a writer's research process, historical crime fiction, historical fiction author, Michael Gregorio, Michel Faber, Porfiry Petrovich mysteries, R.N. Morris, researching historical fiction, Roger Morris, Silas Quinn mysteries, Umberto Eco
I’m very pleased to have Roger Morris here today talking about his writing. When I saw his Twitter banner — “I’m a novelist. I make stuff up. You have been warned.” — I had to click the follow button! Since then we’ve interacted from time to time, usually when he rants about writing or announces that it’s beer o’clock. Writing as R. N. Morris, he’s the author of a series of historical crime novels set in St Petersburg and featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. He also writes stories about Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Silas Quinn, a series set in 1914 London.
Why do you write historical mysteries? Good question! I suppose there are two parts to it. Why mysteries, and why historical ones. I think there is some element of mystery, something to be discovered, in every story. It’s the thing that keeps us reading, the engine that drives the story. For me, mystery is inherently about the past. The thing that is to be discovered is something that took place in the story’s past, something which has cast a shadow on the present, and it is that shadow that comprises the story. So I think, perhaps, that to write an explicit mystery story is just to embrace the essential nature of story in a very honest way. I’m drawn to writing about the past because it’s a great imaginative challenge, and again it seems to come out of the nature of story itself. I think it’s natural to be fascinated about things that happened before we were born, for example to think what life was like for our parents before we came along. Our own past and that of our ancestors is what makes us what we are.
Other writers have followed the path of setting mysteries or detective series in historical periods like Ancient Rome (Lindsay Davis, Steven Saylor), Elizabethan England (C.J. Sansom, C.W. Gortner), what do you think attracts readers to this genre? Part of the attraction is definitely escapism. It’s very enjoyable to immerse yourself in another world, a setting and period that’s far removed from our own. Perhaps there’s an element of nostalgia involved in that, but I’m not sure that’s really it. It would only really be nostalgia if people were reading stories set in the era of their own youth. The periods you mention, and the ones that are popular, are way before any of the readers were born. I wonder if part of it is a kind of schadenfreude – that’s to say taking pleasure in someone else’s misery and misfortune. I mean the past was, in general, pretty grim. And people seem to like all the stuff about how bad things smelled and how primitive health care was and how grinding the poverty. One of my novels, A Vengeful Longing, is set in a hot summer in St Petersburg and there’s a fair amount of texture about the open sewers stinking to high heaven and the flies buzzing around them and a cholera outbreak. Readers and critics seemed to lap all that up!
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? I think you have to convince people that you have actually been there, into the past in a time machine, and that you’re writing from direct observation. That’s not the same as showing that you’ve done the research. You have to do the research, of course, but you have to process it and write it as though it’s from first hand observation. It’s very difficult to do, of course. And actually what you’re trying to do is convince people of the reality of the universe you’re conjuring up. So it’s all about the authority of your voice. Which is not the same as being the world’s leading authority on your period.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? This is a hard one, because I think a lot of the time we’re influenced subconsciously, and also I think it’s true to say that my influences haven’t just come from historical fiction. Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose was, I think, a key book for me when I was thinking about writing in this genre, in terms of what you could achieve with the genre, and how you might go about it. It’s that marriage of detail, texture, story, ideas – and the incredibly authoritative sense of the past being conjured up. In a similar vein, I was very impressed by Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. The only time I’ve been aware of being consciously influenced by a writer, or writers, is when I was reading a Michael Gregorio novel. Michael Gregorio is actually two writers, the husband and wife team of Michael Jacob and Daniela de Gregorio. I was reading their novel Days of Atonement and I was struck by their handling of the macabre. I think I had an insight into what you might call ‘the gruesome aesthetic’.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? There are two phases of research. The first is the background reading I have to do to give myself the confidence to begin writing a story in a particular setting. I’m not looking for anything specific, just a sense of what it might have been like to live in a certain period, as well as a broad understanding of the main issues. Then when I’ve actually started writing a novel, there may be things that I come up against in the writing which I need to get to the bottom of. A particular description or detail, so then I will do very specific research designed just to discover that one detail. The detail itself may seem very insignificant, but I need to be able to see it before I can write the scene. When it comes to the actual writing, these days I’m fairly disciplined. I plan things out in advance to a fairly high degree, though there is still scope for things to diverge from that plan. I set myself a target of 2,000 words a day (on a writing day). If I can do more than that, then great. If I do less, I feel very dissatisfied and try to catch up on future days.
You’ve created two series: (1) Silas Quinn set in early twentieth century England and (2) Porfiry Petrovich mysteries set in late Tsarist Russia and based on a Dostoevsky character. How do you balance these different series? This is just a question of concentrating on the book I’m writing at the time. Right now I’m writing a Silas Quinn novel, so that’s all I’m thinking about. When I wrote the Porfiry Petrovich novels, I hadn’t thought of Silas Quinn, so that wasn’t a problem. To be honest, it hasn’t been an issue so far. If I was working on both series concurrently, then that might be a problem, but I try not to look too far ahead.
What advantages do you think will come from writing a series? Any disadvantages? From a writing point of view, there’s a real pleasure in coming back to a character you’ve already established – I hope it’s a pleasure that readers will share! A lot of the groundwork has been done in earlier books, so you can hit the ground running, in a sense. Though you always have to bear in mind that people may read books out of sequence. They are designed to work as standalone books, so if I have to do any recapping of the main character’s backstory, I try to ring the changes in the way I present material. If you’re thinking about marketing and sales, well, I suppose the advantage of a series is that it may enable you to build up a readership over a number of books. People who liked one Silas Quinn novel might be encouraged to try another. To a certain degree, they know what they are getting – in terms of the style and approach, though hopefully not in terms of the story itself! The potential disadvantage, for the writer, is that you may feel trapped into continuing a series when you’d rather be writing something different. That hasn’t happened yet. For me, the solution would be to just stop. If that meant I didn’t get published any more, then so be it.
What brand are you trying to create for yourself? I’m not consciously trying to create a brand. I’m just trying to write the best books I can. If that translates into a brand, then it would be one in which the main brand value is quality.
What do you do to connect with readers? I tweet. I’m also on Facebook. I have a blog, which is connected to my website. If I’m invited to take part in a panel or a festival I generally say yes, unless I can’t make it for some reason. I occasionally write articles and guest blogs. I offer a certain number of free copies of my books for bloggers to review. But whatever you do, you always feel that you could – or should – be doing more.
What do you know about your readers? They have great taste.
What data do you collect about your readers? I don’t really collect any data. I mean not systematically. I find it frustrating that more people don’t leave comments on my blog – purely because I would love to get some sense of who’s visiting. I really don’t want to send out mass emails. I think this can backfire. At the same time, I have had people say, “I didn’t know you had a new book out! Why didn’t you tell me?” So maybe I should do more.
What strategies guide your writing career? This is an interesting question. If only because I’m not sure I have a strategy. It would be possible to post-rationalise my erratic behavior and discern some kind of strategy behind the chaos. Essentially, though, I see my writing career – such as it is – as being out of my control. The only thing I can do is write books, one by one, and try and make them as good as I can. And then hope that they will find a publisher and beyond that a readership.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I think I wasted a lot of time because I never knew what the ending of a book was going to be before I started writing it. I used to be a ‘pantser’, that is to say I wrote by the seat of the pants. Now this approach works for some people, but it took me possibly twenty years to realize that it didn’t work for me. Once I sat down and plotted through a book, working out the end point before I started writing, I finally managed to write a book that got published. (Taking Comfort, 2006 – not a historical novel, by the way.) I think the two things are connected.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Do the research, then put the research to one side. You’re not writing history, you’re telling a story. Concentrate on the story, and trust that your sense of the period will percolate through and inform that story.
Many thanks, Roger. I was particularly struck by your comment on the ingredients required to be successful as an author of historical fiction. You said we have to “process it and write it as though it’s from first hand observation” which implies such a visceral depth of immersion for the writer. No wonder you’ve been honoured by so many crime and thriller award teams.
Roger Morris is currently writing The Dark Palace, the third book in his Silas Quinn series.