Monday, November 03, 2008

Guest post from Jeri Westerson

Today Jeri Westerson, author of the medieval mystery Veil of Lies, is stopping by on her blog tour to speak about the appeal of history and historical fiction. Welcome, Jeri!

Veil of Lies is a November release from St. Martin's Minotaur; it was named an Editors' Choice title in November's Historical Novels Review. Jeri's blog is Getting Medieval.

Enthralled By History

Why are we enthralled by history? What makes those long-ago days so intriguing? For some, it started with an inspiring teacher who knew how to involve their students in the times and places in the past (alternately, I hear from people who said how much they hated history because their teachers were so dull). I was lucky. I grew up with the stuff at home.

My mother was a dedicated Anglophile, and my father was after a medieval history degree to teach before he was waylaid by those new-fangled inventions called the computer. Needless to say, anything I wanted to know about England in the middle ages was at my fingertips. Our bookshelves at home were better than Google. They groaned with the classics of historical fiction: Thomas B. Costain, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Norah Lofts, Mary Stewart. But there was also Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. In fact, we had a children's version of The Canterbury Tales and I have the book still! And my mother played a record album with an actor reciting some of the stories in Middle English. I was possibly the only kindergartner in South Central Los Angeles in the 60's—anywhere?—who could recite the first few lines of the Prologue in Middle English.

Such was my life. And history was always a part of it. I enjoyed looking back at the past and finding the threads that lead to how we shape our lives today, how something so distant could have such an impact centuries later. And it always amazes me how political leaders fail to learn from the past—even the recent past. Maybe they had lousy history teachers.

Many of us are in the enviable position of loving historical fiction. And now—thanks to pioneers like Ellis Peters with her Brother Cadfael series—we can also enjoy our history blended with mystery. I remember the first time I discovered this. It was in the early nineties and I was in an independent bookshop which, sadly, is no longer there. All they stocked were mysteries (and this was the first time I had seen that. I have since learned that there are many such bookshops all over the United States devoted solely to mysteries) and I had a yearning to read a medieval mystery, wondering if such a thing existed. Did it! There was Ellis Peters and many other authors as well. I discovered something wonderful. It was historical fiction but it had the added benefit of being a mystery!

I love immersing myself in a different place and time. The smell of the streets of London, the smokiness from hearths, the raw smells of butchered meats hanging in open stalls, the sharp tang of young wine, the dank odors of the Thames whispering on its rocky banks.

What was it like? What did the people think about in their daily lives?

How did they deal with murder?

But talking about the "Middle Ages" as one unit can be a bit deceiving. Which part are we focusing on? Depending on where we turn our eye, we concentrate on completely different experiences. Generally, when speaking of the "medieval period", scholars distinguish that portion of history from 500 to 1500 A.D. (Incidentally, no historian of any repute would be caught dead calling those earlier years the "Dark Ages." They were called the "Early Middle Ages.") As you can see, that is a tremendous span of time beginning from the fall of the Roman Empire and finishing with the dawn of what we call the Renaissance. Technology, clothing and hair styles, mores, customs, languages—a host of experiences—went through immense changes in that timeframe of one thousand years. What then do most people re-imagine as the "Middle Ages"?

I think King Arthur has a lot to do with our romantic imagery of this period. Tournaments, shining armor, flapping banners, long gowns with pointy sleeves, conical hats with transparent veils, honor, chivalry, courtly love. And yet, the historic Arthur—if ever there was one—appeared far earlier than this version of the middle ages that most diners of the Medieval Times dinner theatre are seeking. The period we're thinking of would be considered the "High Middle Ages"—the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Once the barbarian invasions ceased, Europe settled in and—despite the occasional forays into one's neighbors' domains—country borders took form and the idea of nation-states was burgeoning, along with a rise of artistic and intellectual ventures not seen before. It was an intense period of religious ideology blending with everyday life; it was the start of the crusades, forging a Eurocentric set of principles and beliefs that would march through the centuries, influencing our religious and nationalistic ethics to this very day.

The "Late Middle Ages"—the period I like to write about—was truly the dawn of national identity. In England, the language of the court was English (where before it had been French, the language of the Normans). The 14th century was the time of Chaucer, where even the popular literature was in Middle English, our precursor to modern English. It was the time of the aftermath of the Plague (some forty years prior to the action of the story), tournaments, battles, a boy king who, at the end of the century, is deposed and murdered.

Falling in love with history is usually a lifelong obsession. I know there are the minority of historical fiction readers who only concentrate on one period of time. But the majority won't turn their nose up at an Egyptian novel and sneer at a Roman story. No, we history lovers love it all, whether it's the foreignness of the setting as in Simon Levack's Aztec mysteries, or a story of ancient Japan as in I.J. Parker's mystery series, or something in the western European tradition that we find familiar. My particular brand of mystery is a medieval noir called VEIL OF LIES. My protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of 14th century London. Not only do I get to immerse myself in all the intricacies of England in the 1300s, but I also derive a bit of the style from the noir and hard-boiled novels of the 1930s and '40s. What's not to like about that?

You can read the first chapter of VEIL OF LIES at my website


  1. Jeri Westerson writes such interesting guest posts. Earlier I read a post where she discussed use of a place as a character. Everything I've read about her and about her book makes me anxious to read Veil of Lies. Thanks for the post.

  2. I am very much enjoying following Jeri around and seeing what her next guest post is about!

    I am reading Veil of Lies at the moment and I am enjoying it.

  3. Great post!!!!! I just finished VEIL OF LIES and it's a fabulous book! I'm already looking forward to the next one :]

  4. My copy's on order from Amazon!

    I grew up reading the same historical fiction authors, and they're still among my favorites.