Saturday, May 28, 2011

Writing Historically

When I was asked to be a permanent participant on this blog the answer was a resounding “yes!” The five ladies who trade off writing blog posts have established an amazing resource with heaps of good writing advice and information on the ever-changing publishing world. Being a part of that was a no-brainer. But I did point out that on my own website, blog, and on my character blog, I usually spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the Middle Ages. But since most of us on this blog are middle-aged, that was okay by them!

I write a series of medieval mysteries that have a darker bent than your Brother Cadfael type. I call them “Medieval Noir,” hardboiled detective fiction set in the Middle Ages with an ex-knight turned detective as my protagonist. Writing historically is not a challenge, it's part of the fun. Not only are you creating these interesting characters and their situations, but you get to put them into a very real world that you find endlessly fascinating!

When I first began writing historical fiction many years ago, I worried that I would get so wrapped up in the research I’d never get to the book itself. We call that “research rapture.” Well, those days are long gone. But I still enjoy the thrill of researching and discovering that great fist-punch-in-the-air moment when you find out something that will work perfectly for your story. I like to write my stories and characters as if they could have existed, as if they perhaps should have existed.

My hero is Crispin Guest and as I mentioned before, he is an ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. And yes, there were ex-knights, degraded knights, as they called them, but none, as far as I know, ever became a detective (a job that was decidedly of my own fiction for this time period). Most of the degraded knights I came across were degraded right before they met a very ignoble and nasty end. So I had to come up with a plausible way for Crispin to have been degraded and survive so that he could re-invent himself as a medieval PI.

Research into the early court of King Richard II when my books are set gave me the answer. You see, Richard became king when he was ten years old. Can you imagine your own ten-year-old becoming king? This naturally came with its own set of problems. I don’t think “spoiled” really covers it. His reign started with great promise, but later, he was accused of favoring too many hangers on and generally making a hash of it.

Meanwhile, Richard’s uncle, the daunting duke of Lancaster, was the richest man in England and an indomitable warrior and experienced statesman. Parliament feared, and rightly so, that the duke would try to jump the line of succession and take the throne for himself and he made promise after promise that he would not do so. That didn’t stop the conspiracy theorists from hatching plots (of course, who’s to say that there weren’t any?)

So here’s where my fiction kicks into the historical facts. I made Crispin the duke’s protégé, had him raised in the duke’s household since he was seven years old, seeing the duke as a father figure. And so naturally Crispin throws in his lot with these conspirators, thinking that it is for the good of England. The conspirators are caught and all are condemned. Crispin is up for execution, too, but instead, the duke begs for his life. His life is granted but all else is taken from him: land, wealth, status. All that defines him. He’s thrust into the heart of London with nothing but the clothes on his back. Instant angst, instant chip on shoulder. Much can be done with his inability to blend into the lower classes when he clearly is not, and that, in his heart, he is and always will be a knight.

I love it when a plot comes together.

But now comes fleshing out the rest of the world. What are the people wearing? What are they eating and drinking? What are they eating and drinking on? Where do they sleep? What are the customs they encounter? What is the difference between the classes? What does London look like in 1385?

University libraries, archives on the internet, emails to people across the pond. These are the places I find all the bigger facts I need. For some of the smaller ones, I prefer a little hands-on approach. I have a book of medieval recipes from King Richard’s court and I’ve cooked my share of (small) feasts. I’ve brewed my own medieval ale, from preparing the grain and allowing it to sprout, to roasting it, to grinding it, to actually brewing it. I’ve made and worn the clothing. And I’ve collected the weaponry and know how to use it. Having a hands-on approach can give you a true appreciation for the experiences of medieval people.

One of the nifty facts I haven’t been able to use yet in my stories was something I uncovered about London. About how a lot of medieval men met their accidental deaths. It seems there was an inordinate number of men dying from falling out of windows. Naturally, I thought this bore more investigation. What I discovered was that, with a fair amount of alcohol involved, these men would get up in the middle of the night to accede to a call of nature. But instead of climbing down long staircases or rickety ladders, they would open the windows (which had no glass, just shutters), stand in the open window, and…well, misjudge. Talk about being caught dead with your pants down! It’s one of those facts I can’t wait to use.

Each fact that’s uncovered unfolds more plot points, more places for the characters to go. I utilize real figures from the Middle Ages. Without telling any spoilers, let me just say that some are very unusual characters indeed, a real case of truth being stranger than fiction. That’s the real joy of writing historically. Rather than limiting, I find it an endless cornucopia of fodder for my stories.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Jeri, do you invite friends to share your medieval feasts? And do you throw the bones on the floor? ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

Jeri, the rest of the Deadly Daughters are thrilled to have you as part of the family! The Middle Ages have always fascinated me, so I'll be an eager reader of anything you post.

Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, Jeri! In another life I was a medievalist, and the first mystery I ever started (when I was deathly bored at a temp job) was about someone who was killed by a falling capital in a cloister. I got through three pages and realized I didn't have a plot, just a body.

I'm glad you followed through! We're glad to have you.

Victoria said...

I love historical mysteries, and this sounds right up my alley... meatier and darker! Sounds great.

Jeri Westerson said...

Oh Liz. They never threw bones on the floor. I guess I know what my next post will be about. :)

My first medieval feast I did was while camping with some friends, so that was fun. In garb, no less.

Jackie Houchin said...

I love your writing here, there, anywhere! Looking forward to reading more of you as a DD, and in other places. Hmmm... will probably read the other "daughters' posts too while here.
PS: Fun learning/being reminded of how Crispin came to be.

Jeri Westerson said...

And speaking of research and how Crispin came to be, Jackie, I was doing some more research on John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, and as I was reading along I kept thinking at the back of my head that Crispin should be showing up here soon, and then I pulled up short. Wait! No he won't! I even had myself believing he's real! :)

Jeri Westerson said...

Sheila, that book sounds interesting to me! I sort of got to write my body in a cloister story, though it's really body in a cathedral in the fourth book (Crispin takes a field trip to Canterbury). That book, Troubled Bones, is coming out this fall.

Kaye George said...

Oh goody! Crispin's going to Canterbury! Looking forward to the next book AND to your posts here.

Michele Drier said...

Jeri, what a great debut! As a former medievalist (I gave up the chapter of SCA when all they did was knit armor) I'm so gad you're helping Crispin tell his story.

Jeri Westerson said...

Yeah, Michele, I never did get into the SCA thing. Never had time to go to any events. And I really didn't want to invent a persona because, for one, no, and for two I was already inventing lots of characters for my novels. That's quite enough multiple personalities for one person!

Julia Buckley said...

Wonderful post--a reminder that research can be fun, a joy, rather than drudgery.

Those men falling out of windows--sad, but funny.

lil Gluckstern said...

It is really fun to see you here, and learn about your creating process. I have a crush on Crispin, and now I'll hear more about him. I Can't wait for the book.

Jeri Westerson said...

I have a little bit of a crush on him, too, Lil. You can find me here and on my blog and find him on Crispin's own blog.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Your book sounds like just the kind of mystery I would love to read! I miss Ellis Peters, loved her medieval mysteries. So glad she has a successor!

Jacqueline Seewald

tim said...


I hope this finds you well. My name is Tim Kizer. I would like to ask if you would be interested in trading links. I have placed a link to your blog on my website "Horror, suspense by Tim Kizer" and would much appreciate it if you could put a link to on your link list too. Hopefully, it will help us in search rankings.

Many thanks in advance.


Tim Kizer

Jeri Westerson said...

Jaqueline, such kind words! I was so very inspired by the Brother Cadfael books. I discovered them when I discovered my first indie mystery bookstore. I wandered around muttering, "This is a fabulous idea," having no clue that there were plenty such stores way back then. Not as many now. As I looked around I wondered to myself, "Do you think there is such as thing as a medieval mystery?" And lo and behold, there they were!

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...

great to see you joining PDD. Looking forward to TROUBLED BONES! And thanks for revealing the true identity of The Black Knight....


jenny milchman said...

So glad to see you on Poe's, Jeri! I will look forward to your posts. As for your post, I'm not sure what to add. Pee with the windows closed doesn't sound quite right :)