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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Jeri Westerson

In your debut novel VEIL OF LIES: A MEDIEVAL NOIR, a fallen knight named Crispin Guest is investigating the murder of a London merchant who has been found murdered inside a locked room. What made you decide to write medieval mysteries?
I wanted very much to write historical fiction. I've always been a huge fan of historical novels. I grew up with them at home as well as a glut of history books on the Middle Ages. With an Anglophile mother and a father studying to teach medieval history, it wasn't uncommon to have a discussion at the dinner table about the British monarchy or some other point of English history. So when I decided I was going to try for a career as a novelist it wasn't a great leap to choose historical fiction. With a heady background in history under my belt, I began to write, and spent ten years writing novels and trying to get published. It was a no go. This was a time when historicals were all but dead and they were a tough sell not only to editors but to agents. I did manage to land an agent and she worked hard trying to place my manuscripts. Eventually, she suggested that I try writing medieval mysteries instead as something more marketable. I really had no interest in writing mysteries, mostly because I didn't think I could! But like anything you try, you merely have to give it a bit of research to understand what needs to be done. In the end, all novels are really mysteries when you get down to it. The reader doesn't know who is important in the story and they don't know how it's going to turn out. So I learned to write a medieval mystery, giving it that added twist of going darker and edgier and coming up with what I call "Medieval Noir."

* How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
Interesting question. Crispin and his friends are fictional, but they live in a factual London. The sheriff he deals with—Simon Wynchecombe—was indeed one of the sheriffs of London in 1384 (who could make up a name like that?), and John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, was a large figure in England's politics. He was Crispin's mentor and saved his life when Crispin was convicted of treason.

And there are cases where knights were "degraded", that is, forcibly dispossessed of their knighthood, with varying degrees of nastiness. It's really about the "what if" factor. What if a man lost his knighthood? How could an intelligent and clever man make a living? What were his options? And even though there was no such thing as a medieval private eye, given the circumstances, there could have been. It's not any more implausible than a monk or a nun solving crimes. It might even be more plausible. By using real figures woven with the fictional—and using them plausibly—it makes for a more compelling story.

*Tell us something surprising about women in 14th century England.
I think many people tend to think that woman played a very subservient role in the past, and though they may not have had the same rights as men, they certainly were not helpless. They could own businesses, though usually it was the business their husband started, and if they became widowed they were allowed to continue in that occupation. Which also included blacksmithing. Women were brewsters—ale brewers. They were potters and minstrels. They were allowed a lot of latitude. They even sued and were sued in the courts.

*How is Crispin Guest different from other "detectives", so to speak, in medieval mysteries, a genre which seems to be growing by leaps and bounds?
Is it? I'm happy to hear that! Well, Crispin is a bit different. The beginning of the medieval mystery genre can be attributed to Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series and soon thereafter there were other medieval mysteries with monks and nuns as detectives. Well, Crispin is definitely no monk! Though there are a variety of other medieval detectives on the page now, Crispin is a bit different in that he is of the hard-boiled variety. It's Sam Spade meets Brother Cadfael. He's a private eye, earning his keep on the mean streets of 14th century London for sixpence a day, plus expenses. He's not called a "private eye", of course. He's called the Tracker. Since his disgrace eight years earlier when he lost his title, his lands, and his livelihood, he had to make his own way with nothing but his wits. He's great fun to write because he's a bit of tragic hero, not really belonging to the people he now must live amongst and never again allowed into the community into which he was bred. That left him with quite a chip on his shoulder, but he also has an extreme sense of honor and a code of chivalry which he will not cross. Puts him in a bit of bind, sometimes.

* How did you research VEIL OF LIES, which depicts London society in the fourteenth century?
I love London; the London of today as well as the London of yesterday. It becomes a bit of a character itself in the books. And I'm lucky in that there is a wealth of information about London. London has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, and even a bit before, though it was never the settlement the Romans made it. There is so much information through archaeology—accidental and intentional—that is learned everyday. And because this is the time of Chaucer, there is a great deal of scholarship on the fourteenth century. This was the era of the Black Death; of English coming into its own as the court language where previously it had been Norman French; tournaments and battles; courtly love; a child king who, by the end of the century, is deposed and murdered. There's a lot going on and a lot of texts written about the era, including a medieval bestseller, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's masterpiece gives us insight into everyday people, not something you usually get in the histories written by their contemporaries.

So I took my cue from Chaucer's writings, certainly, but from many other sources as well. It's not just about the time period, even though I had a good background in it already. But there is also constant research in weapons, criminal law, heraldry, London itself, Westminster Palace, forensics, clothing, mores, customs, religion, relics, cult of the saints, language, landscape, histories of certain figures...the list goes on and never stops. But it's all good. Most of it never makes it to the novel but becomes backstory, background, or fodder for upcoming books. For instance, there's a lot of archery in the next Crispin book that will be released sometime next year, called SERPENT IN THE THORNS.

My PhotoThank you, Jeri! If you'd like to follow Crispin's thoughts, you can read them on his own blog or read an excerpt of VEIL OF LIES at