Author of the John Chase/Penelope Wolfe Regency Mysteries
The Heart of the Story
I never know where a novel will take me. My mystery series, set in Regency England, requires copious research that has a way of sending me off on byways and detours. One hard lesson learned has been that I have to trust the process. Sooner or later the logic and, more importantly, the heart of a story emerge. Often this happens later rather than sooner. Basically, there's a lot of floundering involved. Sometimes I stumble on magical tidbits that seem to shout, “Pick me! I've been lying here in this dusty book for centuries” (or nowadays hiding in Google Books). And that's really fun.
Context is especially crucial in a historical mystery. Historical novelists ask readers to believe that our characters inhabit a world that is long gone yet still echoes down the years into the present. It's tricky. If a writer tells everything she knows, the book sags under the weight of the research. I try to write from within that early 19th-century mindset without ever forgetting that the characters and the mystery are the main event.
My most recent book, On a Desert Shore, presented a special challenge in that it explores race and attitudes toward slavery—the great moral issue of the Georgian era. Many of the characters in this book are from Jamaica, an astoundingly savage society that was coming under increasing scrutiny in the “mother country” for its cruelty toward the slave population. Though England liked to think of itself as civilized and enlightened, my research revealed that many English men and women were well aware of the gap between national mythology and brutal reality in Britain's far-flung empire.
On a Desert Shore is about what happens in England when rigid boundaries between different races and cultures dissolve. One of the suspects in Bow Street Runner John Chase's murder investigation is a mixed-race teenager named Marina Garrod, born to a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner and his slave-housekeeper. This young woman becomes a pampered heiress in London society, discovering that she can't leave her past behind. It took me a while to get to know Marina in order to pursue my goal of telling her story with empathy and respect, but once I finally figured out that she is the heart of the story, everything fell into place. There were a number of these mixed-race children whose fathers sent them “home” to England, where they might hope to encounter less open prejudice and live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several decades more in the colonies. And, shockingly, the government provided thousands of ordinary English people with financial compensation when they were forced to free their slaves.
So I never know where a book will take me. But I can be sure that the journey will bring some wrong turns in my quest to get the history and the story right.
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