What: Author of the MISTRESS OF FORTUNE series, set in 17th century London and featuring Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortune teller. Her debut, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, was nominated for the Left Coast Crime Rosebud Award for Best First Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in NEEDLE Magazine, Shotgun Honey, and numerous anthologies, including the upcoming PROTECTORS 2 anthology.
Where: Northern California
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I must admit that MISTRESS OF FORTUNE was probably the first historical mystery I have read (does “Name of the Rose” count?). What drew you to this genre as a writer?
Let me congratulate you on reading your first historical mystery. That wasn’t so hard, was it? And if you’re gonna read a historical at all, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE was probably a good place to start. I’ve been told that its paced like a “modern thriller.” That makes me happy because it was kind of my goal.
Sometimes I think my decision to write a historical—as my first novel, at least—was misguided. Explaining the politics of the time without being pedantic, building an authentic world without resorting to info dump—that shit ain’t easy. But in a lot of ways, writing a historical novel is no different than writing anything else. You’re trying to capture the zeitgeist of the time and place. In the case of 17th century London, much of that zeitgeist rests in our collective imaginations, based mostly on other films and books, because none of us were alive back then. That makes it easier to write in some way.
What? You’ve never imagined 17th century London? Well, have I got a book for you.
But that doesn’t answer the question, does it? I wasn’t drawn to the genre so much as I was drawn to 17th century London. When I was a kid I read and loved a book called FOREVER AMBER and decided if I ever wrote a book it would be set in that time period.
The story in the two MISTRESS OF FORTUNE novels is told from the perspective of Lady Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II, who has a secret identity as a fortune teller. Did she always live in 1600s London in your mind?
Yes and no. She was conceived in 17th century London, but for a while I imagined a series of novels in which she (or her descendants) would exist in different times and places. Not in a supernatural way, mind you—I’m not really a fan of supernatural elements. Considering Isabel Wilde has no descendants (at this point, anyway), I guess I should scrap that idea.
Good question. She’d live in London, of course, or perhaps New York. Somewhere hustling and bustling. She’d be the CEO of some company. But something would happen—I don’t know what—that would require her to retreat into the shadows and explore the city’s darker aspects. She’s not happy if she doesn’t have one foot stuck in the seedier side of life. She’d end up losing nearly everything, including that high-powered job, but would somehow be better off for it. In book two she’d work her way back up again.
MISTRESS OF FORTUNE is partially based on actual historical figures and events. How much research is required to write historical fiction? How do you strike the balance between fact and fiction?
One of the biggest lessons I learned while writing this book is that what makes for good nonfiction does not always make for good fiction. As you mention, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE is based on the real life unsolved murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate whose body was found run through with his own sword. In my first draft, I tried to stay pretty close to the actual timeline of events but the story dragged, it was difficult to keep track of all the characters (all those dukes and sirs and ladies, you know), and the politics at play were confusing. In subsequent drafts I condensed the timeline, combined characters, and added more fictional elements to make a more exciting story.
As for research, I mentioned above that I’ve been interested in time period for a long time. I’ve kind of been researching it since I was a teenager. Any writer knows that research is an excellent excuse for work avoidance. At some point, you have to quit with the studying and get down to the writing. It took me nearly thirty years to start writing.
Though I claim to be less of a stickler for accuracy than many historical fiction writers I know, I did put a lot of effort into getting things right. With that said, there are a few scenes in the book that are almost entirely made up—by that I mean I couldn’t find anything in the historical record describing some aspects of 17th century life I wanted to portray so I resorted to making it up. I challenge you to identify which ones they are.
You and I were both included in the “Cozy vs. Noir” rereading at the California Crime Writers Conference. Do you consider yourself a “Cozy writer”? Do you think about genre much at all?
I have, at this point, never written anything “cozy.” The cozy genre has specific rules, none of which I follow. I was included in the cozy group because that was the closest fit. I’m cool with that.
I do think about genre in that for commercial purposes, there are certain parameters that need to be met if one wants to sell one’s work. If that makes me a hack, so be it—as Stephen Blackmoore says, “hacks get paid.” Not that I’m getting paid, exactly. I’m still working on that part.
Up until last month, none of my shorts were historical—well, that’s a lie. My Needle Magazine story was set in the early 1960s. But Thomas Pluck asked me to contribute to the Protectors II anthology and we’d talked about doing a Jack the Ripper story. So that one’s set in 1888 London.
My short stories tend to be based more on my real life. They’re not exactly autobiographical, but I definitely steal from my real experiences. Consequently, they feature a lot of bad decisions and loser guys.
As a regular contributor at Do Some Damage, how do you feel blogging helps you as a writer? Where do you get blogging inspiration?
I’m gonna be honest here. I don’t think blogging helps me much as a writer, except that any writing I do helps me to some extent. I mean, you’re always looking for the best way to express yourself, and blogging is part of that. That said, I pretty much have trouble thinking of a topic every week. Sometimes I resort to talking about my life—I think you can always tell when I’m depressed or not being productive in my posts.
What advice do you have for new mystery writers trying to break into publishing? If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
This is such a tough question to answer. I try never to second guess myself when it comes to choices I’ve already made that I can’t change now. There’s no point, you know? It’s tempting to say I’d hold out for a print deal (my books are published by Carina Press, the digital imprint of Harlequin) or that I’d self-publish so I’d have complete control of my books, but ultimately, I’m not sure how that’s helpful. Unless you’re offered a huge deal from one of the Big 6 (or is it 5 now?) I think everyone might question their choices.
The truth is that I’ve had some incredible experiences since I was published by Carina Press. Things I dreamed of for years. Am I done? No. But it’s hard to regret something that’s given me so much joy.
But you asked for advice, so I’ll give it. The crime/mystery world doesn’t seem to have fully embraced eBooks the way other genres have. As a result, I’d hesitate to take any deal that didn’t include print. If that means self-publishing, then self-publish. Part of that is that I’m not sure Carina Press was the best publisher for me and my work. If you’re going to take a print-only deal, perhaps consider other publishers. Not that I want to shit on my experience with Carina—everyone I worked with there, especially my editor, was terrific. I just don’t think they were right for *my* books.
This is the first time I’ve said that publicly, by the way. You got the scoop.
What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
I have two stories coming out in anthologies this year–the above-mentioned Protectors anthology and an anthology edited by Gary Phillips and Robert Randisi called (I think) 44 Caliber Funk.
And I’m just finishing up a contemporary mystery set in Venice, CA. I plan to have my agent shop that rather than self-publish. But someday I’ll self-pub. It’s just a matter of time.
S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.