Why do you write? Do you love it or love having done it? What motivates you?
This week we have an interview with the author of the India Black historical espionage series, Carol Carr. I have reviewed two of the books in the series: India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy (click here) as well as India Black and the Widow of Windsor (click here.) Welcome Ms. Carr and thank you for the interview.
Many years ago I read a book that was so bad it made me think that I could write a better one. Ah, the arrogance of youth. I’d like that to be my excuse, but actually I was old enough to know better. Of course it’s not that easy to write a novel. I wrote one really bad novel, and then a less bad one, and finally produced the first India Black novel. (I have also learned a lesson in humility along the way, but that’s a different answer to a different question.) I will admit that I do not enjoy the writing process. After all, it’s work. But I do love the satisfaction of having completed a book that people enjoy reading. And that, in the end, is what motivates me: telling a story and hoping that people like it.
What is your routine when you're facing your next novel? Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?
I generally have an idea for a plot, which is usually a topic that I’m interested in and want to know more about. It’s a great excuse to read more history. In the case of the third book, India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy, it was the history of the anarchist movement and its impact during the late Victorian era. I actually moved up the time frame a bit, as my book is set in 1877 and the anarchists didn’t really start blowing up people until a decade later, but why let the facts get in the way of the story? After settling on an idea, I’ll do research: Who were these anarchists? What were they trying to accomplish? How did they make their bombs? My reading usually generates characters. Many anarchists fled to England in the 1870’s because of pressure in their home countries. Hence I have Russians, Germans and French among my anarchists. The plot develops also as I read, but my plots are fairly simple. The emphasis is on action and character, though I do weave in a bit of mystery.
Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc.) before sitting down and writing?
“I’m a plotter,” she confessed in a hushed tone. Yep, I work from a detailed outline. I do a shorter outline for my editor, but my working outline will have scraps of dialogue, character descriptions, settings, and all sorts of details in the margins. This works best for me. I’m a lawyer by training, so I prefer taking a logical approach to writing. Nothing would scare me more than to write without an outline. It would be like walking the high-wire without a net. With an outline in hand I know what each scene needs to accomplish and I’m free to use my imagination in the writing process as opposed to trying to figure out what comes next.
India Black is a memorable character who has had a tough life. What do you and troubled India have in common? How are you different?
Well, I’m a lawyer and she’s a prostitute. I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Aside from the similarities of our professions, India and I are quite alike in character. We’re both snarky. Neither of us cares much for authority. Nor do we care for do-gooders of any sort. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it’s for our own good. We’re both realists, we’re both cynical and we both tend to leap before we look. On the other hand, I am quite well-behaved and can be taken out safely in public. India is much more outspoken than I am, and she’s much harder. I have a marshmallow center. India does not.
India, French, Vincent and the rest of the cast are all great. What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write? How do you handle minor characters?
India and Vincent sprang fully-formed into my mind. I have to work a bit harder at French as he’s a bit of a cypher, even to me. Sometimes I see him as a sort of super secret agent, and sometimes I can’t resist making him a bit buffoonish. I suppose that just reflects India’s ambivalence toward him. I use minor characters to support the story line, or to provide a foil to India and French. Minor characters never fail to surprise me. I started the second book knowing that India would be working for an elderly aristocrat. I was shocked when the Marchioness showed up and just took over. When I finished that book, I realized I couldn’t let her go. I had a similar experience with the third book. The character of Bonnaire started out as an entirely different sort of man. He just wouldn’t do as he was told. Finally, I gave in and let him be the character he wanted to be. I know, a writer is supposed to be in total control of her characters. Not so. They have minds of their own.
Do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?
I was probably the only kid in college who studied without any music in the background. I can’t write if it’s playing, either. I need total silence. I write in my office upstairs, sitting in a recliner bought expressly for the purpose, using a laptop. Occasionally, if the weather is nice, I write on the porch. I don’t have any rituals I have to follow and I don’t need anything special to work. The only mildly superstitious thing I do is to avoid reading historical mysteries when I’m writing. I wouldn’t want any outside influence showing up in my work.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?
My books are about 90,000 words in length, and when I’m in full flow I strive to write 2,000 words per day, five days per week. More than that, and my head explodes. This can take three hours if things are going really well, or six if they are not. I’ll use the time when I’m not writing to do odds and ends of research about issues that have popped up when I am writing. I can finish a first draft in 9-12 weeks, but then I’ll spend several weeks reading and re-reading. I hate proofing, but it’s critical.
Being a historical mystery, how much research goes into your work and do you complete that up front or "just enough" as you go?
I’m a history buff and Victorian England is a favorite period of mine. Consequently, I’m already familiar with the major events and people from the era. Once I’ve settled on the topic for the next India, I’ll do some specific reading. My local library is excellent in sourcing material for me. And I really appreciate the fact that they deliver books about bombs and prostitutes without blinking an eye. I also use the internet. How did people write historicals before the world wide web? I finish most of the research up front, but there’s always something that I need to know more about and don’t realize it until I’m writing.
Setting seems as important as the characters in your mysteries, how did you pick your setting and how do you like to interject a sense of place? Do you use places that you know well, have visited personally, or are familiar with for your settings?
I do try to evoke a strong sense of setting in the books. London was, and is, a character in and of itself. It is an endlessly fascinating place and must have been remarkably atmospheric during the 1870’s, with the fog, the smoke, the mass of unwashed humanity, the horse-drawn conveyances, the smell of the river. I have visited many of the places I write about, and I spend a lot of time with old maps and photographs, trying to visualize what England was like at that period, including odors and sounds.
What in your background prepared you to write not just mysteries, but historicals too?
I am captivated by history, and I’ve been a serious student of it for over forty years (oh, how I hate to write that bit). Mysteries are my other love. My grandmother kept a collection of Agatha Christie’s novels in her bookcase and I must have been about 9 or 10 when I started reading those. It seemed only logical to combine my two great reading passions when I started to write.
In literature (not your own) who is your favorite mystery/suspense character?
Jane Marple, George Smiley, Jack Reacher, Tom Ripley. I could go on, but I’ll spare you an exhaustive list.
Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?
George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote a series of historical adventures about Harry Flashman, a womanizing, cowardly, drunken poltroon, who ended up playing a part in several important historical events and always came out smelling like a rose. I thought it would be fun to write a female character who did not fit the stereotype of the Victorian lady of quality.
How did you get your first break to getting published? Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?
Ye Olde Query Letter. I sent out about twenty, pitching the first India Black to a number of agents, and was lucky enough to find Ann Collette. She responded to the letter within a week, requesting a copy of the manuscript. Other agents were interested, but Ann worked fast and was a straight-shooter.
What's the one thing a reader has said that you've never forgotten and perhaps found startling?
Hmmm. That’s probably a comment from a reader who took exception to India’s remarks about Queen Victoria’s weight in India Black and the Widow of Windsor. The reader said I must have issues with my own body image. Lighten up, honey. It was a joke.
If your India Black mysteries were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your top character's roles? My first choice would be Emily Blunt, an English actress who has terrific comedic talent. She played Emily Charlton in The Devil Wears Prada.
Tell us your thoughts on the importance of historical mysteries and their popularity.
I think it’s easier to explain the appeal of mysteries: usually they end with justice being done and evil being punished and we like that. The historical element has added an additional dimension to the mystery genre and I’m very glad to see that. Some historical mysteries are factually accurate and some aren’t, but I think any story that sparks an interest in history is a good thing. More people should read history. Want to know the future? Read some history and look at the parallels with our own age.
Tell us about your next book in the series - or next project? What is your biggest challenge with it?
The fourth book in the series, tentatively titled India Black and the Gentleman Thief, is sitting on my editor’s desk, waiting to be read. I’m hoping that the big challenge was writing it, and not that the editor wants major changes. That book marks the end of my present contract. If a contract is offered for a fifth book, India, Vincent and French will be traveling to South Africa to sort out a little problem with the Zulus.
I’m also working on the outline of a thriller, and I’m writing a second India short story, which will be digitally published late this year or early next. The biggest challenge is always the same – plopping down in the chair and staring at a blank screen.
Do you have a newsletter or blog for readers to stay informed of your news?
I do. I blog at http://therightwordintherightplace.blogspot.com. I talk a bit about writing, reading, publishing, extraordinary women and men, and rugby (my favorite sport).
THANK You Carol for that great interview. Many fascinating tidbits. I love the humor about the similarities between yourself and India Black! I wish you continued success with the series and hope it enjoys a long run.
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