Sunday, January 16, 2022

What We're Writing: Jenn Plunders History

I am a plunderer of history. Sorry. Not sorry.

I say this because most of my settings are fictional or a mashup of fact and fiction as I don't want those pesky facts to get in the way of my story. This is one of the many reasons I admire historical novelists (looking at you, Rhys) who just intuitively know how to weave historical facts into their work, making you feel as if you're right there in that moment in time. 

As I sit at my desk in my office, looking at the clownish lovebirds on the birdfeeder outside my window... pause to admire birdies...

...I am debating how to use Arundel Castle in West Sussex as a setting for my mystery solving hat shop duo without actually using the castle itself -- just its history or the bits I want, thank you very much. After much internal debate, I decided to create an adjacent castle, called Waverly Castle but I stuck it in East Sussex and there you go. The original Arundel Castle was founded by the Earl of Arundel, Roger de Montgomery, during the reign of Edward the Confessor so I had Waverly Castle established around the1060's as well, specifically, 1060-ish. I really like to use the "ish" factor in my novels which, again, keeps the annoying details at bay. 

Since I can't book a trip to England and tour Arundel myself for inspiration right now (thanks, pandemic), I have to stick to studying other people's travelogues. If you're a a castle lover, this one is fabulous:

Arundel Castle

I've enjoyed reading up on the history of castles in England -- there are said to be over 4,000. Fascinating and another factoid to work into the manuscript -- yes, of course, I did. 

Here's a snippet of Fatal Fascinator, from its infancy of a first draft -- which feels much like plowing a rocky field in the pouring rain with a horse with an attitude.

Back story: My sleuths are attending a wedding at the castle, that is, until the groom is found murdered. Don't worry. We don't like him. But here my American heroine, Scarlett Parker, learns a little bit about Waverly Castle. I find I like to throw information into dialogue because it's less boring (to me) that way.  

     “Did you know that Waverly Castle was built during the time of Edward the Confessor?” I asked Viv as I re-entered the sitting room.

     “It was established then,” Viv said. “But was nothing like the building we're in now. It was a motte and bailey castle to start with.”

     I thought about pretending to know what she was talking about and just look it up later, but I knew Viv wouldn’t judge me for not knowing the intricacies of castles since, as I mentioned to Harry, we don’t really have that many of them in America. McMansions, sure, but castles not so much.

     “Explain,” I said. 

     “A motte is a raised piece of earth where a wooden keep is built,” Andre said. He entered the sitting room from the opposite bedroom. He had his camera in his hand and was fussing with a lens. “And a bailey is an enclosed courtyard that sits at the base of the motte, also constructed out of wood.”

     I thought about the hill where Harry and I had found the door and realized it must have been the original motte. I wondered if the secret tunnel had been built then, too. “Not exactly a fortress then,” I said.  

     “No, thus making for a lot of raiding and pillaging,” Viv said. “Small wonder our ancestors were always at war. It can’t have been that hard to knock over a wooden fence.”

Arundel Castle - originally a motte and bailey castle

The scene goes on and I weave in more historical facts while twisting the setting to suit my purposes, naturally. I will say this, I am DEFINITELY going to visit Arundel Castle one day, you know, if we're ever allowed to do anything ever again. Sorry, I have the Covid grumpies.

So, how about it Reds and Readers, do you mind if an author plunders history for their own purposes? What line should they not cross? 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

What We're Writing Week - Julia Goes Hunting

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I wish I could come up with a theme for what I'm sharing with you today, like Lucy talking about distinguishing characters and Debs on revealing character with interior design. No, this excerpt from AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY is here because, as we can all testify, it gets hard to share pieces of the work-in-progress without giving something away!

This is a piece that comes at the end of the first act, when I've set up the protagonists, and the problem, and sent them on their journey. This is the point in the manuscript where I like to jump out and yell BOO! to my readers. I confess, the desire to have a shocker after several chapters of sedate sleuthing is what leads to my well-known habit of not having any bodies until a hundred pages into the book. 


When he saw the two men near a makeshift blind, his first reaction was annoyance. A birder had reported hearing firearms discharge in this area, so he had taken the day to check it out, but honestly, any birder who had trekked this far into the Adirondack Park at the beginning of December to knock a few nuthatches off their list couldn't be all that reliable. Although he had spotted a Golden-crowned kinglet when he disturbed a spruce thicket. That was cool.

No, he was annoyed because he'd been enjoying his so-far perfect day in the woods, and now these two were going to get up his nose when he ticketed them. It was one day past deer season, and there were always sports who couldn't get away from the office on Friday and figured it was no big deal to show up on Saturday afternoon instead. These yahoos didn't even have blaze orange on, and he'd have to write them up for that as well. He liked hunting as much as anyone, but rules were rules for a reason, and letting one day slide became one week, and then you had fools trying to harvest deer in January, and likely getting lost and frostbit to boot.

Hey, there, fellas.” He emerged from the brush he'd been using to get the lay of the land and waved. He wasn't worried about them bolting – there was no sign of an ATV anywhere, and neither of the pair looked fit enough to make it more'n a few dozen yards at top speed. Even dirt roads were scarce in this part of the High Peaks - he had left his four-wheel drive over a mile away. “Season ended yesterday, and you're not properly dressed. I'm going to have to see your IDs and hunting licenses.”

They turned, and their rifles came up, and he heard a BOOM-crack and a blow like an oak tree splitting and he tilted over and fell into the leaf mold and the long pine needles and saw the birds, more birds than he would have imagined, fleeing and shrieking into the dimming sky.


Dear readers, I have two questions: do I need to identify this viewpoint character as a NYS Forest Ranger? And should I give him a name? (He is named later on, when the question of what happened to him becomes relevant.)

Friday, January 14, 2022

What We're Writing--Debs on Decor

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been having some fun conversations about building character this week. As writers, we use dialogue and appearance, clothing and mannerisms, but describing a character's environment can also give us clues to a character's makeup. It can also be a lot of fun--and take us down research rabbit holes!

For example, the character in the scene below from A KILLING OF INNOCENTS belongs to a profession from which you'd expect a fair amount of tidiness and reasonably good hygiene, but I imagined that his private life might be quite different, not to mention odd.  I thought he would collect something unexpected and this is what occurred to me:

Kincaid found the light switch and a ceiling fixture threw the room into sharp relief. It took him a moment to sort the visual jumble of too much furniture in too little space, all of it seemingly brown and assembled from flat packs. Two sofas faced each other with a long coffee table squeezed in between. There were piles of newspapers on both, leaving only one clear space where the owner apparently sat. More newspapers were spread across the coffee table, splattered with yellow stains from an empty takeaway container—curry, from the smell.

This, Kincaid had taken in in a glance. It was the rest of the room that held his attention. Cheap book cases filled every available wall space. Their shelves were crammed, not with books, but with pair after pair of china dogs. Two tables on the other side of the room were similarly filled. One dog lay face up on the coffee table, its black painted eyes staring blindly at the ceiling.

“Good god,” breathed Sidana, stepping forward to stand beside him. “What is all this rubbish?”

But Kincaid had moved to the nearest bookcases and was examining the figurines more closely. The paint had faded on many of the dogs. Some were chipped, or cracked and re-glued. The small faces had distinct personalities—even within a pair, there were minute differences. Most were King Charles spaniels, the most common type, but at the end of one shelf Kincaid spied a pair of Dalmatians, rather crudely executed.

Shaking his head, Kincaid turned back to Sidana. “Not rubbish, I don’t think. We have a friend who’s an antiques dealer. I’ve seen similar dogs on his stall once or twice. These are Staffordshire, and I don’t think they’re reproductions. If I’m right, some of them”—he gestured towards the Dalamatians— “are worth a small fortune.”

I knew something about Staffordshire dogs, which were popular in English homes in the first half of the 20th century, but had no idea they were such a thing now! They are indeed very collectible and there are pages and pages of them on Pinterest and Etsy.

But they are also just a bit weird, especially those with the muzzle baskets--they look like little Hannibal Lecters! Perfect for my character!

And then we have something completely different, as Kincaid interviews the first character's neighbor :

He supposed he’d been expecting fussy, or at least cluttered, after the chaos of the downstairs flat. But when he’d knocked, and greeted Wallace the terrier, he was met by something very different indeed.

Light from the street-facing windows filled a sitting room that seemed airy despite its small size. The white walls held a series of bright, contemporary paintings, giving the space a gallery-like feel, and the furniture had been kept neutral so that it didn’t distract from the art. The ceiling was higher than the lower flat, and the kitchen had been opened up to the living area.... 

Kincaid saw that the glass-topped coffee table already held a teapot, two cups, and a plate of biscuits. The teapot and mugs were a deep glossy blue and looked hand thrown. As Kincaid took his cup, he noticed a rather incongruous stack of the Radio Times on the other end of the coffee table.

                                                                        In the Blue Light by Winston Branch

I could see this flat and its paintings so clearly in my imagination, but here's the fun part. I'd decided that this flat's owner was a retired appraiser for the famous auction house Christie's, and when I took a little look at Christie's website, what popped up in their catalogue but absolutely gorgeous paintings by an artist named Winston Branch. I'd never heard of Branch, or seen his work, but his painting were exactly what I'd visualized when I was describing the room.

                                                                                        Sunrise on Bodega Bay by Winston Branch

I love it when art imitates life. I did attribute the paintings to Branch, later in the scene.

Readers, do these little excerpts tell you something about these two characters? 

P.S. For the spoiler-averse, I've snipped out the characters' names.