Whenever I’m at a bookstore, library, book club, or literary luncheon, there are a few questions I get asked with frequency. One might even say clockwork. I never mind answering them because each audience is new and they really do want to know the answers. And so I will share some of them here, and you’ll have a jump on the next audience when I make an appearance in your town.
I’ve put together five and we’ll start with the fifth most asked question.
It took me a while. Fourteen years, all told. But think about when I started. I had it in my head to embark on a career as a novelist way back in 1992. Back then, it was a lot harder—not impossible—but a lot harder to research the publishing industry and to network with other authors. The internet as we know it was in its infancy. The latter turned out to be the most important, that bit about networking. I’d always been a lone wolf. Having a career previously as a graphic artist meant a lot of working alone time before you met with clients to sell your designs. So I was used to writing alone. But also, I was writing the wrong thing. I was writing historical novels, and the kind of historicals I wanted to write were not the kind that editors wanted to buy (I mean, let’s face it. I wasn’t writing about the Tudors!) I didn’t like to concentrate on the kings and queens of England, but on fictional average people in extraordinary circumstances. After writing about twelve or so historical novels, I discovered that my choice of subject matter translated much better into mystery. After all, an average person, or a person such as Crispin who was forced to be an average bloke, could be an effective detective while moving through the different levels of society with relative impunity.
Time had marched on by then, and once I decided to switch to mystery, I discovered a world of other authors, indie bookstores, conventions, and professional organizations dedicated to mysteries that would help me limp along. I was no longer writing in a vacuum. It took me two years to develop Crispin Guest and the whole “medieval noir” milieu. Once I had that down and got in with my critique group of other historical mystery authors, things moved much more quickly and I was able to land my (fourth) agent and in two years get that contract from a big New York publisher.
4. Do I have a research assistant to do the research for me? And Bonus question, how long does it take you to write a book?
This first question stems from two factors. Number one, readers think that authors make lots and lots of money. They don’t. In genre fiction, like mysteries, it takes at least five books out there on bookshelves (or more) before an author can even start to make a profit, and most of us still don’t make enough to live on. That’s because, for the majority of authors, mystery authors that is, we just don’t sell enough books in enough numbers. Oh, you will always see mysteries and thrillers on the bestseller lists, but you will also notice that you see the same names over and over again, with few new additions. That’s because bestselling authors sell themselves at this point, whether that product is up to snuff or not. And a medieval mystery is not one of them. (There are the exceptions. If a well-known historical author decides to write an historical mystery, it is likely to get on the bestseller list because that audience is already primed.)
And number two, many readers think that researching is very hard and requires assistance. It isn’t and it doesn’t. In fact, if I had someone to do that work for me, I would miss out on some very interesting tidbits that one comes across by only by doing the reading oneself and scouring the footnotes. These are little items that get into my stories because they tickle my fancy. I don’t know if that is something that a research assistant would even ever show the author/client unless they knew each other well and recognized the sort of quirks that would interest the author.
But the fact is that I simply can’t afford a research assistant, or any kind of assistant for that matter. And I enjoy research. If you’re going to write historicals you’d better darn well enjoy snooping through dusty archives, chasing a trail down on the internet, or walking the stacks in a university library, because that’s what you’ll be spending a lot of time on doing.
Which brings us to the bonus question: How long does it take to write a book? If I were writing historical novels, I could take three years or so. But because I am writing mysteries—a series with a detective who returns for book after book—I have to produce a book a year. That keeps the readers reading and garners more readers when there is another chapter in the hero’s story to look forward to. Currently, because I am working on two books a year in two different series, I had to up the pace. But I still take one to two months of solid research time before I write one word. I’m pretty well up on the fourteenth century by now, the period that my novels take place, but there are always bits here and there, points of politics, real people I need to research, religious relics which play a prominent role in each book, and other bits I need to know about.
While I’m doing that, I develop the chapter by chapter outline of the book. Because I can’t afford to waste time staring at a blank computer screen, I find that I have to outline these days so I know exactly where the story is going each day I sit down at my keyboard. I try to keep to a schedule of writing at least ten pages a day, or about 3,000 words. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but trust me, it is. Theoretically, if one sticks to that schedule every day, you will have a first draft by the end of the month. It doesn’t really work out that way for me. I find that I sometimes have to stop and research something else, or need to walk away from it, or have an appearance to make that day.
I like to write from about 9 am to about 3 pm. Sometimes I write later into the evening if I’m on a roll, but it’s fairly mentally exhausting and when I meet my goal for the day, I’m done. I find I get my first draft (which is sort of a misnomer because I’ve been editing and rewriting a bit along the way) in more like three months. Then I rewrite, give it to my husband to read (he reads all my work and comments. Every novel is dedicated to him) and also send it off to my beta readers—that same online critique group I started with all those years ago—and await their judgment, rewrite again from their suggestions, and then send it off to my agent—who might offer a few more suggestions for changes as well before he sends it to my editor.
No, he really isn’t. For those who aren’t familiar with the novels, Crispin Guest was once a knight and lord in the court of King Edward III, serving his liege lord John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. When King Edward died, his son and heir, Edward of Woodstock (also known as the Black Prince) was already dead. That left his ten-year-old son to inherit the throne. There was talk about usurping the line of succession and putting Gaunt on the throne instead, and Crispin unwisely chose to throw in his lot with those fellows. The treasonous plot was uncovered in time, and all the other knights in the conspiracy were executed. Only Crispin was spared because of the pleas of his (innocent) mentor, Gaunt. Crispin’s life may have been spared, but all else was taken from him: his titles, his wealth, his status, everything that defined him. He had to reinvent himself on the streets of London as the “Tracker”, an investigator of crimes and finder of lost objects.
Except for his arrogant attitude, which is based on me, he is made up of whole cloth. He’s a bit of this and that. The dark broodiness of a Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, a bit of Errol Flynn in all those swash-buckling movies I loved, the cleverness and street smarts of Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which is also where the idea for the relics and venerated objects comes from that populate the series), and a bit of that brave, clever man we all have in our imaginations. Throw in a dash of angst, something in his nature that makes female readers want to “save” him, and you’ve got an interesting character with an intricate enough backstory that can make him a long-lived character.
2. Will the guy on the book cover be at the book launch?
I know this question is always asked with a dash of humor tinged with hope. No, the model on the cover will not be at my book launches…unless he chooses to come! I don’t actually know who he is. The book covers are designed by Steve Gardner from PixelWorks Studio in Sisters, Oregon. A model was hired by my publisher, he was put in the correct costume (with even the right colors!) and shot in a plethora of different poses. Then he is digitally placed in different backgrounds by the art department at St. Martin’s to conform to whatever subject matter is in the books. I love them. They are dynamic and different for this kind of book, mostly because these novels are a bit different from the average medieval mystery. My character Crispin Guest is a private eye. He just lives in a time when that was an unheard of profession.
UPDATE: Actually, the answer to this question is different this year (2014) because we just got done shooting new covers for a prequel I am self-publishing called CUP OF BLOOD. And so this year, our new model has graciously agreed to come to the book launch (July 26, 2014 at Vroman's Bookstore) and offer you a photo op.
And the number one asked question of any writer:
I suppose some readers who can never imagine writing a story themselves think that writing a novel is a magical thing. And I admit, it is, rather. But because I’ve always written stories, even before I knew how to read and write (there’s where my sister became my assistant, so I suppose I did have one once.), it is second nature to me.
The whole idea of Crispin and this series developed, as I said, over a two-year period. I knew if I was to write a mystery that it would be a series with the same protagonist throughout. So therefore, the hero had to be someone compelling enough for a reader to follow in book after book. And the books couldn’t be by rote every time. You certainly don’t want to get formulaic. I added the relics or venerated objects to add something extra, something that would propel the plot forward, something everyone wanted to get their hands on or couldn’t wait to get rid of. Would they have the mystical qualities that everyone said they possessed? Crispin would remain a cynic, but he would be changed by these objects and his adventures, because to remain static under the extreme circumstances in which he found himself would be a disservice not only to the readers, but to the character as well.
Crispin also has a sidekick, an apprentice. Now I never intended to have him in the story this long. He was going to appear in the first one and then disappear, but everyone liked him so much—my beta readers, my agent, my editor—that Jack Tucker—cutpurse street urchin, thief, and eleven-year-old orphan when we first meet him in Veil of Lies—that he became a permanent fixture in Crispin’s life. Which turned out to be a good thing, because he is a foil to Crispin’s poor attitude about his circumstances and a helpmate when it comes to investigating. He also grows up as the series progresses and we see him seasoning Crispin in his own maturing.
Where do ideas come from? A lot come from that “what if” factor. What if a disgraced knight were to try to make a living on the mean streets of fourteenth century London? What would he do? How would he cope? How does he reconcile who he once was to who he is now? And what happens when any particular religious relic falls into his hands? What sort of power does it have? How does it spin the story? Will it become very important to the plot or just a McGuffin, a side note? Will he fall in love? And with whom? What will prevent that love? Or not? When you build a fictional life, you come up with more questions than answers, and that turns out to be a good thing. It creates endless possibilities and lots more novels for readers to enjoy.