Writing Medieval Mysteries
The pleasures of reading were introduced to me early in life. My mother always spoke of getting "lost in adventure." And she was right. When our eyes track words on a page, our brains transport us somewhere else, into the minds of these characters and on to rich Manhattan apartments or lowly alleyways, slick with the darkness of wretched souls.
When I sat down and decided to write novels for a living some fourteen years ago, there was little decision to be made. I would write historical fiction. Why? Let's go back a bit.
Childhood is filled with games and toys. Sure, I had plenty of those. But our house was also filled with books. Before I could read, I "wrote" stories with my crayons, creating my own graphic novels with animal protagonists who had their own adventures.
When I could read, our shelves were crammed with interesting lore, mostly about the Middle Ages. Both parents were rabid Anglophiles, and I learned to appreciate history from the shelves as well as dinner table discussions.
So again, when the time came to write novels there was no choice for me but to pen historical fiction. I wanted to research particular things in a particular place in time. I wanted to surround myself with the feel of that distant era and bring it alive in all its piquant scents and the rustle of heavy fabric. I wanted the dim view of rooms through the glow of a candle and see through the eyes of someone with a different set of mores and customs. I wanted to taste the wine and smell the smoke.
My mind was firmly in that distant place, not on writing mysteries at all. Mysteries came later by necessity. The historical fiction market is a small one. And it's tough to break into it. I don't have degrees, I don't speak languages, I'm not a scholar, just an interested amateur. In other words, I had no platform from which to sell myself. And perhaps the kind of historical fiction I liked to write—a bit offbeat, with characters who never saw the inside of a palace—were not the sorts of things editors were cottoning on to. In any case, after ten years of little literary success, a former agent recommended I switch to medieval mystery, the mystery market being a more wide open avenue.
Sure, I liked mysteries, particularly the Brother Cadfael medieval mystery series by Ellis Peters, but could I write a mystery? But more to the point, did I want to? The idea percolated. I wasn't sure I could write a mystery. But I hadn't tried before. It was going to take some research. Who would my protagonist be? I didn't want to write about a monk or a nun. I knew I wanted some action, some adventure in my novels. And then the idea that I could write a private eye character and place him in a medieval setting began to intrigue me. What if I took that further? What if I took a hard-boiled PI and put him in the Middle Ages? Now we were getting somewhere. Something unique was forming. Something I could be eager to write. Something familiar in the historical sense and equally familiar in the hard-boiled crime I also liked to read. The idea of Crispin as a disgraced knight with all the angst that went with it sprung forth as a whole creature. I knew who he was instantly. And the more research I did into the period of the early years of Richard II's reign, the more ideas for his backstory flowed out.
So now I had a protagonist, I had a time period, but how to write a mystery?
I took my cue from the hard-boiled fiction I loved so well. The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade became my guide as did the works of Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald. Dorothy Hughes gave me some noir strokes to take the storylines darker. And that's when I knew I had my own brand-new subgenre: Medieval Noir.
I took apart The Maltese Falcon, studied books about pulp fiction and who were the original consumers of this trade (blue collar men) and why did they read them? What were some of the elements in these stories? What did they have in common? I could use these elements, either subtly or not-so-subtly, in my series. Finally, after two years, I developed this cross-pollination of medieval mystery with hard-boiled fiction and wrote the first in the series. I shopped it and found one agent and began on the second book. Never having written a series before I was anxious to see if I could write a second!
When the first agent didn't turn out to be so hot, I found another. We shopped the first Crispin Guest novel all over the U.S. Meanwhile, I finished Crispin Number Two and Three.
After a year and a half, we both came to the sad conclusion that Crispin Number One was dead in the water. Fortunately, when I embarked on my mystery path, I joined Sisters in Crime, an international organization of mystery writers and mystery lovers. The online list kept you in touch with aspiring writers and published authors. One could ask questions and get encouraging responses back. I learned that often the first in a series doesn't get sold and one should write the second one with the idea that it might very well become the first in the series. And this is what I did. So when the first was put to bed, Veil of Lies became the new Number One. By this time, I had had one more novel written in the series, bringing the total to four (including the now defunct first one).
I was looking for the kind of distribution a big New York press could give my book, and was disappointed when St. Martin's turned the first one down. Again, I had done my homework and I felt St. Martin's would be the best home for my medieval noir series. It wasn't until I had finally delivered Veil to my agent, that he called me to tell me that an editor at St. Martin's who had rejected the first book almost eighteen months earlier, called him out of the blue to see if I had anything else in that series since he "couldn't get those characters out of his head." With manuscript in hand and barely read, he sent it off the St. Martin's and in two weeks, we had a deal. Number two, Serpent in the Thorns, will be released next year by St. Martin's. And it only took fourteen years!
I was glad I was steered toward historical mystery. It opened a whole world of possibilities I had never considered before. I can now stand with the rest of these fine authors of medieval mystery and offer something unique to the mix.
Read more about Veil of Lies at www.JeriWesterson.com