C.S. Harris

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

In a blog interview I did around the release of  The Paris Affair, Heather Webb asked a question that got me to thinking about forensics in historical mysteries. So much of present day mysteries, in books, on television, in movies, involves analyzing forensic evidence. My Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch have no CSIs, medical examiners, or forensic anthropologists to assist them in gathering and analyzing data. On the other hand, even without 21st century technology sleuths can still forensic evidence. C.S. Harris has a doctor character whose analysis of corpses is often of key help to Sebastian St. Cyr. The Victorian Sherlock Holmes was, as my father liked to say, a classic empiricist, his solutions built from the data he gathers. Both John Watson and Mary Russell frequently record him bemoaning the lack of data.

Like other literary investigators  in the 19th century and earlier, Malcolm and Suzanne look at footprints, find stands of hair or threads of fabric caught on cobblestones of table legs or left behind on sheets. Of course they can’t do DNA or chemical analysis, but they can do is compare the color of the hair or fabric or look at where the mud left behind by a shoe might have come from. If they’re really lucky someone drops a distinctive earring. They can use lividity and rigor to roughly arrive at time of death They can sometimes determine from a wound whether the killer is left or right handed.

Of course as a writer there are times the lack of sophisticated forensic analysis presents challenges in how one’s detectives will solve the mystery. On the other hand, sometimes it can complicate matters in a good way. A killer in a crime of impulse, who probably would not be wearing gloves, would most likely to caught much more easily today than in the days before fingerprinting, let alone DNA analysis.

Writers, how do you deal with the lack of modern day technology in your books? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of forensic analysis in an historical setting?

I just spent a fun and hectic three days at Bouchercon, a mystery writers and readers conference. I had the treat of meeting in person and getting to spend time with Tasha Alexander, Andrew Grant, Sandra Lee, Scott Brick, Deborah Crombie, and Marcia Talley. (See Facebook for photos). It’s so great to finally meet writers whose books you’ve enjoyed and whom you’ve got to know online. As Tasha said, it seemed like we already knew each other.

I also had the fun of catching up with Candice Proctor (aka C.S. Harris and C.S. Graham) whom I hadn’t seen in years. I met people from my publishing house, Kensington, at a lovely cocktail party Friday night. I had the fun of showing off the Vienna Waltz cover, which I just received. I went to panel discussions on all sorts of writing topics, useful reminders of things like constantly raising the stakes for one’s protagonist as the story progresses, the difference between action and suspense, making villains believable, crafting denouements.

And, of course, I stayed up into the small hours talking with writer friends. To me that’s one of the most fun parts of a conference. so much of the time as writers we work in isolation. It’s so wonderfully energizing to spend concentrated time with a group of fellow writers, to chat about plotting, research, covers, websites, and myriad other topics that only fellow writers seem to understand.

As always seems to happen after a conference, I’m invigorated and excited to get back to writing. And to keep up with all my old and new friends online until the next conference.

What’s your favorite part about conferences, whether writing conferences or in another field? Have you been to Bouchercon or other writers/readers conferences?

Amidst the whirlwind of Bouchercon, I managed to write a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Melanie to Isobel. I loved having my iPad at the conference!

After some typical Bay Area summer days of bone chilling fog, it’s lovely and sunny today. A slight breeze, not too hot. The sort of day that cries out for lolling in a hammock or sitting by the pool with a good book. Of course I’ve spent the day in a whirl of Saturday errands (which included the fun of finding a great summer bag on sale at Nordstrom’s). Now I’m updating my website and I need to write at least 700 more words on my new book and a get a workout in somewhere. Between finishing Vienna Waltz revisions, working on my Waterloo book, Porchlight Theatre’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses production, and the start of the Merola Opera Program (we had our Meet the Merolini event last night, where we met the 2010 Merola artists), my summer so far has been a bit chaotic if fun.

But I’m at least dreaming of lazy summer reading time, and this seemed a good time to post a summer reading list. Most of my suggestions this year are series, perhaps not surprising as I write series myself :-):

The Lady Emily books by Tasha Alexander. Vivid characters, both real historical people and fictional ones. Exotic locales, exciting mysteries, a wonderful ongoing romance, and Lady Emily’s fascinating character development over the series, as she struggles to be independent amid the strictures of Victorian society.

The Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid series by Deborah Crombie. I had the fun of catching up on recently on several books I’d missed in this series. I used them as bribes–write 100 words, and I got to read a section. The page-turning plots kept me up far into the night, while the rich character development made me feel I was visiting old friends. I don’t cry over books often, but these stories brought tears to my eyes (sometimes happy tears) more than once. And though Deb is American, you absolutely feel you’re in contemporary London.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Compelling, surprising, tragic, and ultimately surprisingly hopeful. This historical novel set in 1907 Wisconsin drew me in from the first page, and I found it almost impossible to put down.

The Sebastian St. Cyr books by C.S. Harris. Wonderful series set in Regency London. Each book is its own intricate mystery, but there’s also a fascinating mystery about the hero’s life (and his relationships with his family and romantic interests) that runs through the series and makes one eagerly await the next installment.

The Julia Grey books by Deanna Raybourn. Another series I discovered this year and eagerly devoured. Wonderful Victorian atmosphere, a fascinating ongoing romance, and an intriguing deftly drawn ongoing group of supporting characters in Julia’s vivid, eccentric family.

The Pink Carnation books by Lauren Willig. Napoleonic spies. Adventure. Mystery. Romance. One of the best parts of my New York trip last fall was talking books with Lauren and getting a sneak peek of what’s to come in the series. If you haven’t already discovered Lauren’s books, go find them–now!

What’s on your summer reading list?

I’ve just posted a new letter from Mélanie to Raoul in the Fraser Correspondence. I’m having a lot of fun telling the days after Napoleon’s escape from Elba through my characters’ eyes.

My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon today at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers. Dunnett readers, as I’ve blogged about before, tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party today, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to discuss with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-)). This evening, I’ve been pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnetts’ series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters become a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion, as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it lends itself to discussion. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). They aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. There are always questions, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett’s 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation’s adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

Be sure to check out this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Quen to Charles.

Taryn had some wonderful comments on the Mask of Night page recently–wonderful both in the sense of making me as an author, very happy, but also very-thought provoking in terms of what draws us as readers to a novel. As Taryn pointed out, the Charles & Mélanie books are hard to categorize which can be “a bit hard a bit of a positioning problem – is it a murder mystery, a spy novel, a romance? Not that it can’t be and isn’t all of that, but although I’m not in publishing, just a passionate end-reader, often I think the marketing is an afterthought and they don’t always trust their audience, so they want to “dumb it down” to make it “one thought.” Your work is so textured that it isn’t easy to distill – for me this is what has me staying up way too late trying to find out what happens!”

Hearing that readers have stayed up too late reading one’s book is one of the nicest compliments a writer can receive. But Taryn’s comment also sums up why the Charles & Mel books can be tricky to market. I’ve always loved books that cross genres. Mysteries (Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Elizabeth George, C.S. Harris) and fantasy novels (Barbara Hambly, Steven Brust & Emma Bull) with strong romantic threads, romances with lots of plot and history and adventure (Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale), historical fiction with intrigue and adventure and romance (Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Robert Goddard, Lauren Willig). But it can be hard for publishers and booksellers to figure out how to market these books. I don’t think it’s so much that readers don’t like books that cross genres as that marketing strategies are book store shelving tend to be based on slotting books into genres.

Which makes the cover copy for the books that much more important. I asked Taryn about this in the course of the discussion on the Mask page. What would make her pick up the books? (She bought Secrets of Lady based on recommendations not the copy.) Taryn said, “I’d like to think about the back-of-the-book question a bit more but my first thought (for Secrets of a Lady) is yes, you convey time (Regency) and place (seamy London), and secrets, which are always tempting. For Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s closer to making me want to buy, but…seems to focus on Charles and less about Melanie, who is one of the most interesting heroines since Scarlett O’Hara or even about them together and how complex they are. And also the theme of forgiveness – but not heavy-handed, maybe in the form of a question – could you find a way to forgive the love of your life after you’ve learned they have betrayed you? This seems like it might be a direction to consider…don’t know, maybe have a small focus group from visitors to your blog!”

Which gave me the idea of turning the discussion into this week’s blog. What themes or plot elements or phrases on a book cover grab your interest? Did you pick up Daughter/Secrets or Beneath based on the cover copy? If so, what was it in the copy that caught your attention? Are there other ways you think the books could be described that you’d find more compelling? In general, what makes you want to buy a book?

Taryn said, “What makes me buy – spies, tortured war veterans (male and female) as i am intrigued by the parallels to the 21st century version. Relationship is a big part of what makes me buy (cover art attracts (although I hate those men with no shirts, *where* did those shirts go, anyway??)). I picked Secrets up through romance so I was expecting relationship stuff – wow, those revelation scenes early on *blew my mind* – and that kind of inter-personal drama really delivered! Even if it was not a typical romance book, it delivered the best of romance – a strong set of characters with real problems that they need to solve together. Unusual that these are married, that also added to the “I’m intrigued – I think I’ll buy” moment.”

As I’ve mentioned before, anything to do with “spies” or “espionage” on a book cover grabs my interest. Doubly so if it’s historical. The same with politics, particularly historical politics. So do words or phrases implying there’s a complex plot–“twists and turns,” “plots and counterplots,” “maze of intrigue,” “secrets”, “unraveling,” etc… And anything that indicates lovers with a history–married couples, ex-lovers, enemies who’ve betrayed each other. And thematically, anything to do with ambiguity, the elusive nature of truth, loyalty and betrayal is pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on these questions. What makes you want to buy a book?

On another note, I’m now on Facebook. I’m still getting the knack of how it works, but if you’re on Facebook do friend me, and I’d love suggestions for reading and writing-related groups to join.

And be sure to check on this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition–it’s a letter from Mélanie to Isobel Lydgate about Twelfth Night at Dunmykel.

Update 14 January: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today on bringing an historical world to life, inspired by the movie Milk.

Happy ending, nice and tidy
It’s a rule I learned in school

Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertholt Brecht’s lyrics to the finale of The Threepenny Opera is laced with irony. Life, the song goes on to say, does not work out so neatly, with Queen Victoria’s messenger riding to the rescue.

In the lively discussion in response to my blog last week about series and in particular C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series and whether Sebastian would end up with Kat or Hero, there was, I realize, an implicit assumption by all of us (including me) that Sebastian at least would have a happy ending. And I suspect he will. Though one of the things that both delights me and sets me on edge as a reader in mystery series, as opposed to romances, is that the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Which for me as a reader can make it that much sweeter (one of my favorite romantic endings is to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, because it seems so hard-fought for). But also leaves the door nerve-wrackingly open to other possibilities.

I love happy endings. I root for them against all odds, I worry about favorite characters, I rewrite “unsatisfactory” stories in my head. And some of my favorite stories don’t have happy endings, and, I have to admit, wouldn’t be the better for them. I recenty saw the final dress of a breathtaking production of “La Bohème” at San Francisco Opera, which left me thinking about happy endings and genre conventions. “La Bohème” emphatically doesn’t have one (I usually start crying in Act I–this time was no exception). On the other hand, “Rent,” based on the same story, does have a happy ending. I loved “Rent,” but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I’d seen “La Bohème” (I saw it with my friend Penny, who also knows ‘Bohème” well and had the same reaction). But I saw the “Bohème” dress rehearsal with my friend Greg (one of the designers of this site). Greg said he’d seen “Rent” before he’d seen “Bohème” and he found the ending of “Rent” jarring as well. I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even–perhaps especially–not all love stories, work with a happy ending. When Mimì came in in the last act of “Bohème,” I had a moment of thinking “oh, I don’t want her to die.” And yet a different ending takes something away from the power of the story.

As a writer, I like the possibility of my stories not ending happily, if that makes any sense. I was going to say I don’t think I’d ever write a non-happy ending, but when I thought about it, I don’t think I’d precisely call the endings of Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon “happy.” For one thing, it’s an ongoing series, to the story doesn’t really end. I think I’d call the ending of Secrets “hopeful.” And the ending of Beneath “bittersweet.” Tinged with hope perhaps.

How do you feel about endings? Favorite examples to suggest of happy or non-happy endings? Or something in between? Has a jarring ending ever damaged a book for you? How would you describe the endings of Secrets and Beneath?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Lady Frances to Raoul, describing Mélanie’s first ball in the Berkeley Square house.

One of the delights of writing a series is developing characters and following their stories from book to book. Not merely the central characters, but a host of secondary characters, who may step into the spotlight in one book, merely be mentioned in the next, then return later on, perhaps with the events of their life taking an unexpected turn. As a writer I’m always aware of the world my characters live in and who’s doing what, even if a given character isn’t in a given book. There’s a sort of map of my characters’ world in my head, showing their lives intersecting with historical events (a concept I’ve had some fun discussions about with Lauren Willig, who has built a wonderful world for her Pink Carnation series; one of the delights of her books is speculating about what may happen to the characters in future books and catching up on characters from prior books).

I dealt with this topic in this video clip from the interviews I did this summer about characters in future books.

Do you like to follow secondary characters as well as central characters from book to book in a series? Do you like to speculate about what might happen next? (I have to say, after the latest C.S. Harris Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, I’m definitely doing some speculating about that series :-). Any specific characters you’d like to see more of in subsequent Charles & Mélanie books? Any characters who’ve only been mentioned who you’d like to see “on stage”? Any characters in the series who haven’t interacted who you’d like to see meet? Any past secrets you’d like to see explored?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition catches us up on Colin after Beneath a Silent Moon.