Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Two Worlds

Jeri Westerson

I live in two worlds. That of mystery and of historical fiction. I suppose I’m a failed historical novelist. That’s what I slogged away at doing for ten years, writing opus after stand-alone opus with nary a nibble from publishers. “The historical novel is dead!” declared Publisher’s Weekly in the days I was writing and trying to sell them.


Ten years of researching and writing about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but then I crossed over to the dark side, the side of murder, mayhem, and clever detectives. I left behind the stand-alone for the series and found a new love in episodic storytelling. And with an historical mystery, I found success and a publisher at last! For the most part, I never looked back.

Until last weekend.

I attended my first North American Historical Novel Society Conference. And like many of the writing conferences I used to attend in the past, it is chock full of would-be writers, getting a pep talk and some writing advice from their favorite authors in the genre and learning about some new ones. There were also agent and editor meetings, blue pencil sessions where authors critiqued the work of brave writers willing to sit back and take it (which is not to be confused with lying back and thinking of England), and a general chatting away with authors you’d like to know more about while the cocktails flowed.

Historical novelists are akin to literary novelists. Often there is that crossover where publishers give them a little more respect, at least more than they might give to midlist mystery authors. But there are no tagged shelves in a bookstore or library where the historical novels are stored, unlike mysteries. Their novels are generally about famous people from the past. Certainly there is a fair share of the Tudors depicted within these many pages. And the de Medicis. But don’t forget the nautical sagas of tall ships sailing the waves with the smell of gun powder wafting on the breeze (and we were treated to the incredibly loud reports from the cannons on the tall ship/museum anchored just outside our hotel in San Diego Harbor), or the tomes of medieval Mongolia, or even prehistory with such authors as Jean Auel with the newest Clan of the Cave Bear novel. Historical authors span thousands of years of human history between their covers.

But let us not forget those of us who blend mystery with our history. Sometimes we have to get pretty creative with our sleuths. I would say that more than half are of the amateur variety, being that any sort of police force or paid detectives are a modern construct. (Mine is a paid detective, not an amateur, but that was my own “what if” because there were no private detectives in the Middle Ages.) Again, we span all the eras from ancient Egypt and Rome up to the 1960s and all the time periods in between.

My panel was on “Keeping a Series Fresh” with fellow “mystorical” authors moderator Priscilla Royal, Susan McDuffie, Ann Parker, and Judith Rock, writing about thirteenth and fourteenth century England, fourteenth century Scotland, the silver rush boomtown era of the 1880s, and seventeenth century Paris, respectively. That’s a lot of centuries. Besides expressing our opinions on how we use history to twist our plots and our use of minor characters to add interest, we took a few questions from anxious writers hoping to break into the party. In fact, one of the questions was about amateur versus professional sleuth.

I’ve been to many a mystery fan convention, but this was somewhat different. For one, this conference featured a costume parade, authors either wearing the costumes of their protagonists or of suitable characters in their books. From ancient Rome, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and up to the Colonial period, the American Civil War, and the late 1800s, they showed off their writing and sewing skills! I skipped it this year, but perhaps when the conference rolls around on the west coast again, I’ll dust off my medieval gown and give it a whirl on the catwalk.

Yes, it was lovely being a part of the historical crowd for a change, where dinner table conversations tripped from historical period to historical period, and you could hear the passion in their voices as they plead the case of their pet eras. So many time periods to write about. So little time to do it.


Tracy said...

I have always loved writing historicals too. First romances now mysteries. It's interesting how many other aspiring authors say to me "Well make sure you do your research because there are readers out there who will tear you apart." It is like it is the great 'untouchable'. My stance is if you have the passion for the time period, the research is not work. It becomes fulfillment, just like completing a manuscript.

Jeri Westerson said...

That is so true, Tracy. You must keep the history right and upfront, that is, the stories couldn't be told in any other time period while still keeping that balancing act of making it accessible and relevent to modern audiences.

Julia Buckley said...

A great post, and an interesting one. I can't imagine there would ever be a time when people don't want to read about history and all of its fascinating layers. There's so much to learn, so much to pull out of the catacombs and bring into the light.

And I'm leery of any person or publication who declares a certain kind of writing "dead." It just needs the right author to breathe new life in it.