The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
19 November 2007
Today's guest is Candice Proctor. Her newest historical mystery from NAL, Why Mermaids Sing: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, written under the pen name C.S. Harris, has just been released. Why Mermaids Sing is the third in a series of mysteries starring a young nobleman in Regency England who was scarred by his experiences as a spy in the Napoleonic Wars. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin is drawn into investigating mysterious deaths despite opposition from his family and the authorities. The first and second books in the series are What Angels Fear and When Gods Die: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery.
Welcome, Candice, and congratulations on the publication of your new mystery.
You wrote romances for many years. Why did you decide to try your hand at a historical mystery?
When I first started writing romances, historical romance writers were free to set their book in any time or place, and I really took advantage of that. I set one book in Medieval France, another in the Old West, another three books in different parts of Australia in three different time periods.
But then publishers realized that writers who “branded” themselves—i.e., “she writes steamy Regencies” or “she writes funny Westerns”—sold better. I started coming under a lot of pressure to “pick a time and a place and stick with it.”
The problem was, my story ideas always came to me as a set of characters in conflict in a specific time period and setting. I knew that if I simply picked a time and place and tried to artificially manufacture characters in conflict, my pleasure and my creativity would both evaporate. Some people can do that, and do it very successfully. I simply can’t. So I decided that if I had to “pick a time and place and stick with it” (can you tell how tired I got of hearing that phrase?), I’d rather create a set of characters and write a mystery series.
Given that you're an expert on the French Revolution and women's role in it, why did you choose to set your story in Regency England and have a male hero?
I did toy with the idea of developing a series set in the French Revolution, but I just couldn’t seem to summon up a lot of enthusiasm for it. The French Revolution was a really bleak, depressing time. I find it fascinating historically, but I really didn’t want to spend the next ten or more years of my life fantasizing about it. But Regency bucks in knee breeches? Women in filmy dresses and gamon curls? Much more pleasant!
I did in fact consider a female protagonist. Actually, the first character I developed was Kat Boleyn, with Sebastian as her lover. But I didn’t want to write a cozy series; I wanted something edgier, something darker and more dangerous. I couldn’t realistically see a Regency lady throwing knives and fighting and chasing murderers though the sewers. Given the conventions of the time, I realized I needed Sebastian as my protagonist.
In historic mysteries, generally the detective is free of some of the prejudices and blind spots of his or her age. Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peters), Sano Ichiro (Laura Joh Rowland), Benjamin January (Barbara Hambly), Isaac of Girona (Caroline Roe), and Catherine LeVendeur (Sharan Newman), to name a few, all share with Sebastian St. Cyr progressive ideas about women, tolerance of people of other religions or ethnic groups, a compassionate attitude toward the poor and other unfortunates, and training or travel that provides them with unusual skills and insights. Do you think writers give their detectives these traits to make them more sympathetic to the modern reader or because being open-minded gives the detective a huge advantage over the typical person in solving the mystery?
I don’t know about other writers, but Sebastian is the way he is because I myself wouldn’t like him if he were jingoistic or prejudiced and closed-minded! The other characters in the series do have some of those failings—Tom, for instance, is very suspicious of foreigners, while Sir Henry Lovejoy is very religiously conservative and Jarvis has the ethical standards of a wolverine. Don’t get me wrong; I still like all of those characters, despite their faults. But I demand more of Sebastian.
The horror writer and psychologist Charles Gramlich once told me that he believes that in stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and that if we are to be that hero’s disciple for the duration of a tale, we must respect that hero, they must have traits we admire and would like to have ourselves. Ironically, I see a disturbing trend in contemporary genre fiction, particularly thrillers, toward creating “heroes” who share many of the same traits that I associate with Hitler’s inner circle—intense jingoism, militarism, prejudice against other religions and ethnic groups, a willingness to use torture and slaughter the innocents of other nations. I don’t think those kinds of protagonists ever endure. They’re simply not heroic.
You've talked in your blog about how you hate revisions. What is your favorite part of writing a book?
I had to think long and hard about this one. I realized my favorite part of writing is whenever things are going well, when the story ideas click effortlessly in place, when characters spring magically to life on the page with all sorts of wonderful nuances I never consciously imagined, when a scene shapes up to be more powerful than I expected it to be, when the words fall without effort to describe a setting or an emotion with unusual grace or precision. That’s when I get that thrilling zing that makes me love writing.
On the other hand, I hate writing when my characters seem flat, when the words tear and strain, when my plot twists me into a knot and backs me into a corner. So I guess the answer is, there really isn’t any one aspect of writing I enjoy more than the other. When the process is working, it’s heaven. When things aren’t going well, it’s hell—and I’ve only myself to blame.
Do you enjoy researching your books? Do you have any suggestions for not getting bogged down in research at the expense of writing time?
I’m a historian, so it’s inevitable that research is one of the things I enjoy about writing historicals. I need to be very, very careful not to overdo it. When I was researching Night in Eden, I spent over six months reading Australian history. I finally had to tell myself, “Candy! You’re not going to be teaching a course entitled Introduction to Australian History. You’re just writing a novel!” I don’t think I’ve gone to quite that extreme again, but anyone looking for suggestions on not getting bogged down in research needs to go elsewhere!
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
I have a horrible writing regimen. I’m not a morning person, so I seem to waste big chunks of the day doing laundry and cleaning out litter boxes, and doing yoga, and checking email and blogs, and reading the news. (I’m a huge news junky; I read on-line newspapers from all over the world. I tell myself it’s research.)
Usually, it’s almost lunchtime before I actually start producing anything. Now that my youngest has gone off to college, I’ll work through until my husband, Steve, comes home for dinner. I frequently work during the evening, too, although that’s usually plotting, editing, or research, rather than actual composition.
My lifesaver is our lake house. I can go up there and be away from all distractions—Internet, daughters, husband, laundry, vomiting cats—and just write like crazy for five days at a time. I fall into my natural rhythm, which means writing until 5:00 am and sleeping until 11 or so the next morning, then getting up and doing it all over again. I live and breathe my story, it flows out of me with amazing grace, and I produce scores of handwritten pages. I then come home and type up.
It’s a crazy system, and even though it works for me, I wouldn’t recommend it, no.
One problem many New Orleans writers have is that recovering physically and mentally from Hurricane Katrina takes an enormous amount of time. You seem to have successfully balanced rebuilding your Katrina-flooded house and refinishing your furniture with writing your books and making your deadlines. Any tips for the rest of us?
I didn’t write anything for seven months after Katrina. Part of it was that I was spending 18 hours a day gutting and then rebuilding our house and working on the furniture. But a big part of it was I was simply too emotionally battered to reach within myself the way one must when one writes. I had a book due in November 2006—Why Mermaids Sing—and finally my family told me in April that I had to stop spending every day working on the house and write. I set up my computer on the bare concrete slab of my empty office and just stared helplessly at the screen.
What saved me? I started my blog. I wrote about Katrina, and somehow that freed me to begin writing my book. The other thing that saved me was the little house we bought up near Clinton, Louisiana, as an “evacuation house,” i.e., someplace to go next time we need to evacuate for a hurricane.
At first I went up there just to get away from the trauma of New Orleans and the distraction of our shattered house. But I’ve discovered there is something about breathing in clean mountain air and sitting on the porch swing staring out at a peaceful, sun-sparkled lake that makes me amazingly productive, and it’s now become a part of my writing routine.
I’m still stunned that I actually made Mermaid’s deadline—and the recent deadline for my fourth book, too. The house in New Orleans still isn’t finished, of course, but we’ve been back in it now for over a year, and my writing career is solidly back on track. I can only credit the support of my family and the magic of the lake house.
Book trailers remind me of TV drug ads: Music and visuals set a mood, but one learns almost nothing about the product. Your Website has a book trailer for Why Mermaids Sing. Do you think book trailers help sell books? If so, how?
I think the best book trailers are designed to appeal to the emotions—at least, that’s what I tried to do with my trailer. Get a little bit of information out there, but mainly evoke a dark and mysterious mood. So many of the ones I’ve seen are too long and boring—even if I had been considering buying the book, the video would have put me off! But then, maybe I simply wasn’t their target audience.
Do I think book videos help sell books? Not to me, but then I’ve learned I can’t use myself as a gauge for other people’s thoughts or behavior.
So why did I make one? It made my publisher happy—publishers like to see authors doing things to help sell books, and making your publisher happy is VERY important in this business.
I also did it quite simply because it was fun. I made my own, and I enjoy facing a challenge and mastering a new skill. I doubt anyone will decide to buy Why Mermaids Sing based solely on the book trailer, but it might help tip that mental/emotional balance. Right now, book videos are still fairly new, so they have a novel appeal. Eventually, I suspect everyone will have them and no one will be watching them. But then, I thought vampires were a passing fad back in 1996, so what do I know?
One of my favorite characters in your series is the scholarly spinster Hero. Are you willing to give any hints about what's in store for her in future books?
Hero was one of those magical characters who simply sprang to life on the page. I personally find her a fascinating character, and she plays a major role the fourth book in the series, Where Serpents Sleep. Beyond that, my lips are sealed!
Thank you again, Candice, for taking the time to visit my blog and talk about writing and your books!
You can find Candice Proctor's Website at http://csharris.net/ and her blog at http://www.csharris.net/blog.html. Her book Why Mermaids Sing: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery is available at major bookstores and can be ordered online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.