But it can sometimes be frustrating. I try to choose the words I use to be authentic to the time period. I spend a lot of time with the Oxford English Dictionary to tell me when certain words first came into use, or at least were written down for the first time. This gives you a little leeway. After all, a word was most likely already in use for some time before it was actually written down. But the meanings of words have also changed. Some words we use today didn’t start out with quite that same meaning, and certain idiomatic phrases had a very early origin. In fact, there were instances when I wanted to use a word or phrase that was legitimate to the fourteenth century, but I ended up scrapping it because it sounded too modern!
Research, as you can imagine, is the most time-consuming part of the writing process. I do some initial research before I start to write so I can ground myself in what’s going on at the time, but even as I write there are constantly things that need to be addressed with further research. The real people who walk into the story must be investigated. An occupation or some point of politics must be gone over. And sometimes even weather or the phases of the moon play a role. In my latest, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, the plot is a medieval a thriller (or what I like to call my “ticking sundial” story) and my detective, with time running out, searches for an assassin who is trying to dispatch King Richard II with an arrow. So I had to research all aspects of archery which was actually an integral part of the lives of men in London during this time period.
How is this research accomplished? Plain old-fashioned book reading, which means a trip to my local university library. (And by the way, do not ignore those footnotes. I have found the best turns of plot in just the footnotes!)
Then there is the internet. I can contact people in archives across the pond to get information I need and sometimes I can simply Google something, like a cathedral floor plan, and it comes up! Gotta love the internet!
There’s hands on research, too. I have a collection of medieval weaponry, mostly daggers and a sword. How did it feel to wear these items, to use them? What do the clothes feel like? What does the food taste like? All of these things have to be done to really get a feel for the era.
I’ve often been asked if I would like to time travel back to England in the fourteenth century. And if I did have access to a time machine, I would certainly go back and step out. I’d love to really smell those streets and the people. I’d like to taste the food the way they cooked it rather than relying on the medieval recipes I have. I would like to see the shopkeepers and touch the wares they are selling. I’d like to eaves drop on conversations to hear the cadence of the language and how they used their words and how they pronounced them.
And then, I’d climb back in that time machine and go home, because I know how good we’ve got it here and how tough and foreign it was back there.
A novel is that time machine, at least for the readers. I like to let them walk around.
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Jeri Westerson does a lot of walking in her head when it comes to imagining the medieval streets of London for her medieval noir series. You can read an excerpt of her latest novel, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, at her website http://www.jeriwesterson.com/.
Crispin Guest has his own Facebook page, Myspace and a website dedicated to him. Check them all out.
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