Tag Archives: 17th Century london

Interview with Historical Author Susanna Calkins about her 17th Century London Mystery Series

Today, I have an interview with historical mystery author Susanna Calkins, after previously publishing a review of her third novel earlier today! To read my review of The Masque of the Murderer, which releases mid-April 2015, read HERE.

Enjoy!

Hi Susie, welcome back to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! Always a pleasure to have you here with us! This time, you’ve recently had your second historical mystery book, From the Charred Remains, publish in paperback (3/17/15) and your third book, The Masque of the Murderer,  is about to release! You’ve come a long way fast since we first featured the first book in your Lucy Campion Mystery Series! How does it feel to have a third book coming out?

Susanna: Thank you so much for having me! These last few years have been such a blur, but it feels wonderful to see my third Lucy Campion mystery out and about in the world.

Erin: Yes, you are a very busy woman! We are fairly close in proximity, with you in Illinois and I in Ohio (though I know you are native Pennsylvanian!) so I thank you for blowing in from the land of the Windy City and into chilly Ohio. Let’s put on a pot of tea, let’s do something English? I might have some English Breakfast tea today. What would care for? Sugar and cream?

Susanna: Delightful! I’ll take mine with a little honey, if you have any.

Erin: Wonderful! I’ll pour right after I bring in some fresh baked mini-almond cakes! And now, we’ll have a seat and chat for awhile together. Let’s get started!

Susanna: Alright!

Q: You debuted as an historical mystery author in 2013 with A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, first in the Lucy Campion Mystery Series set in 17th Century London.  How does that first launch (in terms of nerves and know-how), and that first book (in terms of writing), compare with your third year of publishing and the upcoming third novel/writing the fourth?

Murder at..

A: That is a great question. I wrote my first novel in a little cocoon for years and years (well, let’s be honest, essentially a decade) just as my own personal pleasure.  So it was extremely nerve-wracking when I put my book out into the world.  Even my second novel, From the Charred Remains, was written in a little bubble, because I completed it before anyone had read the first. This third novel, The Masque of a Murderer, was the first one I wrote while actively promoting the first two. So some things are easier now, because I understand the process, and some things are more challenging, in terms of timing.

Q: What has been the best thing, or most useful thing, that you’ve discovered over these last several years of experience in writing a mystery series?

A: This probably seems obvious, but I never understood until From the Charred Remains came out that I am always promoting my first book.  And that makes complete sense—most people wish to read a book from the beginning of my series. Although I did write each book so that it could be read separately, I can see why people like to see how Lucy’s story began, and how she has grown over the first three books.

Q: When you first wrote A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, were you planning to create this series with Lucy at the helm? Can you explain, either way, about the process?

A: No, I didn’t even really understand the concept of “series potential,” because I was so new to publishing. So I did write the first book as a standalone, but I was quite sad when I finished because I wanted Lucy’s story to continue.  What happens after the Great Fire anyway…?

Q: In the second book, From the Charred Remains, I particularly liked the apprenticeship/assistant job that you created for Lucy, primarily since I love journalism and print publishing so much. I have a penchant for the history of print news and books. How did you research this particular business of the time, from the intricacies of the printing press to its role in society? What did you learn that intrigued you the most?

Charred Remains

A: When I was a graduate student in history, and later as a historian, I spent a lot of time reading through the cheap print of the 17th century—the strange and odd things that people wrote (“Strange News from Kent!” “A True Account of a Most Cruel Murder!”; “The Monster from York,” etc).  Additionally, I was intrigued by the print-making and bookselling trades—which actually were two separate trades, which I collapsed into one. When I started to read about how printing presses actually worked, I was fascinated by the way printers actually regarded the presses, almost as their wayward children or servants. They “bled” ink, they sometimes stopped working like recalcitrant servants etc.  So I found that pretty interesting.

Q: I’m assuming it would be terribly hard to find a way for a woman of the 17th century to not only be allowed to roam around single, but also to be privy to enough news to investigate anything more easily! In Sam Thomas’s books, he used a midwife, you’ve chosen to my delight to make Lucy a printer’s apprentice, allowing her to know all the latest news as well as be able to move around the streets on writing missions or selling of books. Do you feel it was important for a female to be featured as the lead amateur detective in your novel, why or why not?

A:Well, as a historian of women’s history, I’ve long been astounded by how women were so easily written out of history. Even if found a way to transcend the constraints around them, their accomplishments were often dismissed as unimportant. So, yes, to me, I wanted my lead to be female. And women who were servants or in trade actually had more freedom than gentlewomen and noblewomen.

Q: I think your characterization of Lucy was so well-done. I feel so connected to Lucy and am excited to read more of her adventures. She seems authentic and inquisitive. How did you construct her character? What personality traits did you intended for her to have as you wrote her onto the page?

A: I wanted Lucy to be curious about the world, and inquisitive in nature.  I also wanted her to be someone who sought to improve herself, by learning to read and write, which then opened her mind to bigger questions about bigger issues in the world. Throughout time and across the globe, there have always been people who managed to overcome humble beginnings, and I thought Lucy could be one of those people. I had to give her enough agency as well that if a murder happened and someone she knows is accused of the crime that she wouldn’t just say, “Alas, that’s a shame. But there’s nothing I can do.” It wouldn’t make for a very fun sleuth! 😉

Q: Is she destined to be single, or is romance coming within book three or four? Why or why not?

A:I have struggled with this a bit. Lucy does have two potential love interests—Adam Hargrave, the son of the magistrate, and someone whom I introduced more fully in book two, Constable Duncan.  Adam—her first love—is a bit above her station, which she clearly understands, while Duncan is a bit more at her level.  However, despite popular perceptions to the contrary, people in the laboring class and those of the “middling sort” actually did not get married until they were closer to age 25, because they needed time to establish themselves.  Only people of the upper class married when they were younger. So it is actually not that strange that Lucy would wish to hold off. She also knows that if she married Adam, she is likely to have to give up her occupation as a printer, which gives her pause as well.

Q: The 17th Century, and Restoration England/London, was a time and place dealing with much social, political, and religious upheaval. How did this play into your novel? Were there any lessons you hoped readers would pick up on in regards to social injustices, or did you just intended it to be more of an overall education of the time period intermixed with your mystery plot? These questions pertain to all or any of your books.

A: Another great question! I did deliberately bring in these larger social-cultural themes because I have always been interested in how those forces play out in the everyday lives of real people. Even though I am an educator, I did not mean the books to be textbooks, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised when readers say they have learned from reading my book.

Q: By the third book, The Masque of a Murderer, does Lucy decide that she enjoys figuring out these crimes or does she still feel like they keep falling into her lap? How or why?

02_The Masque of a Murderer_Cover

A: Lucy has been characterized as a “reluctant sleuth” by others, and I think that is an accurate depiction. She’s not hanging out the proverbial shingle as a detective; I’ve tried to design the mysteries that come her way as personal—she needs to become involved because someone she loves might be injured or blamed for a crime.

Q: How does The Masque of a Murderer differ from From the Charred Remains? This could be in historical foundation, characters, plot, etc.

A: The Masque of a Murderer is set a few months after From the Charred Remains leaves off. I set this one in the midst of a Quaker community, so I may have emphasized the ongoing religious tensions even more in this book. All of my books seem to bring in the idea of identity theft—because the communal ties were so disrupted by the plague and the Great Fire, that people could say they were someone else, and their neighbors are no longer around to deny or confirm their claims.

Q: I know there is a fourth novel on the way. What kind of historical research, if more, will you be doing for this novel in the series? What will be happening in London during the plot of book four?

A: I am currently writing A Death along the River Fleet. It is going to deal with madness and witchcraft. Yes, I always do a lot of research, reading books, and reading primary sources to support the fictional parts.

Q: Will there be more books in the Lucy Campion Mystery Series beyond book four that you are presently writing? Will you take on the 18th Century in London?

A: Fun question! I’ve decided that each book will only cover a few months of Lucy’s life at a time now. At this point I’m not contracted for books beyond A Death along the River Fleet, but I have a number of ideas that get me through the 1670s.  I’m not sure I can bring Lucy up to the 18th century or not…

Erin: Of course she may not, but you never know when a family member might come along and continue the legacy!

Q: Do you hope to write anything beyond this mystery series? What other times and places, or types of books, do you think about writing on? Pirates, maybe? 😉

A: I had actually thought about pirates, since I was a pirate in 16th century London. (well, I served aboard a replica of the 16th century Golden Hinde, which is currently dry-docked in the Thames. We were tour guides during the week, and pirates on the weekends. Not a bad gig. But I digress). I was interested in real pirate Mary Reed. However, I did write two other books, temporarily in the drawer, one set in 1930s Chicago, the other set in the sewers of Paris, set in late 19th century.

Q: Who is one of your favorite women, or role models, in history? Why or why not?

A: While I admire women like Queen Elizabeth and Eleanore Roosevelt, I really just admire lesser-known women who managed to write books even when people said they shouldn’t.  Like most of the Quaker women I studied in graduate schools.

Q: If you could travel this summer, where would you go and what kind of food would you beat the pavement to enjoy?

A: While I always enjoy travelling in England, Ireland and Scotland (and there are many places I’ve never been, like Wales, which I’d like to go), I have to admit everywhere I go after trying the local cuisine, I usually seek out an Indian restaurant, as that is my favorite cuisine. One day I am hoping to travel to India as well.

Q: I know you’ve been shortlisted for several awards for your books, which must feel tremendous! What an achievement! What do you feel is another success story for you?

A: Thank you. It has been such an honor to be nominated for a few historical mystery awards.  I guess as an author with a traditional press, I will view another contract as a huge success. I would, at some point, love to see the other books I’ve mentioned published as well.

Q: I’m glad to see historical mysteries of the rise. Do have any classic favorite mystery writers? Any current ones? What do you love the most about writing mysteries?

A: I grew up on Agatha Christie, so she is a personal favorite. But Anne Perry, Rhys Bowen, Charles Todd, Tasha Alexander, and Charles Finch all inspired me to write historical mysteries. And I have to say, its been such an honor and privilege to have met them all.  As for writing mysteries, I just love the puzzle of it all. Writing itself is a bit of a puzzle, and thinking through a mystery in particular, is my favorite type of puzzle.

Erin: Susie, thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself, your work, and your time with me! It’s always a joy to have you stop by. I wish you much success with entire series! 🙂

Susanna: You’re wonderful! Thanks for all you do for readers and authors alike.

Erin:  My pleasure!

02_The Masque of a Murderer_Cover

The Masque of the Murderer, Synopsis~

Publication Date: April 14, 2015
Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Pages: 323

Series: Book Three, Lucy Campion Mysteries
Genre: Historical Mystery

GoodReads

In Susanna Calkins’ next richly drawn mystery set in 17th century England, Lucy Campion, formerly a ladies’ maid in the local magistrate’s household, has now found gainful employment as a printer’s apprentice. On a freezing winter afternoon in 1667, she accompanies the magistrate’s daughter, Sarah, to the home of a severely injured Quaker man to record his dying words, a common practice of the time. The man, having been trampled by a horse and cart the night before, only has a few hours left to live. Lucy scribbles down the Quaker man’s last utterances, but she’s unprepared for what he reveals to her—that someone deliberately pushed him into the path of the horse, because of a secret he had recently uncovered.

Fearful that Sarah might be traveling in the company of a murderer, Lucy feels compelled to seek the truth, with the help of the magistrate’s son, Adam, and the local constable. But delving into the dead man’s background might prove more dangerous than any of them had imagined.

In The Masque of a Murderer, Susanna Calkins has once again combined finely wrought characters, a richly detailed historical atmosphere, and a tightly-plotted mystery into a compelling read.

Lucy Campion Mystery Series Titles

Book One: A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate
Macavity Award Finalist Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award (2014)
Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Selection (“Mystery Pick” and “Featured New Arrival”)
Chicago Book Review – Best Books of 2013

Book Two: From the Charred Remains (Paperback release on March 17, 2015)
Short-listed for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award (2015)

Book Three: The Masque of a Murderer (coming April 2015!)

Praise for the Lucy Campion Mystery Series~

“…the high-quality writing augurs well for future outings.” -Publisher’s Weekly

“Calkins makes Lucy’s efforts to find the real killer entirely plausible, leading to a nail-biter climax with London in flames. This history-mystery delivers a strong heroine making her way through the social labyrinth of Restoration London.” -Booklist

“Calkins’ debut mystery places her unusual detective in a world rich in carefully researched historical detail.” -Kirkus

“A historical mystery with originality and great attention to detail. Readers are transported to 17th century England, a time when social classes were just beginning to change. The characters are multi-dimensional–including the smart, adventurous Lucy Campion–and the mystery will keep readers turning the pages, and they’ll eagerly await the next book in the series.” RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)

“…an intricate tale of fraud and blackmail, leavened by a touch of romance. Calkins, who holds a doctorate in British history, puts her knowledge to sparkling use in this intriguing mystery, which combines a gripping plot with rich historical detail and one of the most admirable protagonists in the genre.” -The Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Calkins is able to seamlessly weave this romance into the story without making it the main plot line, and keeping the mystery the main focus of the story….The puzzles, anagrams, and many secrets combine to make intertwining plot twists that keep the pages turning. FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS is an exciting, secret filled, historical mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end.” –Fresh Fiction (Reviewer’s Pick)

“A good yarn and a fascinating look at life in England in a time when things began to change…social classes, positions, servants’ rights…all because of plague and fire.” -Book Babe Blog

“For me, this book was more than a mystery. It was an eye-opening look at what London was like in the mid-1660s, including the plague and fire that ravaged London, class struggle, the plight of women, and the laws of the time. The author’s engaging writing style made it easy to slip back into the past and experience these things with Lucy.” -Book of Secrets

“A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate is Susanna Calkins’ absorbing debut novel. Just a warning that time WILL easily slip away as you become engrossed in this historical fiction mystery.” -1776 Books: A Philadelphian’s Literary Journey

Pre-Order the Book~

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Book Depository
iTunes

Author Susanna Calkins, Biography~

calkinsBorn and raised in Philadelphia, Susanna Calkins lives in Highland Park, Illinois with her husband and two sons, where she is an educator at Northwestern University.

With a PhD in history, her historical mysteries feature Lucy Campion, a 17th century chambermaid-turned-printer’s apprentice. Her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, was a finalist for the Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award (Macavity).

The second in this series, From the Charred Remains, is currently a finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her third, The Masque of a Murderer, will be released in April 2015.

For more information and to subscribe to Susanna Calkins’ newsletter please visit her website. You can also follow her blog, and connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/themasqueofamurdererblogtour/

Hashtags: #TheMasqueofaMurdererBlogTour #HistoricalMystery #History #SusannaCalkins

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @scalkins3 @MinotaurBooks

04_The Masque of a Murderer_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL

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The Masque of a Murderer is Further Proof that Susanna Calkins Knows How to Write Historical Mysteries

It’s probably no big surprise to anyone that I am a Susanna Calkins fan. Her historical mystery novels set in 17th century England are some of my favorites in this genre, including her third Lucy Campion Mystery, The Masque of a Murderer, that I’ve recently pre-read prior to its April 14 hardback and e-book debut.

02_The Masque of a Murderer_Cover

If you’ve not read any books by Susanna, you can take a quick read of my review of A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate HERE, an interview from 2013 HERE, and a review of the second novel, From the Charred Remains, HERE. That might give you more background of what I like about each novel, her writing style, and the characterization of main character Lucy, so that I don’t have to repeat myself too much.

Each mystery novel is written to be read standalone (that’s not just an opinion, it’s true, no matter what else you read), because each mystery is happened upon and solved within each book. The reason why it’s a series, and why you might want to read them all in order, is based on your own affinity for if you’d like to get to know more in-depth the background and set-up of the characters. I know that I’ve read all three in order and I can view Lucy’s progression as a woman with much more clarity and appreciation. However, even if you start with the third, or have missed the second, Calkins does a nice job of letting readers know, or reminding consistent readers, who each person is and how they align in Lucy’s life or within the plot. Removing myself and taking an overview look, I feel that you can follow Lucy’s progression, or just read Lucy for who she is in book three, and neither will make you feel as if anything is missing.

So all that disclaimer about the series aside, and delving into a review of The Masque of a Murderer, I feel that Calkins once again sets up 17th century London society in a way that is easily visualized to readers, whether it makes us cringe or not! The stench, freezing weather (and Thames), death, religious and political upheaval, crime, and ruins of the city and people’s homes does not seem very romantic. This isn’t the breezy countryside adorned with spring flowers. You’ll want to like dark mysteries that take on real history and societal truths if you delve into these.

Where the second book deals with the Great Fire and its economic and societal issues stemming from such a disaster, the third book leads in right after the fire and people’s displacement, about six months later, where bodies are carted away in mass and buried in group graves. Times are bleak. People seek out amusement in whatever gossip and stories they can find. This atmosphere is a great set-up to plot a mystery series, as not only is it very historically educational, but it is a perfect backdrop for a murder. With so much chaos and death, murderers could most likely get away with anything and bodies could be fairy well-hidden. Plus, when times are hard and people want change, all sorts of things can happen.

Lucy became a bookseller and a printer’s apprentice in the second book, and I think Susanna aligns the two trades seamlessly in books two and three. Though women would most likely not have such a job, Lucy is perfect at it and this allows her to be privvy to the news and gossip and roam the city in a much more easier way that any normal woman of the time. Her curiosity bug, and her need to help others, inadvertently materializes her into an amateur detective. At first she is leery of this, but by this third book, she seems to embrace it.

In The Masque of a Murderer, she is taking down the last words of a dying Quaker man, something that was common practice then. She attends the home of a Quaker gentleman, who only has hours to live after being run over by a cart and horse, alongside the distraught magistrate’s daughter who is also her former employer, Sarah.  Sarah herself had become a Quaker and feels its her duty to go and console the wife, while Lucy takes down the last words. During Lucy’s recording with him, the man reveals that someone has killed him due to a secret.

Lucy, now fairly more sure it’s her duty to keep others safe around her by solving the mystery, proceeds on the case through the cobbled and dark streets of London. Susanna once again creates an authentic world for us through her detailed descriptions, vivid and flowing sentences, dialogue, and use of words to peak our senses. Historically, she also lets us see through her writing lens to the ways of the Quakers. It was interesting to me, as though I’d read about Quakers in our early North America, I hadn’t really studied much about them from a London setting.

With plenty of further twists, turns, and revelations, Susanna’s The Masque of a Murderer shows how much her writing and plot weaving has improved further, leading us down a resounding path of gas street lamps, heavy dark cloaks, and people pretending to be who they are not. Lucy is entranced by intrigue and is a such a likable character, one in which I am truly connected. She almost seems so real to me, I forget she’s just imaginary. She’s courageous, intelligent, compassionate, and independent, which are all traits I admire in fellow women.

I’ve said it before, but in my opinion, Susanna is becoming one of the best historical mystery writers on the market. The Masque of a Murderer is a resounding winner. I can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

As far as comparisons, if you like Sam Thomas’ 17th century Midwife Mystery series or David Morrell’s Thomas De Quincey series in Victorian London, you’re sure to like Susanna Calkins’ Lucy Campion Mysteries.

The Masque of a Murderer, Synopsis~

02_The Masque of a Murderer_CoverPublication Date: April 14, 2015
Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Pages: 323

Series: Book Three, Lucy Campion Mysteries
Genre: Historical Mystery

GoodReads

In Susanna Calkins’ next richly drawn mystery set in 17th century England, Lucy Campion, formerly a ladies’ maid in the local magistrate’s household, has now found gainful employment as a printer’s apprentice. On a freezing winter afternoon in 1667, she accompanies the magistrate’s daughter, Sarah, to the home of a severely injured Quaker man to record his dying words, a common practice of the time. The man, having been trampled by a horse and cart the night before, only has a few hours left to live. Lucy scribbles down the Quaker man’s last utterances, but she’s unprepared for what he reveals to her—that someone deliberately pushed him into the path of the horse, because of a secret he had recently uncovered.

Fearful that Sarah might be traveling in the company of a murderer, Lucy feels compelled to seek the truth, with the help of the magistrate’s son, Adam, and the local constable. But delving into the dead man’s background might prove more dangerous than any of them had imagined.

In The Masque of a Murderer, Susanna Calkins has once again combined finely wrought characters, a richly detailed historical atmosphere, and a tightly-plotted mystery into a compelling read.

Lucy Campion Mystery Series Titles

Murder at..

Book One: A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate
Macavity Award Finalist Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award (2014)
Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Selection (“Mystery Pick” and “Featured New Arrival”)
Chicago Book Review – Best Books of 2013

Charred Remains

Book Two: From the Charred Remains (Paperback release on March 17, 2015)
Short-listed for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award (2015)

02_The Masque of a Murderer_Cover

Book Three: The Masque of a Murderer (coming April 2015!)

Praise for the Lucy Campion Mystery Series~

“…the high-quality writing augurs well for future outings.” -Publisher’s Weekly

“Calkins makes Lucy’s efforts to find the real killer entirely plausible, leading to a nail-biter climax with London in flames. This history-mystery delivers a strong heroine making her way through the social labyrinth of Restoration London.” -Booklist

“Calkins’ debut mystery places her unusual detective in a world rich in carefully researched historical detail.” -Kirkus

“A historical mystery with originality and great attention to detail. Readers are transported to 17th century England, a time when social classes were just beginning to change. The characters are multi-dimensional–including the smart, adventurous Lucy Campion–and the mystery will keep readers turning the pages, and they’ll eagerly await the next book in the series.” RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)

“…an intricate tale of fraud and blackmail, leavened by a touch of romance. Calkins, who holds a doctorate in British history, puts her knowledge to sparkling use in this intriguing mystery, which combines a gripping plot with rich historical detail and one of the most admirable protagonists in the genre.” -The Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Calkins is able to seamlessly weave this romance into the story without making it the main plot line, and keeping the mystery the main focus of the story….The puzzles, anagrams, and many secrets combine to make intertwining plot twists that keep the pages turning. FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS is an exciting, secret filled, historical mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end.” –Fresh Fiction (Reviewer’s Pick)

“A good yarn and a fascinating look at life in England in a time when things began to change…social classes, positions, servants’ rights…all because of plague and fire.” -Book Babe Blog

“For me, this book was more than a mystery. It was an eye-opening look at what London was like in the mid-1660s, including the plague and fire that ravaged London, class struggle, the plight of women, and the laws of the time. The author’s engaging writing style made it easy to slip back into the past and experience these things with Lucy.” -Book of Secrets

“A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate is Susanna Calkins’ absorbing debut novel. Just a warning that time WILL easily slip away as you become engrossed in this historical fiction mystery.” -1776 Books: A Philadelphian’s Literary Journey

Pre-Order the Book~

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Book Depository
iTunes

Author Susanna Calkins, Biography~

calkinsBorn and raised in Philadelphia, Susanna Calkins lives in Highland Park, Illinois with her husband and two sons, where she is an educator at Northwestern University.

With a PhD in history, her historical mysteries feature Lucy Campion, a 17th century chambermaid-turned-printer’s apprentice. Her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, was a finalist for the Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award (Macavity).

The second in this series, From the Charred Remains, is currently a finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her third, The Masque of a Murderer, will be released in April 2015.

For more information and to subscribe to Susanna Calkins’ newsletter please visit her website. You can also follow her blog, and connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

04_The Masque of a Murderer_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/themasqueofamurdererblogtour/

Hashtags: #TheMasqueofaMurdererBlogTour #HistoricalMystery #History #SusannaCalkins

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @scalkins3 @MinotaurBooks

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Talking Pesky Characters, Coffee, Crafting, and Commerce of 17th Century London with Piers Alexander

Today I have an interview with Piers Alexander, author of The Bitter Trade, which is set in 17th Century London during the time of commerce, trade, and the Glorious Revolution. The Bitter Trade won the PEN Factor at The Literary Consultancy’s Writing In A Digital Age Conference. Jury Chair Rebecca Swift (Author, Poetic Lives: Dickinson) said: “The Pen Factor jury selected The Bitter Trade based on the quality of writing, the engaging plot, and the rich and unusual historical context. Dazzling and playful!”

02_The Bitter Trade

Hi, Piers! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m thrilled to have you drop by today for a discussion! We have some interesting topics to discuss. I really liked your debut book, The Bitter Trade. Readers can see my review HERE. I can’t wait to learn more!

Piers: Hi Erin! Thanks for having me. Great blog title – and I love that you are proud to do many different things. Death to pigeonholing artists!

 Erin: Come in and have a seat and let’s discuss your book, The Bitter Trade! In honor of the coffee trade that your novel features, I’ll brew your favorite coffee while you have a seat in my library in one of those comfortable chairs over by the window.

What is your favorite coffee? Black or sugar and cream?

Piers: Black, bitter, loamy if you please.

Erin: Wonderful, I’ll pour! As for me, I take my tea with cream and sugar, so I take my coffee much the same. Now that we are settled in, let’s get started.

Q: The Bitter Trade takes place in the late 17th Century London, when William of Orange of the Dutch threatened to overthrow England. What first perked your interest in this historical time period?

A: I was reading Flesh in the Age of Reason by the historian of philosophy, Roy Porter, and got very excited about the flourishing of ideas from the late seventeenth century onwards. I didn’t know anything about the Glorious Revolution, but I was sitting outside the London Library (nursing a coffee, of course!), and saw the statue of William in St James’s Square. I googled him, and realised that 1688 was the perfect setting. Conspiracy, royal family feud, rampant commerce, an explosion of ideas… Wonderful.

Q: You have an amazing story about how you came to be able to write this book, and we’ll get to that later, but first, with all the work it took just to make time to pen this novel, what made you decide, “this story…this is the one?”

A: Well… I started with a story about an eighteenth century Scots philosophy student who gets embroiled in secret duelling clubs. This redheaded, troublemaking chancer called Calumny Spinks popped up as I was scribbling in my diary, one windswept day in a Cornish cottage, and my wife (Rebecca Promitzer), who is an award-winning filmmaker, scriptwriter, novelist and singer-songwriter – you’ll like her! – told me that Cal was MUCH more interesting than the other guy. She was right, and I went with it.

Erin comments: Rebecca is wise! Tell her I said so, and she does sound like someone I’d like! 😀

Q: There are so many wonderful facets to the 17th Century in England. People can keep turning out book after book of original stories that sometimes it seems they all couldn’t possibly fit into one century. What type of characters of the many various sects of people available did you choose to focus your book on? Why?

A: In short: outsiders. You’ll know this from your own writing, and all the historical fiction you read: all these long-dead people queue up at your desk and demand to have their stories told. Huguenot refugees. Foreigners. LGBT characters who had no way to express themselves. The illiterate, those outside the guilds and crafts, lepers… and WOMEN. Women, rapping on my skull, telling me to tell their stories PROPERLY. It’s exhausting.

Erin comments: Characters are so pesky, aren’t they?!! I just love how you are telling women’s stories correctly. Score one for you!

Q: So, what does COFFEE have to do with your novel? Of course, I know that at this time William of Orange of the Dutch was threatening to steal the English crown, and the Dutch of course, were the traders (in fact, my own Dutch ancestors were at the time settling New Amsterdam which is now New York), but for readers, what was so special or interesting about coffee?

A: There’s a special relationship between coffee and books, isn’t there? The writing inspiration that comes after the first sip; the deliciousness of reading with a steaming cup at your side. So first of all, I’m indulging myself and my “little” habit. (Erin comments: A lovely habit!)

But the history of coffee says something profound about the history of European expansion. A drug that started as a mild way for Yemeni mystics to connect with Allah, and ends up fuelling the entire information revolution. Along the way, its secrets are guarded and stolen by French and Dutch adventurers, its trees transplanted to remote corners of the new empires; and coffeehouses themselves bubble and brew with revolution, speculation and wit. Chocolate and tea never quite got the same grip on the imagination and ambition of millions.

Erin comments: Isn’t that amazing? As much as some hate to admit it, we owe  a lot of good stuff to ancient cultures!! And I love chocolate too!!

Q: What are the most common themes that your book took on about life or living in the 17th Century? What types of beginnings did the late part of the century procure?

A: The big surprise to me was how important craft was to life in those days. It’s something I never paid attention to at school – like most boys, I loved to read about great heroes and tyrants, not the lives of ordinary people. But Calumny bumps his head against the rules and requirements of getting a trade, and so he ends up becoming a mimic, a smuggler, a “roustabout” as the BBC called him: and that’s the bitter trade. To pretend to be something you’re not, just for money; to not have a skill and craft of your own.

I mentioned the lives of women above. I never felt like I had to pity my female characters: they’re tough and adaptable, but it was still a shock to learn of all the petty restrictions and violences, as well as the grand ones, and to imagine my loved ones having to cope with all that.

The last one – and it’s below the surface – is that England was still coming to terms with itself, nearly fifty years after the Civil War. I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, and our identity was heavily influenced by the Second World War, so perhaps that’s an influence; but in 1688 I discovered a world of suspicion and brotherhood and secrets that stemmed from a long-ended conflict.

Q: What was the most amazing part of your research? What did you like learning the most and what was one of the most surprising or interesting thing that you came across?

A: This will sound strange, but the best research I did was not historical, it was into the characters. Day by day and year by year they told me their stories, snapped at me when I got them wrong, suggested scenes and activities that took the story in another direction. I didn’t really believe that ideas and characters came from outside writers before – but this book showed me that they have lives of their own.

Q: With this question, I’m not asking you to compare your book to others or just call your book unique, but rather, can you explain to reader why your book might be different or the same as others of the time period?

A: I’m reading a really good novel set in 1678, a crime thriller by Robert J Lloyd called The Bloodless Boy. Interestingly, the author delves into some of my favourite elements: London’s buried rivers, the curiosities of language, the Royal Society, and the hangover from the Civil War. Now that lots of people have read The Bitter Trade, I’ve learned that there are some quite distinct things I’ve done: using a first person narrative, having a very flawed and misleading hero, and being unashamedly interested in commerce as well as violence and politics. Cal counts his pennies and glories in his temporary wealth: something that’s very familiar in today’s world of reality TV and instant Twitter trending.

Q: How do you craft and create your characters? Which character is one of your favorites and why?

A: They always appear in the middle of a scene I’m writing, announcing themselves with an insult or a contradiction; then I write up a little paragraph about them, usually in their voice; then I finish the draft, wonder why the heck they did what they did, and have to rewrite the whole story to honour their intentions. One of my favourites is the leprous coffeehouse owner Mistress John Hollow: a fearless, wisecracking, creative badger of a woman who single-handedly reversed one of my plot threads to her own advantage. Now THAT’S a lady.

Erin comments: HA!

Q: I know that you have had some corporate jobs, owned businesses, and been successful, just to also keep halting that thought to write and get broke in between, or something as such! Can you tell us how your dream of writing came to be fulfilled and what lessons did you learn along the way?

A: To make a very long story short: I wrote half a story when I was 22 and gave it up to get a job. I quit my job, set up a business and sold it to write a story. I wrote a story and ran out of money. Then I knew I had to find a way to build businesses AND write. Which is hard, and risky, and painful, and incredibly rewarding. And now I love it all.

What did I learn? Don’t let other people tell you what isn’t possible. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of solvency. Never give up on what you love. And a little piece of advice to your readers: don’t do what I did. It was genuinely crazy.

Q: How do manage your writing and the rest of your life? What enables you to make writing a priority through the hard work of it for little pay (a question all prospective writers are asking!)?

A: I write 2-3 mornings a week, at least an hour and at most two and a half hours. I write a thousand words an hour, so in six months I finished the draft of my second novel.

I do things slower than other writers, I think. I write fast, but I don’t write every day and I do lots of drafts. Most of all, I like taking my time over a novel. If I wrote one a year I don’t think it would be as rewarding for me or the reader.

The priority thing: just do it first thing. Then your whole day is filled with warm light and happiness!

Erin comments: Isn’t that the truth?!! Writing brings so much sunshine!

 Q: What are the BEST parts of writing to you?

A: About half an hour before I finish a session, it’s just humming. The characters have come alive, new locations and accents are suggesting themselves, the last sip of coffee is still with me, and the street is still quiet.

I’ve just moved into a house behind Alexandra Palace in London. My study looks across at the grove, and beyond it the vaulted glass ceilings of the palace. Witches and pagans used to make a pilgrimage to the mossy well my neighbourhood is named for: when Cecil Rhodes built “the people’s palace” on their ley node, they allegedly cursed it. It’s burned to the ground TWICE. Ha!

Erin comments: Amazing, and very cool!

Q: What else do you hope to write about? Another part of the 17th Century? Or perhaps, a different time period completely?

A: I am just finishing Scatterwood, which moves from coffee to sugar: Cal becomes a runaway in Jamaica. The final part, Calumny’s Republic, will be a rather complex and shocking affair set in Virginia in the new century. After that… it’ll be a different era, but I am still playing with ideas and visiting new places. For fun as well as research!

Q: What are your plans for the future in addition to anything you mentioned in the above question?

A: I have a children’s book in the works; I think I’ll live in a new country one day; and I dream of owning a noisy sculpture studio in a remote place by the sea. Other than that, I hope it has the qualities of the present: love, Rebecca, dogs, good friends and spicy cooking.

Erin comments: You forgot coffee!! 🙂 I would love to hear about the children’s book! What wonderful dreams, I hope you accomplish them all and enjoy the rest. I love spicy cooking too!

Q: what are some of your own favorite books to read or favorite all time authors?

A: I used to reread books a lot as a teenager: Wilbur Smith, George MacDonald Fraser, you name it. These days, I read fewer and I hope better books. Recent favourites are Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin stories are wonderful examples of how to combine thrilling action, historical detail and tear-inducingly great literary prose.

Q: If you could sip coffee with anyone in history, who would it be?

A: Louis XIV. What a terrible reputation he has, and what a huge character he must have been. I’d make sure I brewed it myself though…

Erin comments: Oh, he is quite interesting!

Q: Where can readers connect with you?

A: www.piersalexander.com; @thebittertrade on Twitter; Facebook.com/thebittertrade; and I am quite often found reading aloud at coffee festivals!

Erin: Thank you so much Piers for stopping by and chatting with me. It was delightful to meet you and if you found any good Dutch historical references, I may be contacting you in the future as I research my own books. 🙂 Best wishes on your writing career!

Piers: Thank you Erin. The coffee was delicious, the company exquisite, and I hope to read your stories soon. And yes I do have those references… See you in the past!

Erin: That’s excellent!! I look forward to it. Thank you!

02_The Bitter TradeThe Bitter Trade, Synopsis~

Publication Date: April 7, 2014
Tenderfoot
Formats: eBook, Paperback; 448p

Genre: Historical Adventure/Thriller

GoodReads Link

Read an Excerpt. Listen to an Excerpt.

In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title.

When his father’s violent past resurfaces, Calumny’s desperation leads him to flee to London and become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father’s life – but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself. Cal’s journey takes him from the tough life of Huguenot silk weavers to the vicious intrigues at Court. As the illicit trader Benjamin de Corvis and his controlling daughter Emilia pull him into their plots, and his lover Violet Fintry is threatened by impending war, Cal is forced to choose between his conscience and his dream of becoming Mister Calumny Spinks.

Praise for The Bitter Trade~

“A fantastic debut novel” – Robert Elms, BBC Radio London

“The ambitious, cheeky Calumny Spinks is a great guide through the sensory overload of 17th century London, in an adventure that combines unexpected insights with just the right amount of rollicking ribaldry. I hope it’s the opener to a series.” – Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant and May novels

“This debut novel is a gripping evocation of late seventeenth century London, rich in persuasive dialect and period detail and with a bold protagonist. An unusual thriller that just keeps you wanting to know more about the many facets of this story. You’ll never view your coffee in quite the same way again.” – Daniel Pembrey, bestselling author of The Candidate

“A very exciting and superbly researched novel” – Mel Ulm, The Reading Life

Buy the Book~

Amazon UK (Paperback)
Amazon US (Kindle)
Barnes & Noble (Nook)
iTunes
Kobo

About the Author, Piers Alexander~

03_Piers AlexanderPiers Alexander is an author and serial entrepreneur. After a successful career as CEO of media and events companies he became a Co-Founder and Chairman of three start-up businesses.

In 2013 he was awarded the PEN Factor Prize for The Bitter Trade. He is currently working on the sequel, Scatterwood, set in Jamaica in 1692.

For more information visit Piers Alexander’s website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thebittertradeblogtour

Hashtags: #TheBitterTradeBlogTour #HistoricalThriller

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @BitterTrade

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