Here’s the link: Solving a Different Kind of Mystery
There are a few real-life historical figures in the Mistress of Fortune series. King Charles II, for one. Nell Gywn, one of his mistresses, is another. Much has been written about both of them, so why would I include them as characters in my own novels when it’s already been done?
I’ll tell you why: for me, they’re too compelling not to include. The key, however, is not to regurgitate the same old material, the tired characterizations we’ve seen over and over again. Rather, my recreations of these characters are entirely of my own imagination, based upon what historical accounts have revealed them to be. It’s not easy, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me.
For example, today I’m writing a scene for my second novel, Mistress of Lies, in which Barbara Palmer appears. Barbara was perhaps the most well-known (certainly the most notorious) of King Charles II’s mistresses, and undoubtedly possessed more power, for more years, than any other. This is saying a lot, because Charles II had a lot of mistresses.
Barbara is, in some ways, the nemesis of my protagonist, Isabel Wilde. Though she moved to France before the Mistress of Fortune series starts, she played a key role in Isabel Wilde’s history. Isabel, who in 1665 served as a spy in Amsterdam for the crown, was essentially sent there by Barbara Palmer, who was at that time the king’s most powerful mistress. Though nearly thirteen years have passed since then, Isabel will never forgive Barbara Palmer for her interference in her life.
She doesn’t appear at all in the series’ first book, Mistress of Fortune, though she is mentioned. She wasn’t supposed to appear in the sequel, Mistress of Lies, either. She was just a piece of backstory. But in plotting Mistress of Lies I found that I needed someone to reflect what Isabel Wilde’s life would be if she’d made different choices. Barbara Palmer is just that person.
Isabel Wilde, of course, is a fictional character. But not only was Barbara Palmer a real-life historical figure, she is one that has appeared many times in fictional accounts of the Restoration time period. Now I find myself with the challenge of portraying a different side of her than perhaps we’ve seen in the past. Barbara is usually shown at the pinnacle of her power, when she’s arrogant, selfish, and certain that she’ll never lose the king’s love. But my novels take place several years beyond that, when she’s been banished to France because she fell out of favor. In Mistress of Lies, she returns to London, hoping to regain her spot at Court. She’s still arrogant, but she’s also desperate and aging (at 38, she’s considered old).
There are many quotes attributed to various historical figures who lived during the Restoration. But I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me. Rather, such quotes give me an idea of how the historical figure spoke, and what their sensibilities were–I use that in creating my own dialogue. But the words and actions I attribute to them are wholly my own. To me, that’s the only way to truly bring a real historical figure to life.
What do you think? Do you like it when authors use real-life historical figures in their fiction?
I’ll be moderating a panel at the upcoming Bouchercon in Albany next week (September 19-22). It’s called “I’ve Loved These Days” and boy, that topic couldn’t be more appropriate for me. But even more exciting are my panelists: International Guest of Honor Anne Perry, Caroline Todd, Susanna Calkins, Anna Loan-Wilsey and Susanne Alleyn.
This is gonna be fun.
But let’s get back to that topic for a moment. “I’ve Loved These Days.” My debut novel, Mistress of Fortune, takes place in late 17th century London, during the latter part of King Charles II’s reign. I’ve known since I was a teenager that I would someday write a novel set in Restoration London featuring King Charles himself as a character. After all, I’ve had a crush on him since I was fifteen. It’s pretty much the only thing I knew when I first sat down to write Mistress of Fortune. Everything else–my protagonist, Isabel Wilde, a mistress to the king who secretly makes her living as a fortune teller and the plot itself–was born out of my desire to write about this time and place.
I’ve walked the streets of London from the Tower to Primrose Hill, searching for the 17th century London I’d created. But a big part of that walk was imagining that my characters were traveling right along side me.
During the writing of it, I soon discovered that the novel was about so much more than the setting I’d loved for so many years. For a novel to truly come to life, the setting becomes a backdrop and the characters take over. At least that’s what happened to me. I’ve walked the streets of London from the Tower to Primrose Hill, searching for the 17th century London I’d created. But a big part of that walk was imagining that my characters were traveling right along side me.
Susanna Calkins, one of my panelists who also writes during the Restoration period, recently wrote a great piece for Writer’s Digest: How to Write Historical Fiction. I’ve been giving the issue of research quite a bit of thought lately, not only because I’m preparing for the Bouchercon panel but because I’m currently writing book two in the Mistress of Fortune series. One of the questions I plan to ask my panelists is: “How important is authenticity in historical fiction? Is authenticity more important for historical fiction writers than authors of other types of fiction?”
As Susanna wrote in the WD post: “When I was first dreaming about my story, even before I had worked out the plot or characters, I knew one thing for sure: By gum, this novel would be accurate. Every detail, every word, would be accurate. Historians everywhere would use my book in their classes and would revel in my accurate tale. That idea lasted about two seconds.”
I don’t know any historical fiction author (or really, any author at all) who doesn’t go into it with the best of intentions. The drive for truth and authenticity is obsessive and unrelenting. But at some point, a writer must accept that a detail or two might be fudged, or in some cases, made up entirely. I’ll give you an example. Mistress of Fortune is based upon the real-life, unsolved murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Though it’s not the most famous of unsolved murders, quite a bit has been written about it over the years and I had access to a great deal of reference material. In the first draft of the novel, I kept meticulously to the time line of the murder and its investigation. What I ended up with was a confusing and boring manuscript that bore little resemblance to either a proper non fiction account of the killing or an engaging historical mystery. In order to achieve my goal–to write a publishable historical mystery–I had to throw the real time line and many of the true life players out the window. What I ended up with was a fast paced and readable fictional account of Sir Edmund’s murder.
I don’t know any historical fiction author (or really, any author at all) who doesn’t go into it with the best of intentions. The drive for truth and authenticity is obsessive and unrelenting.
Of course, I explained what I’d done and offered up references for those readers who want the real story. As Susanna says, “that’s what the ‘historical note’ at the end of your novel is for.” Or, as Harlan Coben once said in one of the first Bouchercon panels I attended: “I make shit up.”
Regardless, to write historical fiction, one must have a deep and abiding love of the days of which they write. I can’t wait to explore this topic with some of the best historical crime fiction writers in the field.
“I’ve Loved These Days”
Friday, 9/19 3:10pm
Featuring: Anne Perry, Caroline Todd, Susanna Calkins, Anna Loan-Wilsey, & Susanne Alleyn (Holly West, moderator)
Today, April 23rd, marks the release of a novel I’ve been looking forward to very much: A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE by Susanna Calkins. It tells the story of Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. Her life, an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores, is interrupted when a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone she loves is wrongly arrested for the crime.
Susanna kindly accepted my invitation to chat about our novels, both of which are set in Restoration England and feature strong female protagonists who must struggle against the gender and class constraints of their time in order to achieve their goals.
HW: When I tell people I’ve written a historical mystery they often comment on how much research it must’ve taken and how daunting that is. But I actually found that writing a story set 350 years ago was freeing in some ways. I like the world building involved in reconstructing a historical time period for the purposes of my fiction. Plus, I’m a complete geek about the Restoration so I found my research a pleasure. Did you find the research you did for A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE at all daunting?
SC: I started doing research in early modern English history when I was a graduate student, years before I began to put A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE to paper. I had come across some really interesting murder ballads from the 1650s when I was writing a paper on “gender patterns in domestic homicide in 17th c. England.” Later those ballads became the impetus for my novel. So, for me, doing historical research was always part of what I loved about being a historian. So, in A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE, I wanted to place my heroine in some deeper themes, reflecting what I knew about gender (specifically the role of working class women), religion, politics, and culture.
What themes did you explore in DIARY of BEDLAM?
HW: At first, I only knew I wanted to write a story set during the Restoration. But as I got to writing, my protagonist evolved into a fairly complex person–she’s been a mistress to the King for fifteen years and at his behest, she operated as a spy against the Dutch. She lost her brother in the plague and she’s served time in prison. I was surprised, however, when the subject of motherhood entered her story, and realized it’s because of my own relationship with motherhood (I don’t have children and don’t plan to) that I wanted to explore the subject with her.
The story takes place during the Popish Plot so religion, politics and the corruption of the court all play big roles in the story as well.
In an interview I read, you indicate that you’re not overly fond of using real-life people as characters (I paraphrased that, obviously). Which, if any, real-life people did you use in the novel, and why?
SC: I don’t think I have any “real” historical figures in my novel, although of course I mention important figures from time to time (Charles II, the diarist Pepys, as well as the murderess Anne Scarisbruck). I don’t have anything against other writers who fictionalize historic figures–Sam Thomas, for example, quite admirably fictionalizes the midwife Bridget Hodgson in A MIDWIFE’S TALE. I don’t like when historical figures are either romanticized (made to seem more important and perfect than they were) or trivialized (diminished as a punch line). There’s too much ‘Great man’s history’ as it is; I don’t like to add to that in the public imagination.
Is your heroine, Isabel Wilde, a real historical figure? She sounds like Aphra Behn, the famous writer, who was also a spy. Did Behn’s life influence you at all?
HW: Two parts of Isabel’s backstory come from Aphra Behn: the spying, of course, and the prison time for debt. But I’ve got other real-life people who appear: King Charles II is a character and the murder itself is based upon a true crime that was never solved. For me, there was never any question that Charles II would be an actual character in the book and not just mentioned. He’s not a main character, but the scenes in which he appears were definitely the most fun to write.
Tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Lucy Campion. I’m assuming that she is, in some ways, a woman of her time, but I want to know how she rises the above the constraints of her place in society (that of a chambermaid) in order to achieve her goals in the novel.
SC: Even though Lucy was not particularly well-educated, I wanted her to have a lively, inquisitive mind. I deliberately placed her in a small household run by a thoughtful magistrate–someone who would not shut the door on a good idea just because it came from a woman and a servant. There was, after all, a progressive spirit of Enlightenment thought that was infusing the thinking of more educated people at the time. If Lucy had been in a different type of household, she might well have been beaten for some of things she did, and than that would have been the end of her curiosity and her pursuit of justice. What’s the fun of that? Moreover, at the time of the plague, and certainly after the Great Fire, there was an unprecedented social mobility in England, as servants rose up and took over their master’s trades and households. (If everyone else flees or dies, who’s around to say something isn’t yours?)
Why did you come to focus on the murder of Edmund Godfrey? How did you come across it? I think it’s told in Magnolia…did you ever see that movie?
HW: The story, as told in Magnolia, is more about the coincidence of Green, Berry, and Hill, three men who were falsely accused and executed of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey’s body was found at what is today known as Primrose Hill, but for a time, the location was known as Greenberry Hill. It has a small mention in Magnolia.
I came upon Sir Edmund’s murder quite randomly–it was a featured entry on Wikipedia’s home page one day when I happened to be looking for inspiration and I thought it might work for my plot. I soaked up every account of his killing I could find and constructed my story from there. Though his murder is a true historical event, my telling of it is fiction, through and through.
I find myself now in the exciting but daunting position of writing a sequel to DIARY OF BEDLAM. I know you’ve written an sequel to A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE. I’m curious to know what your experience has been writing a second Lucy Campion novel. Was it easier? Will there be others in the series?
SC: Yes, I’ve finished the sequel, tentatively titled FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, which like ROSAMUND’S GATE, gets its title from a fictional pamphlet which relates to the murder. I really enjoyed writing the sequel, if only to continue with my characters. This book picks up about 2 weeks after the last one left off, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Lucy, like many Londoners, is pressed into service to help with the massive cleanup. A body is discovered in a barrel outside of an old tavern; the man was clearly murdered before the Fire. Unbeknownst to others, a pickpocket takes a little bag off the body and passes it to Lucy. Inside are a number of odd objects, including a poem, which Lucy convinces the local printer to publish as a pamphlet. She begins to be targeted by some people who believe she knows the secret of the man’s murder.
What was the funniest or more surprising question you got from people when they found out you had written a novel?
HW: Honestly, I haven’t gotten what I thought was a funny response to me writing a novel. I’d been talking about it since I was a teenager, and after a failed attempt to write one ten years ago, they were probably thinking “finally,” or “yeah, right.” But for the most part, people have been really supportive. What about you?
SC: Supportive yes, but a lot (A LOT!) of people asked me how much sex was in my novel. First question! Yikes!
Yikes indeed! Well, my response to Susanna’s writing a novel is obviously “YAY!” There’s nothing I like more than a good historical novel set in my favorite time period, Restoration England. Thank you, Susanna, for stopping by my blog and congratulations on your Book Birthday.
Susanna Calkins is an educator and faculty developer by day and a writer by night. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.
Every two years, the Southern California chapters of Sisters in Crime (SincLA) and the Mystery Writers of America (SoCalMWA) get together and put on the California Crime Writers Conference in Pasadena, California. It was the first writers conference I ever went to and it remains one of my favorites. For the 2013 conference, I’m coordinating registration and the manuscript critiques.
(Speaking of manuscript critiques, I coordinated them for the 2010 conference, and one of the attendees who asked for a critique not only landed the agent who critiqued it, but recently got a book deal. You know who you are, Matt Coyle.)
Elizabeth George: Sunday’s keynote speaker but she will also lead a workshop on “Finding Your Process” on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. To 11:45 a.m.
Michael Levin: “Take Your Manuscript From Good To Great: 12 Things You Must Do To Make Your Novel “Unrejectable”! Everybody knows that rewriting is the key to success in fiction writing, but exactly what does rewriting mean? Join New York Times best selling author, Shark Tank contestant and Huffington Post blogger Michael Levin for a fascinating, clear, and concise checklist to get your book to the best seller list!
Adrienne Lombardo, literary agent: a rising star at Trident Media Group in New York and ACTIVELY looking for clients who write crime fiction.
T. Jefferson Parker: multiple Edgar award-winning and bestselling author.
Kristen Weber: former Senior Editor at Mysterious Press/Warner Books and NAL/Penguin. Now freelance editor and partner in the upcoming online booklovers sitewww.shelfpleasure.com.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: award-winning author, multiple Emmy-award winning news reporter, MWA national board member and incoming President of national Sisters in Crime.
Marcia Clark: former Los Angeles County Deputy D.A. Lead prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial and crime fiction author.
Anthony Manzella, former Los Angeles County Deputy D.A., Major Crimes division who specialized in prosecuting Mexican Mafia murder cases. He and his partner were profiled in MEXICAN MAFIA by Tony Rafael. He spoke at the 2009 conference and people are still talking about his presentation.
This is just a small portion of what will be on offer. You can register here and I look forward to seeing you at the conference!
Hannah Wolley was kind of the Martha Stewart of late the 17th century in England. She authored books like The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673) and The Queen-Like Closet (1672). The 17th century housewife went to her for advice on all manner of subjects, including recipes for the popular “medicinal” cures of the time.
What follows is a few of these “cures.” I’ve transcribed them so they make sense to the modern reader, but I tried to keep the charm and rhythm of the original language.
The Plague Water:
Take three pints of muskadine, boil therein one handful of sage and one handful of rue until reduced to two pints. Strain it, and put it back on the fire.
Beat together a penny’s worth of long pepper, a half ounce of ginger, and a quarter ounce of nutmeg and boil with the liquid covered with a cloth.
Take one spoonful at a time, morning and evening, always warm if you are already diseased; if not, once a day is sufficient all the Plague time.
It is a most excellent medicine and never fails, if taken before the heart be utterly mortified with the disease, it is also good for the small pox and measles.
A Most Excellent Water for the Stone (kidney stones) or for the Wind Colic (gas)
Take two handfuls of saxifrage, one handful of thyme, two handfuls of perstons, two handfuls of philipendula, and an equal amount pellitory of the wall, two ounces of sweet fennel seeds, the roots of ten radishes, sliced, and steep all these in a gallon of milk warm from the cow. Then distill it in an ordinary still for four hours. Slice half an ounce of saxifrage stem and put it into the water bottle and keep it stopped with a cloth.
Take three spoonfuls at a time and fast from both eating and drinking for one hour after; you must make this water about midsummer; it is a very precious water and ought to be prized.
Walnut Water, or the Water of Life
Take green walnuts in the beginning of June, beat them in a mortar, and distill them in an ordinary still. Keep that water by itself.
About midsummer, gather some more, and distill hem as you did before. Keep that also by itself.
Take a quart of each and mix them together and distill them in a glass still and keep it for your use. The virtues are as follows:
It will help all manner of dropsies and palsies, drank with wine fasting; it is good for the eyes if you put one drop therein; it helps conception in women if they drink one spoonful at a time in a glass of wine once a day; it will make your skin fair if you wash with it; it is good for all the infirmities of the body and drives out all corruption, and inward bruises; if it be drunk with wine moderately, it kills worms in the body; whosoever drinks much of it shall live so long as nature shall continue in him.
Finally, if you have any wine that is turned, put it in a little vial or glass full of it, and keep it stopped with a cloth. Within four days it will come to itself again.
I've collected a lot of great reference books in my research of Diary of Bedlam, but by far my favorite is A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Francis Grose. First published in 1785, it is a collection of slang words from all corners of society.
Here are a few of the entertaining words and expressions found in this volume:
Bum fodder – toilet paper
To cast up one's accounts – to vomit
Beard splitter – A man given to "wenching"
Dog's soup – rain water
Fart catcher – a valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress
Lazybones – an instrument like a pair of tongs, for old or very fat people, to take something from the ground without stooping
Mantrap – a woman's private parts
Queen Street – a man governed by his wife is said to live in Queen Street
Soul doctor – a parson
Thingumbobs – testicles
Wool gathering - Saying to an absent man, or one in reverie, as in "Your wits are gone a wool gathering."
One thing that's also interesting about the dictionary is to see how many of the words we still use whose meanings are more or less the same as they were over 200 years ago. Expressions like elbow grease, gift of gab, hodge podge, quack, ragamuffin, white lie, and ship shape all hail from this time.