“Living in the Past” (song by Jethro Tull): Getting the research right

October 18, 2008 at 1:36 am (books, Bouchercon 2008, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

A panel on the writing of historical mysteries, featuring:

Rennie Airth

Rennie Airth

Rennie Airth writes the John Madden mysteries. Madden is a shell shocked World War One veteran. I read and enjoyed the first novel in this series, River of Darkness (1991). The second was Blood-Dimmed Tide (2001), and the third, Dead of Winter, is due out next year.

James R Benn

Benn, an author new to me, writes about Billy Boyle, a Boston cop who’s a distant relative of Dwight Eisenhower. The books take place during the Second World War. (And I just have to say – I love this author photo!)

Sharan Newman

Sharan Newman

Sharan Newman writes a popular series set in France in the Middle Ages and featuring Catherine LeVendeur, a scholar and novice nun. I read the first one, Death Comes As Epiphany, and enjoyed it a great deal. Newman has recently published Shanghai Tunnel, a novel set in Portland, Oregon, in the nineteenth century.

Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson’s debut novel is Veil of Lies: A Medieval Noir. It is the recipient of an enthusiastic starred review in Library Journal.

Charles Todd with Caroline Todd, his mother and co-author

The Todds write the acclaimed series featuring Ian Rutledge, Scotland Yard detective and tormented veteran of World War One. (The phenomenon of the collaborating mother and son intrigues me. If my own mother [of blessed memory] and I had ever attempted such a thing, sparks would have been flying by the time we reached the second page!)

The moderator, Laurie R. King, kicked things off with the famous opening lines of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past Is another country; they do things differently there.”

Alas, not available in Region One (U.S.) format

Alas, not available in Region One (U.S.) format

(I’ve never actually read The Go-Between, although it sounds like a novel I would love. The 1970 film , starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Michael Redgrave, was terrific.)

This was a great discussion. The authors were most articulate as they described the challenges of researching their respective periods, and then integrating that research into their novels in a manner that was effective but not intrusive.

They mentioned some interesting potential stumbling blocks. For instance, Charles Todd was going to refer to the first Queen Elizabeth as “Elizabeth I.” Well, that doesn’t work when you’re writing about England in the 1920’s. Up until that point in time, there was simply “Queen Elizabeth.” And in fact, until the abdication of Edward VIII (latterly known as the Duke of Windsor) in 1936, the British had no reason to think there would be an Elizabeth II in their future.

The authors warmly recommended Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard and also a book called Akenfield. Come to find out, not only does the local library not own it, but this classic portrait of an English village by Ronald Blythe is out of print in this country. Not to worry; I have my ways of obtaining these choice items. (I’ll probably have recourse to abebooks first.)

Both Charles Todd and Rennie Airth have familial connections to the First World War. Airth sung the praises of the British Library as a source of materials bearing on “the Great War.” He recommended The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain (1918-1939) by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. The work of historian Lyn Macdonald was praised for its vivid first hand accounts by veterans of the conflict.

Growing up amid the great storytelling traditions of the South had a profound influence on Charles Todd. He offered this poignant observation about the soldiers of the First World War: “They just went off to war and didn’t ask why.” Todd, Benn, and Airth all agreed that letters from the early 20th century and genealogies were enormously helpful – also “there’s no substitute for going to the place and talking to the people.” All three were immensely grateful for the amount of archival material now available online.

As for the medievalists on the panel: Sharan Newman confessed to being drawn into the Middle Ages by the story of Abelard and Heloise. [Slight aside here: I first heard the names of these famous lovers in the lyrics of the Cole Porter song “Just One of Those Things”, as sung by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald:: “As Abelard said to Heloise,/ Don’t forget to drop a line to me please.” This is the kind of witty, sophisticated song writing you got from a Yale graduate in the 1930’s!]

Newman recommends sermons for historical research: “If someone is preaching against something, then it’s a good bet  that folks are doing that something!” Go to SharanNewman.com for terrific links to sites concerned with medieval history and literature.

Jeri Westerman told a great story about her effort to attain an authentic feel in her description of medieval swordplay. She positioned a side of beef in her backyard and stabbed it repeatedly – all the while hoping the neighbors were not watching!

Laurie King commented on how helpful she found the old Baedeker travel guides in her research on the early 20th century. This reminded me of my rather singular experience with Madame de Genlis’s little phrase book…

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