Back in June, I read and really enjoyed The Firemaster’s Mistress. I’d picked it up in the UK about a year in advance of the US release, which was last month. In honor of the book’s arrival in the States, Christie agreed to answer some of the burning questions I had about the book. Be forewarned, question number four is a very big spoiler, although I bet it will answer one of your questions once you’ve finished. The rest of the interview is perfectly safe!
1. First of all, it’s clear that a lot of research went into The Firemaster’s Mistress. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you went about learning so much about James I’s England?
ANSWER. How long have I got to answer this one? It’s something I often talk about at literary festivals and Reading Groups. Yes, I do a lot of research, and love it. I feel responsible for telling my readers the historical truth, as far as it can be known. But, secretly, I also feel that research gives me permission to be nosy, to go behind the scenes in fascinating places, and to ask impertinent questions that I’d be far too shy to ask otherwise. And it introduces me to amazing, generous people I’d never otherwise know.
I try to create a vivid, detailed film that I can run in my head, and describe, to give readers a feeling of what it was really like to be there. To build this film, I read research books written by historians and look at old documents from the period, like the two signed confessions of Guy Fawkes. I visit the places my characters would have known, to try to imagine what their eyes might have seen. I try on the clothes to learn what they feel like – and how they shape behaviour. (Try sitting down in a stiffened bodice and iron-hooped farthingale.) I go to museums to study the details of daily life – what their forks, drinking glasses, chamber pots, musical instruments, and nightclothes looked like. I learn what layers of wool and straw were under them when they slept, and I imagine the fleas that lived there. I read what my characters might have read. I’ve tried living for a few days without electric light, and, as a result, now understand all those slightly-implausible mistaken identities you find in Shakespeare’s plays. And I’ve used this lack of light in the plot of FIREMASTER’S MISTRESS.
Also, in my previous life in theatre, I spent four years working with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and in London, as resident choreographer and assistant director. All day, every day, I heard Shakespeare’s English being spoken, while I watched and helped actors explore ways to inhabit that world – there’s no way to improve on that as background for writing about the period.
If it’s still up on the Web, I have an article posted on the English TV Channel Four History Website, which goes into greater detail about how I researched the Gunpowder Plot, and how that unrolling detective story influenced my plot, including why I chose my writer of the anonymous Monteagle letter.
2. Do you think that an insider really revealed the Gunpowder Plot of 1605?
ANSWER. Yes. But no one can agree who it was. This uncertainty is a perfect example of one of the ‘cracks’ in known history into which I try to imagine my fictional stories.
3. Why did you choose to write about this time period in England?
ANSWER. By chance, at first. I fell in love with the craziness of a subject (the Tulip Madness and wild stock-market type dealing in flower bulbs, as if they were pork bellies or oil) which turned into my first 17th c. novel, THE LADY TREE. Then I fell in love with the period. The people feel more familiar to me than those of either the medieval or Victorian periods. They’re vigorous, mercantile, culturally diverse and had their own version of football louts and dot.com millionaires. I think that they would recognise us too, once they got past wondering why everyone seemed to beep, had pockets that played snatches of music, and walked around with one hand against their cheeks, talking to themselves.
Reality comes into it too. Publishers want a book a year, if possible. Even taking longer to write one, you don’t have time to keep learning new periods in the same detail.
And see what I said above about my time with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The period was already in my blood.
4. This is a spoiler question, but I must know: Why did you choose to have Kate end up with Boomer and not Francis?
ANSWER. Controversy! I love it! Readers are split about 50-50 over which man Kate should have married, and feel equally passionately about it. She makes a tough choice between different types of love, and readers seem to respond according to where they are in their own lives. For me, Francis will always be the delightful sexy hero you fall madly in love with, but he’s also a rolling stone. And a little self-centred. In real life, happily-ever-after, he would hurt Kate again. He’s not husband material for a woman like her who has been badly damaged by her life (including by him!) and needs for her heart and soul to heal. It may also be partly that Boomer looks a bit like my tall, sexy, silver-haired husband, but he LISTENS to her in a way that Francis never does. He’s only 48, and still in his male prime. He’s protective and masterful in a nice way, kind, and treats Kate as an intelligent equal. He’s happy for her to be her slightly unusual self. He’s a little dangerous, but not to her. What’s not to love? Anyway, who could resist a gift like Caledonian Meg? (But don’t worry. Francis meets his very-satisfactory match in the next book, THE PRINCIPESSA.)
5. What is your writing process like? Do you plan ahead, or do you allow the characters to go where they will?
ANSWER. This is not an answer for people who want things clear cut. I know where I’m starting. I have an idea of where I want to end up, though this may change over the nine months or so that it takes to get to a first draft. I sketch out a very rough road map of my intended journey. Then I do a lot of what I call ‘improvisation’ in the theatrical sense, putting the characters I’ve chosen into the situations I think they’ll find themselves in and finding out what they do. For example, I didn’t know which man Kate would choose until I got her to Powder Mote and put the three of them together. I’m willing to bin a great many words before I settle. My desk sees the ruthless murder of possibilities and lots of re-cycled paper!
I hate doing detailed synopses before starting a commission because I’ve had no time to explore with my characters. And the writing can then feel like paint-by-numbers. Without the ‘juice’. (I was delighted to learn that Stephen King feels the same way.)
On the other hand, you can never let your characters wander completely at will for long, or they can derail the book. Like actors, who have to make themselves heard in the back row even when whispering into someone’s ear, I have to keep a balance between free imagining and craft. I swing all the time between meditative dreaming and worrying about building tension.
Every character or world has its own logic. The sense of truth, even in fantasy, grows from following those internal rules. If I find myself headed in the wrong direction, I have to go back and redefine the rules that took me there. The writer is in charge!
6. Finally, do you read historical fiction yourself? Do you have any favorite authors or books of any genre that you’d like to share with us?
ANSWER. YES! And thrillers, and literary novels, and travel books, and books on magic, folklore and mythology, and poetry, and backs of cereal boxes… I could start giving lists of names (including Anya Seton, Rose Tremain, Philipa Gregory, James Lee Burke…) but it might be quickest for people to check the ‘Extra’ I’ve just written posted on my website (www. christiedickason.com). It answers this question directly and is called ‘The Ones That Got me Started’.
Thanks so much for taking the time out to answer my questions, Christie! For those of you who don’t have this book yet and love historical fiction, I recommend you check it out on Amazon.