Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Accidental Expert

RHYS BOWEN: The Accidental Expert

I was watching PBS a while ago when they showed two subsequent programs, one on Coco Chanel and one on Paris in the early 1900s. And I found myself adding my comments and corrections out loud to both programs because I knew more than they were telling. I wouldn’t have said I’m an expert on modern art or on Chanel, but it seems I have become one because they were both featured in my books. Coco Chanel played a role in my Royal Spyness book called Naughty in Nice and post-Impressionist Paris is the focus of my Molly Murphy book called City of Darkness and Light.

                Since I write historical novels it’s become very important to me to get everything right. After all my books take place in the first half of the Twentieth Century—there were newspapers for every day. There were photographs of every scene I need to describe. There were newsreels featuring famous people. So I have no excuse for getting anything wrong.
              
  I don’t know about you but if I find one detail that I know to be wrong in a book, that entire story loses validity for me. I no longer believe in those characters.  I have recently been asked to blurb books in which significant details about London or life in the early 1900s were wrong. A train from Yorkshire came into Victoria Station! I dropped the book hurriedly!

  I think it’s up to the writer to do her  homework properly and thoroughly, to make sure all the little details are right. For Molly Murphy, where the books are usually set in New York, this involves walking the streets Molly walked, noticing what she would have seen—is the Brooklyn Bridge visible from here? Have the leaves fallen from the trees in Washington Square in late October?  I have also acquired a large collection of photographs from the time and I can check what was on the billboard or what was the name above the tailor’s shop on a particular street. Not necessary maybe, but satisfying.

I love it when I get letters from people who grew up in New York City thanking me for bringing their childhood memories back to life. One woman said that she was born in Greenwich Village, as were her mother and grandmother and her grandmother used to buy bread at the same bakery on Greenwich Avenue as my characters. That made me feel really good--that all that research was worth it!

                What a wonderful extra bonus, as well as writing a story I enjoy, I am delving into areas I would never have explored… becoming an accidental expert.

                This has happened throughout my life. My husband became a sales manager of Air India. Suddenly we were called upon to host important Indians, give talks on India, even lead trips to India. We went there several times, covering the whole country from Kashmir down to Kerala.  We were patrons of an Indian dance school. We cooked Indian food. And all this was accidental. If he had instead taken a job with Air Finland I’d know all about reindeer and saunas.

                When I wrote In Farleigh Field I read numerous books on World War II, autobiographical accounts of working for M.I.5 and at Bletchley Park. Then I went to Bletchley Park and nosed around, asking questions.  When I write about the royal family in my Royal Spyness books I try to make them as accurate as possible so that anything they say is an opinion I know they actually expressed. I’ve read all the biographies. Been to all the palaces. You might say it’s fiction and it doesn’t matter, but it does.

                So a word of warning to writers: if you put something in your books you will be assumed to be an expert. If your sleuth breeds llamas, you will be asked to judge llama shows. If she bakes cupcakes (Jenn McKinlay) you will be asked for recipes. So don’t give your characters any skills or interests you’d absolutely hate in real life.  You will have to do a lot of reading and study, to make sure everything is right, because somewhere, someone in the world who is an expert on llamas or spinning will write to you and tell you what you have wrong!



                My latest research has been on Tuscany. I’ve set a book there, partly in WWII, partly later. I've just seen the cover: isn't it fab?
 I knew I wanted to write this book so I studied every detail from the making of olive oil to the mummified body of a saint in the church, to the parade on Corpus Christi Sunday  (which comes in the book).  And of course I had to study the food and wine in depth. In the name of research, you know.  We suffer for our art!  But the point is that settings only come to life through the little things—the smell of bread baking, the sound of a voice singing from an upstairs window, the scent of a particular flower on the breeze.  Now I’m itching to go back again. That vin santo was awfully good…. And my wish is to be granted. Next summer I ve been asked to repeat the writer's workshop in the Chianti region. Who wants to join me?  Details on my website:

So Reds—in what areas have you become accidental experts?

50 comments:

  1. I confess that not being an expert on all things historical, I probably wouldn’t notice that one little thing the author got wrong. But I understand how that could be so frustrating when you’ve done your research and know the reality of that time.

    The cover for “The Tuscan Child” is beautiful; I am really looking forward to reading it . . . .

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  2. I love the cover, Rhys. I love the setting. It's a great place for a reader like me to jump right into your story.

    Your comments earlier in the week about the fire in California were very moving. It was devastating to watch it unfold. We are still checking on friends and a few relatives. So far most have signed in on the okay list. My step-son and his wife were far enough away to be safe but did have reaction to smoke in the air. My aunt and her husband were in Texas. They are okay, and his brother's house survived in tact, but the neighborhood is gone.

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    1. What a terrifying time Reine, so glad your people are ok!

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  3. The cover is lovely! It looks exactly the way I remember Tuscany-I haven't been since the late 1980s. Hum, have to fix that.

    I love it when the details check in historicals and a well-researched book shows. Writing historicals in major cities must be difficult. In New York and in London so much of the skyline has changed that views must be hard to replicate.

    One of my series concerns diving. It's a sport I've enjoyed since the early 1970s and I know it well, but although the science hasn't changed, the technology can and does between the writing and the publication so the research continues right up to the final edits.

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    1. Actually New York and London are not hard to write about because much is unchanged... The Lower East Side and Greenwich Village are still there, and Georgie's haunts in London too
      Rhys

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  4. Most of my jobs over the years have involved writing of the non-fiction sort, so I have had to learn about everything from criminal law to endoscopic surgery. Once, a couple of years after I wrote a newspaper feature on illegal dumping, I got a call from another reporter who wanted to cover the same subject. She'd gone back to my story for her research, and had some follow-up questions. Apparently I was her go-to expert on tire disposal. These days the subject is classical music--something this theatre and English major has only ever studied on the fly. Fortunately, I've always loved learning new things and passing the knowledge along.

    Your book looks lovely, Rhys. Congratulations! Is this another stand-alone, like In Farleigh Field?

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    1. You have the best background for a book Gigi, hope we get to see it soon...

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    2. You know, it's funny, Roberta. I have been told by editors that "we can't have" characters who work in the performing arts. Apparently we're too flighty and fickle. Or something. Total twaddle, of course, but there certainly used to be a bias against actors and musicians.

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    3. Yes, another stand alone, set in two time periods.

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    4. Gigi, you could point to the success of Alexia Gordon's recent novels. They are set in the arena of classical music.

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    5. My agent told me I couldn't write about opera when I wrote Leave the Grave Green. I did it anyway, because I was interested and wanted to learn more, but I've never understood that bias.

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  5. I love the new cover! I picked the era of my historical series rather accidentally - and now know all about the carriages, clothes, buildings, police procedure, and midwifery knowledge from the late 1880s! I also love bringing in those small details that make the story come alive. I am a docent at the John Greenleaf Whittier Home Museum, and his study is just like he left it, right down to the spectacles on his desk. Since he's a secondary character in my series, I've used several of those details.

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  6. Rhys, it is a stunning cover--such great colors. I loved your advice about not writing something into a book that you hate! I, of course, have become the go-to on food in Key West. Which isn't a bad gig to have at all LOL

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    1. and PS, wish we could have gone along on your trips to India!

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  7. You just gave me a reason to put a llama in my books! Yes, the cover is absolutely gorgeous.

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    1. And you just made me spew coffee all over my screen.

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  8. Love the cover and I'm already looking forward to reading the book, Rhys, because I enjoyed In Farleigh Field. As for the historical and geographical details needing to be accurate: A big fat YES absolutely. I read historical fiction not only for the story and characters but, for...well,the history. I didn't learn much history in school due to moving about quite a bit from Canada to England to Germany and back to Canada in my growing-up years, so historical fiction reading is my catch-up on history. If the details are wrong, it's just plain annoying!

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  9. Hallie, you know we're all going to be looking for that llama book now! LOL

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  10. That is a lovely cover, Rhys. And it makes a perfect companion to In Farleigh Field.

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  11. Rhys, I wouldn't have caught the detail about Victoria Station--but I can certainly tell when a writer has done his/her homework. It is in the details and how they're woven into the story. When there's a bakery named, a street, a view described. When the seasons change (on time), when the characters' clothing is described. The setting (and the story) enlarges and the reader steps into the historical period. When you feel you were there , that's how you know the author took the time to get it right. And the cover is fabulous on the new book--just looking at it is transporting me to Tuscany!

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  12. Great cover! I wrote a home front during WWII story and researched everything from how much a pay phone cost to what size gasoline cans the Army used. I had an intimate knowledge of the place and used family photos and letters as well.

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  13. Rhys, that cover is beautiful and certainly makes me want a return trip to Tuscany. I look forward to telling Julie about this book.

    I am one of those people who is intolerant of mistakes when I catch them. These are usually about nursing or medicine. But I'm also an opera fan, and the first time I went to see La Traviata, the soprano, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent (me), failed miserably to hit her note in the first aria. From that moment on I found myself ignoring the production and waiting for her to miss again. It was very disconcerting.

    Is this need for accuracy why some authors write sci fi? Then you really get to make things up!

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    1. I think Sci Fi may be harder because you have first to create a world then be true to it. That's why Harry Potter annoys me that he can't repair his eyesight and do without the glasses!
      Rhys

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    2. I suspect all writing is hard. If you think about it, God created the world in seven days but left someone else to write the book.

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  14. It's a beautiful cover, Rhys.

    I don't know that I've become an expert in anything yet, but I sure wish something I wrote required me to become an expert on the food and wines of Tuscany! LOL

    Mary/Liz

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  15. The cover is gorgeous, Rhys! Makes me want to hop on a plane ASAP!

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  16. Rhys, what a beautiful cover, of a book I know will be a great read. Of course I'm thrilled at the insight into the title, having been to that Corpus Christi parade with you that day. That experience made me dive into research about baldachins, by the way! It brought back a detail from my childhood that I'd never really paid much attention to, and piqued my curiosity about their use.

    Twice, I've been consulted by mystery authors on topics upon which I have more knowledge than most: sewing and kitchen design. That was fun, especially when the books came out and I could see where the author used my small assistance.

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  17. Rhys, what a beautiful cover! I love how it's in the same "family" as the cover of IN FARLEIGH FIELD while still being it's own thing. Rhys Bowen historical fiction has a look!

    I enjoy reading romance, but the best-written story will lose me when the author gets historical facts or culture wrong, or, equally as bad, has 21st century characters dressed up in 19th century clothes. There's a term in the romance world: "wallpaper historical." That's where the author puts in pretty details like gowns and ignores the realities of living in a certain time period.

    Agreed as to becoming an "expert" on one's subject matter: I have backed into the role of ambassador-without-portfolio for the Episcopal Church!

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    1. I think that's good expertise! I'm an accidental cradle Episcoplian--neither of my parents were raised as such, just fell into it. Anyway I am proud of how the church has changed with the times, being compassionate and welcoming to all. Of course we know that when Episcopalians get mad they leave and start their own churches. But as we say here, don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

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  18. The Tuscan Child's cover is gorgeous! Research in Tuscany sounds like a dream come true ~

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  19. Love the cover, Rhys! Congratulations! Being a librarian, I am an expert on nothing BUT I usually know where to find the answer so I figure that makes me an expert on sources if nothing else.

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  20. Love that cover!

    I usually don't know enough to know if an author got something wrong. But it does bug me when I do know. I was reading a book once where the characters came to my town. As they were leaving, they got thebfreeway details wrong. 30 seconds on Google maps would have fixed that for them. I finished the book, but it left me questioning everything that came after it.

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  21. Thank you for the time, energy and effort you expend while researching. As a reader, it allows me to getting swept away and I no longer feel as though I'm reading, but watching everything take place whether it is in 1900's NYC, on one of Georgie's adventures or in a WWII decoding room. You have painted the picture beautifully and those small details make all the difference. Somehow it keeps the story moving forward as well, rather than a feeling of slogging through minutiae that I've felt in others' books (not in the Reds community!). The settings (sights, sounds, food) become their own character and provide so much more beyond time and place. We used to live in London for a short time and enjoy revisiting through your writing. Haven't made it to Tuscany yet but I'm looking forward to previewing it through The Tuscan Child! Thank you for writing! You are (& have) a gift and I'm so glad my sister introduced me to your creations. Many continued blessings on your travels.

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    1. So great of you, Hillary! Lovely to see you here.xoox

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  22. I WANT TO GO TO TUSCANY with you! Ahhh...lovely.

    And yeah, how some authors portray TV reporters? And what they do? Ack.

    Cover is completely fab. What did you think when you first saw it?

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    1. I had been given several ideas to choose from. This was my favorite. I only saw the finished product on Amazon last weekend!

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  23. Rhys, I love your historical novels, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

    A couple of years ago I was a little disappointed in a historical novel that I read by an author who was unknown to me. It was set in the 1920s. One of the female characters was supposed to be a graduate of a University that did not admit female students until the late 1960s! I have not read anything else by that author although I suppose I should certainly give the person another chance.

    DebRo

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  24. Not being an expert in an historical or geographical way, I certainly would have missed that train error, and I'm sure I miss many such things. As a reader, if I don't know any better, then "no harm, no foul". Also, if I'm reading a book I'm enjoying, and notice the author has streets going the wrong way, or gets some place-names wrong (but not affecting the story), I just don't better about it; shrug it off. A story well plotted and well told doesn't - for me - depend on every detail being perfect. Maybe I'm too forgiving, but unless I encounter something really unforgivable, such as an important clue dropping from the sky, I just go with what's on the page.

    The new book's cover is wonderful.

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  25. Rhys, I LOVE the cover, and cannot wait to read the book!!!!!! And I do appreciated all the research you put in. I love both the Molly and the Georgie books, but your description of San Francisco in the earthquake and the fire is something that will always stick with me. I would swear you lived through that, and when I was in SF after reading the book I kept thinking about those scenes.

    I love doing research and really try to get all my details right. I've described my job as being a perpetual grad student, lol. But then there are always the things that you don't know you don't know!

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  26. I admit to being put out if I find major errors in a novel. Minor ones? They happen. I question the effort the author made in researching when big bloopers keep popping up. As for my own fields of "expertise"? Well. . . I get very testy when I see the same old, same old trite crap written about my home state by someone who obviously has never lived there more than 5 minutes. Every region in Texas is different. You cannot watch a cowboy movie and plop that "information" down in a book set in Houston or Dallas or any major city. East Texas is light years different from west Texas. Likewise, the Panhandle and the Valley. I would nominate my husband as an "expert" when it comes to weapons and military history of the US. Just sit through a war movie with him! Rhys, I loved In Farleigh Field. Your research is fabulous and it shows.

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  27. First I have to say how much I love the cover of The Tuscan Child, and I can't wait to read it. You are so productive, Rhys, and it's all amazing. I'm appreciative of all the research you do for all of your books. I know that I can read anything you write with the assurance of accurate historical detail, and that makes the reading so enjoyable, even if I wouln't know the difference. I come away from your books with a satisfaction that I've learned history, accurate history, through your fascinating stories.

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  28. This popped up on my Facebook feed just after I had found an error in a newly published historical mystery, and I confess that I posted about the error on the author's Facebook page. I tend to do that, and sometimes authors thank me and sometimes I am ignored (and probably cussed out as well). I appreciate the trouble that Rhys Bowen takes to get it right.

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    1. Update: The author replied and admitted that I was right, that she had missed the error when proof reading.

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    2. That’s impressive- to get a reply and admission.

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  29. I'm thinking we should do Jungle Reds Retreat in Tuscany!

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  30. A few years ago I was asked to speak to a local history group about a book that was set in our area. As a former librarian and someone who had recently moved to the area...and knowing that most attendees would already have read the book, I decided to talk about the accuracy of the book's historical details. I'd looked up many as I read, because "that can't be true!" Except every single incredible detail could be verified. We shared our appreciation and amazement, and then we ate homemade peach cobbler made with butter and local fruit, just like the characters in the book - except I used a food processor, an oven and peaches I'd picked at a lower elevation (due to the season).

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  31. Been reading since I was 4, including a lot of historical fiction, romance and mysteries and biographies and autobiographies. Yes, big mistakes would bother me. I have to ignore everyone having sex before marriage in the historical romances but it bothers me. Heck, that wasn't approved of when I grew up, much less the Regency Era.

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    1. It was not okay for Georgie and Darcy either!

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  32. Your statement that if one detail is incorrect the entire story loses its validity is true. Also true is if you put something in your books you're expected to be an expert.
    The cover of "The Tuscany Child" is lovely.

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