Author Jeri Westerson has been writing historical fiction for a while. She loves to write medieval mysteries with an “enigmatic, flawed, sexy, and very different protagonist” called Crispin Guest who is “a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London”. Sounds like a great premise for a series!
Jeri has graciously agreed to be interviewed.
Why do you write historical fiction? I was surrounded by history at an early age. Both parents were rabid Anglophiles and the books on our shelves at home were filled with history texts as well as historical fiction. It was dinner table conversation. So naturally, when it came time to write my own novels they were going to be historical, and medieval English historical at that.
Why choose mystery in a medieval setting? I spent some years writing historical fiction novels and sending them off to agents and publishers and amassing volumes of rejections. It seemed that the kind of historicals I liked to write weren’t the kind editors wanted to buy. But it translated very well into a mystery setting. I preferred to create my fiction around the everyday person, not the nobility or court politics, and publishers seemed to prefer the opposite. So my medieval mystery protagonist was a knight and lord but lost it all and was forced to live on the mean streets of London among people he used to look down upon.
You have successfully published five medieval mystery novels. What do you think attracts readers to your books? It’s all about character, and the Crispin Guest character—my disgraced knight turned detective—is very appealing, both to men and women. He lost his knighthood, his lands, his wealth, all the things that defined him as a man, and had to re-invent himself, create a new career that would satisfy his intense sense of honor and justice. He found he was good at using his wits, his logic, to find lost objects, and hired himself out as a “private sheriff” known as the Tracker. And, of course, he stumbles onto murder and uses his wiles and his skills as a warrior to track down killers, no matter their rank.
Men find this sort of character attractive in that they can relate to him and his angst about who he is and finding his place in the world, and women find him attractive in that they want to save him from his troubles. That and the twisty mysteries, the chase for the religious relics or venerated objects that show up in each book, and the exciting adventures do, I hope, entertain and engage readers.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Since each book features a religious relic or venerated object, I start my research there. Invariably, each novel also features a real person and political intrigue of the court, and so that gets my attention and time. And since this is a series mystery, I have to produce a book a year. That means I have to get on the research right away, giving myself only about a month or two of solid research time before I begin writing. Then I develop the outline, and continue researching while I write. It’s not ideal but it works for me.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I started reading historicals at an early age, possibly too young to quite understand all the political and sexual references in the books. Nora Lofts, Thomas B. Costain, Anya Seton…I was raised on those guys. I went through my medieval period and then regency period, and then back to medieval. Then later Dorothy Dunnett and Cecelia Holland became favorites. And as for mystery, I found Ellis Peters and discovered a whole new world combining medieval and mystery. We medieval mystery writers owe our debt to Ellis Peters.
They opened these worlds, these eras to my mind’s eye. That is the point of writing historically, I think. To make it accessible to the reader.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? The love of research and the ability to weave it into engaging fiction, with a dash of spice and a dollop of surprise. I think we’re lucky, really, because our story is already out there; the history. And because I am writing a series that can span many years, I have a real timeline of history to follow that I simply hang my fiction upon. It’s like a cheat sheet.
Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? Oh, yes. It was all deliberate from the start. From devising my “Medieval Noir” subgenre of mashing hardboiled detective fiction with a medieval setting, to the relics that show up in each book, to the dash of spice (Crispin is a sexy beast), and the dollop of surprise in my often unexpected twists of plot. I even have a set number of books in the series all doled out in my mind. I know how the series will end and I know a lot of the storylines of many of the future books in that series. I’m a planner.
How do you select new stories to tell? Well, as I said, I have a set number of books in mind and each book starting from the third book on is a year later in Crispin’s life. So I often use the history as my guide. I set the books in the late fourteenth century when Richard II was king and Geoffrey Chaucer was at his peak and that opened up a score of ideas for subplots and twists. Then the relic or venerated object either presents itself to the storytelling or I choose one I want to write about, and away we go. Crispin’s story and backstory also come into play, so there are layers and layers going on.
What advantages do you think come from writing a series around the character Crispin Guest? Any disadvantages? The advantages are many. I already know all of his backstory and his future story, so I just need ways to tell it. When I was writing historicals that weren’t mysteries, they were standalone books. Once I typed “The End” I knew I would never see those characters again. So when I sat down to create my mystery series, I was a bit intimidated because I had never written a series before and I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know that I would want to return time and again to the same characters and setting. It became a challenge and so I wrote the first three books in succession without worrying about getting a publisher because I had to know if I could write a series and enjoy doing it. It turned out I love it! With a series you are writing the longest novel ever! Their nuances of character can and must change over the course of the series. Just like real people Crispin has to learn from his mistakes and experiences. It helps him mature and because he also is essentially raising a child (Jack Tucker, an orphaned cutpurse he takes in, rather reluctantly, when the boy is eleven years old) we see how Jack seasons Crispin’s life, how Crispin sees life differently through Jack’s eyes and how their situation changes for both of them as Jack grows up.
The disadvantages are that I have to keep coming up with more stories and avoid the pitfalls of a long-lived series. I can’t get formulaic; I can’t allow it to be phoned in. Each one has to be as exciting and as interesting as the last one. It’s a challenge worth taking up.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I never used to outline and now I find I must, not only because I must make certain that I never face a blank screen, but because I am now a “woman of a certain age” and if I don’t write my brilliant idea down right away it disappears! Outlining is a blessing and a curse. I now spend several months outlining before I start to write, which is annoying. Some writers hate outlining because they claim it kills the spontaneity in their prose, though I don’t find that to be the case. An outline is not etched in stone (at least mine aren’t) and if something inspires me along the way—as it always does—then I feel free to veer away from that outline and go in a different direction. The last book I wrote (the sixth in the series called SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST to be released next fall), I discovered as I began writing the novel that the outline was in the wrong order. I switched it all around, but still found it a helpful guide to keep me on track.
I’m also writing a second medieval series that I hope to sign with a publisher soon, and if I don’t have an outline I can’t keep on writing productively day in and day out. I have a tight schedule to keep and that outline helps me do it.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? Oh, yes. The “Jeri Westerson” brand writes medieval mysteries. When someone picks up a book with my name on it, they should know what they are going to get. They will get a taut adventure with intriguing characters with full lives—secrets, dreams, heartaches, guilt—and a mystery to solve, along with a good dose of the history of the people and times. It’s often a dark story where, just because the murderer is found, doesn’t necessarily make life better for anyone. Hence the “Medieval Noir” moniker.
What do you do to connect with readers? My blog Getting Medieval is a magazine of history and mystery, reporting on medieval news (oh, yes, there is always news about new finds and new discoveries) and the mystery and writing community, as well as my own wanderings and shenanigans. Then I participate on a group blog of mystery authors called Poe’s Deadly Daughters. And then Crispin has his own blog on my website where he puts down his thoughts about this and that. I spend a lot of time (maybe too much) on Facebook (it’s under Crispin Guest’s name) chatting with readers and new fans and I use Twitter perhaps not enough. I also make a lot of appearances throughout the year, not just when a new book comes out. You can find me at libraries and other venues discussing all sorts of medieval topics and I always tote my medieval weaponry around with me, giving short demos. There is nothing quite like watching a pudgy middle-aged woman swinging a sword around! Since my latest book BLOOD LANCE concerns jousting, I talk about knighthood and chivalry and sometimes have a powerpoint presentation with visuals to go along with my talk. I enjoy hands-on research, too, and so I got myself suited up into armor, on a war horse, and also took a longsword fighting lesson. It’s all documented in my presentation.
What do you know about your readers? I know they are from all walks of life, men as well as women, which can be unusual for a mystery but not so much with an historical. I know men are interested in history and like getting history with their mystery. They are bright and supportive and very generous with their time. I have some male young adult readers as well (I think the covers draw them in. They feature my medieval detective in some heroic poses and it looks a bit like a video game cover. They come for the covers and stay for the story.)
What data do you collect about your readers? I can’t say that I collect data in the sense that Google or Facebook does. I do notice through some data and from emails that I have fans in other countries. My books have been translated, so far, into French, Russian, and Polish, but there are many readers in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, for example.
What strategies guide your writing career? Just to keep writing engaging books and getting my name out there however I can, whether by personal appearances or by articles I write and place in industry magazines. For instance, Kirkus Review just included BLOOD LANCE in their Top 10 Crime Reads for Colder Days. Being with a big New York publisher has its perks but it’s still difficult getting recognition when you write a subgenre like a medieval mystery. It’s not for everyone. Some readers are intimidated by the “medieval” part, thinking that the language might be too highbrow or the history too plodding. People have been encouraged by my enthusiastic presentations to buy my books (I am not highbrow or plodding, I assure you) and later told me that they had never read an historical mystery let alone a medieval one and enjoyed it immensely. They are now Crispin fans.
I also keep my eyes on the prize, that is, to keep on being published. Not easy when we are still in a recession. A hardcover novel is a precious expense to a tight budget. But I try to be accessible to my readers and to librarians. It’s all I know how to do. I wish I could do more to get my name out there. But blogs like this help. I’m sure there are those right now reading this blog who have never heard of me. I am the most famous author you’ve never heard of! And it’s a shame, really.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I would start with mysteries. I spent a good ten years writing books editors wouldn’t buy. Mysteries are a much bigger market, with fan conventions, bookstores, professional organizations devoted just to mysteries. Once I switched to writing mysteries, right away I joined Sisters in Crime, an international organization of crime writers and readers, and learned to network and get good information on the industry. I was no longer writing in a vacuum. I got published a few years right after I joined, having amassed a great knowledge base. I give back, too, mentoring those coming up. I’m the vice president of the Los Angeles chapter, in fact, and co-chair of the California Crime Writers Conference.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Seek out other authors and join professional organizations. Learn all you can about the industry. Read what others are writing. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t make it harder on yourself than it already is. Write what you love with an eye toward what’s selling.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? It’s more of a statement. It’s harder than ever to get published the traditional route with a big publisher. And it’s hard to stay published, even with e-books. Readers have only so many dollars to spend. But there are ways for readers to keep the authors they love published. Number one is buy the books! And buy them new, because used books are out of the publisher’s and authors’ revenue stream. Also, even if you don’t buy your books online, go to those resources and click the “Like” button on their books. Likewise, click their “Like” buttons on their author pages on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. “Friend” them on Facebook. Post reviews on online sites. It doesn’t have to be long reviews, but just a few sentences. All of these things help the algorithms—those magical computer gremlins—to push those books to a place where they will be seen by more people. Encourage your libraries to order the books. And finally, just talk it up, on your blogs or in person. Word of mouth is the best source for new readers to come to authors.
And one more thing, you can see the Crispin Guest series book trailer on my website, along with a brief video of me swinging that sword around, book discussion guides, and Crispin’s blog at www.JeriWesteson.com. You can also find my blog at www.Getting-Medieval.com, “friend” me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter.
Jeri’s latest book, Blood Lance launches today.
Jeri – many thanks for being part of A Writer of History. I wish you every success!