Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Living in the Past

RHYS BOWEN: I write two mystery series that are both set in the past. This should make the research challenging as I can't go back in time to check things out.... or can I?

My Royal Spyness books take place in a world with which I'm quite familiar. I'm not saying that life for the upper class in England hasn't changed since the Thirties. One only had to see Prince William putting his child's car seat into the Land Rover and then driving himself away from the hospital to realize that modern royals want to do things for themselves. But when I was growing up the older generation spoke and acted like the characters in my books. I sat in drawing rooms that were cold and drafty with one fireplace miles from the nearest arm chair.  Then I married into a family with funny nick names and stories about past grandeur (they used to own Sutton Place, plus several other grand houses). There is a family legend that my father-in-law said to a cousin who wanted to marry someone who owned a shop "No trade in the family. I forbid it."  He drove an aged Daimler and his generation came from a time when they still had servants to do everything. 

When I was at college I met girls who had never got themselves a glass of water before leaving home. I also had a friend whose brother dated Princess Anne. So lots of good insights to the upper class way of thinking.  As far as the physical research--Lady Georgie's London home is in Belgravia which really hasn't changed much. I love to walk around the St. James part of London and poke into shops that have been there since Victorian times--gentlemen's outfitters, chemists with strange concoctions in the window, musty bookshops and of course Fortnum and Mason. So it's easy to go back in time if I can blot out the roar of the current London traffic.

Recently I was lucky enough to encounter an extra special way of bringing my 1930s to life--I met my friend Dinah...an English woman who spends the winter months like me in Arizona and she collects vintage clothing. When I say 'collects' that is an understatement. She has rooms full of 1930s tea gowns, drawer of cloche hats, gloves, shoes. Every year she goes to Napier, New Zealand, to attend an Art Deco week in which the year 1931 is recreated with picnics, dances, vintage car parades and everyone in authentic period costume.

So now when I want to know what someone in my books would wear for a particular occasion I rush to Dinah, who produces the outfit and lets me try it on. At a fashion show last spring I modeled an authentic velvet cape and shoes for my "come as your character" presentation. The shoes were super comfortable too.

For my other series, the Molly Murphy books, I'm equally lucky. Parts of New York haven't changed much since the early 1900s. I chose a house for my heroine on Patchin Place in New York and got an email from the man who lives there now, complete with lots of photographs he'd taken  of the interior and back garden. I go to New York and walk the streets Molly walked. I sit in Pete's tavern and realize that Molly wouldn't have been allowed inside. And sometimes I get a complete gift of insight: like the time I attended the feast of San Genaro in Little Italy. Mulberry Street was lined with booths with hissing kerosene lamps, strings of colored lights, smells of garlic and great coils of sausage cooking. And the crowd was channeled between the booths--the noise level was incredible, bouncing back from those high tenements. This is how it was, I thought (only a little cleaner under foot now). And then halfway down the street I came to a tent with the words "Freak Show. See the snake woman. 50 cents.) I really thought I had been transported back in time. What a gift.

And of course I set my books in places like Nice and Paris, so I've had to endure brutal research trips to those places--slaving away checking out all the bistros and wine bars and fashion stores. What we writers do for our art!

Attention: Coming tomorrow! Susan Elia McNeal of Mr. Churchill's Secretary fame. Susan will be giving away a copy of her new book to the best comment of the day!
And Rhys will be giving away a copy of Heirs and Graces at the end of the week to her favorite comment of the week. So visit often and join in the chat. 


  1. I think it’s fascinating that, even in this age of computers and cell phones and what not, your friend Dinah has found a place where 1931 still lives, even if only for a week . . . and what is it about vintage clothing and accessories that is so appealing?

  2. Wonderful experiences, Rhys. I'm plotting a new historical mystery series, with the protagonist living in my house! And with John Greenleaf Whittier, who lived a few blocks away and attended the same Friends Meeting as I do now, as a minor character. Really fun to delve into the history of my town (Carriage Capital of the World in the late 1800s...). I love your Molly series (but have yet to catch up with the Royal Spyness - on my list!).

    My captcha is "oldlie" - how did they know?

  3. What wonderful stories Rhys.

    I am thinking that I need to find a way to require that I travel to all the places in the books I read for the blog. You know, as a way to ensure that the author got the feeling of the place correct? Think that will fly as a tax write-off. LOL.

    BTW Rhys, LOVING Heirs and Graces. Review coming next week.

  4. What is it about PAris? Everyone looks WONDERFUL>..what do you make of it?

    And such fun to see all the glam clothing..oh, Rhys, you are so brave to do such difficult research!

    LOVE Susan MacNeal..she's wonderful, and her books are terrific! (And do you know how she's married to? :-) )

    Hmm...wonder what historians will say about OUR clothes?

  5. Okay, I'll bite... who IS Susan MacNeal married to? I so enjoyed Mr. Churchills Secretary.

    Absolutely fascinating, Rhys. I had no idea what a checkered past you have. But I can believe it given how true your writing rings.

    I have a 20s gown (bias cut peach colored satin) and a matching cape that I used to haul out and wear for special occasions. I was thrilled when my daughter wore the dress to her prom. Now I guess I should write a book set in the 20s.

    Rhys I want to hear more about the shoes...

  6. The shoes, Hallie?
    They were two tone soft leather, lined with light leather and with little heels. Although they were very pointed they were actually comfortable and looked almost new.

    The thing that strikes me about all the clothing is the quality of the workmanship. Underslips embroidered to match a dress,tiny pleats and tucks, all exquisite and I presume hand made.

  7. Clothing made with care, using the best materials -- that is what attracts us to vintage. I could look at the Downton Abbey clothing for hours -- the lovely lines, the subtle colors, the bits of lace, pleats.

    Comfortable attractive shoes! Where do they sell them?

    Thank you, Rhys. I have only read one of your books, so maybe I should win the new one!

  8. I LOVE the Royal Spyness series. And I so want to go to Fortnum & Mason.

    Laura G.

  9. What fun to be able to try on dresses that Her Royal Spyness might wear!

    The thing I always wondered about was the tedium of changing clothes two or three times a day (or was it more?) and requiring your lady's maid to help you every step of the way. Strikes me that the lady's maids knew their ladies better than anyone.

  10. Oh, Rhys, what fun you have! I've never written about the upper classes in my novels, as it's completely foreign to me. Maybe I should put some minor royals in a book and have you give me tips--and nicknames for them.

    It may have been nice to have servants to do things for you (I could use a few of those), but otherwise I've always thought English upper class life sounded stultifyingly dull, especially for women. Unless, of course, you are Georgie!

    LOVED Heirs and Graces!

  11. Fascinating, Rhys, but I have to say I can never think of you in relation to clothing without thinking of that hilarious scene where Georgie puts both legs in one side of culottes--and then finding out it was told from (ahem) personal experience.

  12. I love the look of women's clothing from the 20's and 30's. How did they do that? Magic undergarments? Oh well. Things draped so beautifully. Envy, envy, envy. I am anxiously awaiting Georgie's latest adventure.

  13. I saw pictures of the French apartment. It was absolutely breath taking.

    Rhys, are the sizes on the 30's dresses the same? I am a huge fan of Her Royal Spyness, and just got a Molly book and the details are so terrific. I appreciate your attention to detail and the sacrifice you had to make to go to Paris and Nice to research your facts.

  14. Rhys, my husband occasionally asks me why I set my new series in Brooklyn, where we actually live, instead of Paris. Or Nice. You planned this much better than I did!

  15. How I admire people who suffer for their art, Rhys!!

    Knowing that you've experienced cold and drafty living explains to me why I shiver when I read your descriptions of what Georgie endures at her brother's home. Brrr! Have you eaten the horrid food that she complains about?

    (There's no grandeur in my family's past but there are a LOT of funny nicknames:-)

    I love Susan Elia Macneal's books and look forward to her presence on JRW tomorrow!

  16. Rhys, I would love to play dress-up with the vintage clothing. I bet you had a wonderful time dressing as your character. Your research sounds wonderfully fun.

  17. I appreciate that you write about what/where you know, so that those of us who have no clue about such times and places can come to know and love them also.