Sunday, September 17, 2017

"You Know My Methods, Watson!" Murder, Historically Speaking with M.R. Graham

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Welcome to ThrillWriting!

It's not so "elementary, Watson," when it comes to writing a historical mystery.

I know a lot of would-be historical writers are daunted by research and have no idea where to begin, but that's something I do in academia, so I can shed some light on process and resources.

And of course, the importance of pretty rigorous research when you're messing with social issues. For example, there are still strong ties between poverty and crime, and even stronger PERCEPTION of the ties between poverty and crime, and it gets really sensitive.

Fiona - 
Let's start there - can you give me a your background as it pertains to preparing to write a historical novel?


I'm actually in education and anthropology, not specifically history, but research methods between the two are extremely similar. 

I've taught college students how to conduct research of the library-and-journal variety, without putting too much faith in shallow, often questionable sources like Wikipedia. Working in academia, you realize pretty quickly how little a Wikipedia article really tells you, even if all of the facts are totally accurate. They don't provide context, and they rarely provide conflicting interpretations of theories or events. They're overviews, and that's okay, because that's all they're supposed to be. But that's not enough for someone who wants to portray a complex and nuanced culture, whether in another place or another time. 

The past really is another culture. People thought differently than we do, now, in a lot more subtle and varied ways than the "everyone was a bigot" or "it's all about manners" portrayals we often get. I do recommend at least a cursory study of anthropology for historical fiction writers, just to get a feel for the ways one culture CAN differ from another, things that are so ingrained in our way of thinking that we assume they're human nature, when they're actually learned attitudes.

Fiona -
You have a book that's been included in the Murder and Mayhem boxed set. Can you tell me about that book and how you applied your unique expertise to the plot line?

M.R. - 

Absolutely. My contribution is titled No Cage for a Crow, and while it's historical fiction, it's also more specifically pastiche, placed in Victorian London, directly into the world of Sherlock Holmes. 

This one has actually been in the works for about twenty-five years, now, and it's the first story I ever began, so the research for it has been going since before I really knew what research was. (I was rather small, twenty-five years ago.) A lot of it was just mounded-up knowledge I collected without rhyme or reason, and unsurprisingly, the story went nowhere fast. 

Sadly, a lot of it also came from historical fiction I read as a teenager, and I've had to un-learn a lot of things I thought I knew. It was about ten years ago that I actually got methodical about it, and from that point, the writing has become easier, and the history sounder. All research starts with a question, and the one I chose was "Where are all the women in Sherlock Holmes's world?" Now of course, there are women mentioned. An awful lot of them come to Holmes for help. There's Mrs. Hudson downstairs. There's Irene Adler. But Doyle's work is overwhelmingly masculine. I always meant to write about Sherlock Holmes's sister, but I honestly didn't know what that kind of story would look like. 

I needed to know what was going on with the other half of the population. 

It may sound counter intuitive, but I actually turned to fiction, first. It's important to note, though, that I turned to fiction written BY women DURING the period I was interested in - people who ought to know what they're talking about. As I read, I made notes every time I didn't understand something: a word I didn't know, or a reference to a person or event. The list came out to several composition notebooks full. And I took the time to look up every one of them. Wikipedia was perfectly useful for this part. If anything sounded really significant, like something real people would have strong feelings about, I took the inquiry to Google Scholar, which is a great free resource everyone should know how to use. GS has lots of primary-source accounts, like archived letters, diaries, newspaper articles... the things that would tell you how people felt.

Fiona - 
And you picked a time frame that appealed to you. What called to you about the Victorian age and what did you discover that you found intriguing enough to weave into your plot?

M.R. - 
I was always drawn to the Victorian age. At first it was just because my grandmother was obsessed with it and talked about it constantly, but the more I found out, the more fascinated I became with the sudden, rapid change. It was the first time in history that the end of a decade could look dramatically different from the beginning, in terms of technology and social change. It threw people for a loop, even then. People suddenly had to learn how to use new technology, when for millennia, everyone had used basically the same stuff their parents had. 

And people were suddenly granted rights, denied privileges, starting to move up and down the social ladder, and no one knew how to deal with it. I have a radical suffragist in my story, as well as some social climbing and social plummeting, which really upset what had previously been a rigid class system. 

People at the time pretended the class system was still rigid, even though it wasn't! And part of the way they fooled themselves was to link class to morality. In the middle ages, there was a strong concept of the virtuous peasant, someone who did his job and worked hard and never complained unless there was a famine or something. By the Victorian age, this idea had developed of a strong division between the "deserving poor" and the "criminal poor". Of course there are some good poor people, but most of the poor are where they are because they're intellectually and morally inferior! It was widely believed that there was something genetically criminal about the poor, and something genetically noble about the nobility. (Unsurprising that the English language links wealth with honor.) Looking back at actual court records, it's actually more likely that the nobility were pretty skeevy, just rarely convicted.

Fiona -
Absolutely fascinating! I am hungry to read you novel, but am also hungry to look at your research notes. When my children were little they read the Magic Tree House Series and there was a novel with an accompanying factual book - just throwing that out there.

We have a tradition of asking about your favorite scar or harrowing story - will you indulge us?

M.R. - 
None of my scars have interesting stories, sadly! (I face-planted off a bus, once?) My most harrowing adventure was my senior trip. My mom took me and my grandmother and my little sister to Italy, but we routed through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. And while we were there, my grandmother's nose started bleeding and would not stop. We didn't know why, and we couldn't continue on to Italy. She was taken to the indigent hospital, which apparently is where you go if you're foreign. It's also in a part of town where the taxi refused to take us! It took us ages to get there after her, and then we had to get a hotel room in this part of town where taxis won't go. Long story short, we were stuck in a very scary part of Paris for three days, not knowing why my grandmother wouldn't clot. The hospital staff was wonderful, though. Incredibly kind. I no longer let anyone claim the French are rude when I can hear them.

Fiona - 
I've been to that hospital. The ambulance took an American girl to the hospital because she was bleeding out. They asked me to go and translate. When we got to the first hospital, the doctors stopped the bleeding but said we had to go to the other hospital. They had her on a gurney with an IV, pushed her out the door, and drew a map on how to get there. I pushed this chick - whom, I never met before, down the road, with cars passing and everything--the IV dangling from one of my hands--in the not so nice part of the city. I was terrified. I'm mean - what the bloody heck? LOL But it was lovely once we arrived, and the hospital staff took good care of her.

Before we give them a blurb of your wonderful work as an individual novel, folks should note that this work is coming out soon in a fabulous boxed set!

M.R. -
I can't believe how fortunate I've been to have the chance to work with the great authors in this set. These are some big names, some I've admired from afar for a while, and having had the chance to preview the work they'll be including, I think everyone ought to be as excited about it as I am.

ThrillReaders and ThrillWriters, it's been my pleasure to get to know 
M.R. while working on our boxed set Murder and Mayhem. We would very much appreciate your support. Could you take a moment and order our boxed set? 99 CENTS for 20 Books - all by award winning, authors including USA Today and NY Times bestselling authors. We are hoping to make the lists with this set and every single sale is appreciated. Thank you! (HERE)
 but his sister was lost to history. In one hellish night, Morrigan Holmes ruined everything: her home, her family, her confidence, and her name. Fleeing scandal, loss, and grief, her only choice is to run, but London’s gaslit streets are not kind to young women alone. Within hours, she discovers the horrors of homelessness and the terrible invisibility of the marginalised poor. A child is kidnapped before her eyes, and she barely escapes the same fate. Adrift and alone, Morrigan seeks help in strange quarters: a radical suffragist with a haunted past, a half-blind journalist, a sinister physician, and a gang of street boys led by the striking and enigmatic Magpie. As the number of kidnappings grows, something dark begins to take shape in the London mists. Time is short, still Morrigan cannot escape the family she devastated. Could Sherlock be her salvation… or her destruction?

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