Today I’ve invited Susanna Calkins to visit and answer a few questions about the fourth and latest book in her historical mystery series, A Death Along The River Fleet.
Welcome Susanna. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
SC: A Death Along The River Fleet opens with Lucy Campion, 17th century printer’s apprentice and bookseller, on her way to deliver some books to a customer several miles from her shop. As she crosses the River Fleet and enters the vast wasteland created by the Great Fire of London of 1666, she encounters a strange woman who speaks of being chased by the Devil. The woman is barefoot, clad only in a shift, covered in blood that is not her own, and unable to remember her identity. Worried that the woman will be set upon by fearful villagers, Lucy brings the woman to the home of a physician she knows. When they suspect that the woman may be a noblewoman, the physician does not wish to throw her out of her house and presses Lucy to tend the woman while the woman’s family is being located. To make matters more strange, the body of a murdered man is found in the ruins nearby, and the odd woman may well be the murderess.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
SC: This time period in British history fascinates me generally. King Charles had only been restored to the throne for several years (following two decades of more repressive Puritan rule) when the plague struck, followed soon after by the Great Fire. Those events completely disrupted families and communities in London, as people died, or fled from the area. Not only was there a great deal of identity theft (servants could become masters and appropriate titles, property and wealth) but there were also unheralded job opportunities. Lucy was able to avoid some of the patriarchal strictures of her time, by finding a way to become a printer’s apprentice (even if the stationer’s guild does not formally accept her).
What research did you do for this book?
SC: I did a great deal of research for this book, much of it completed when I was earning my Ph.D. in early modern English history. I spent time in London as well, working by Shakespeare’s Globe, so I could get a feel for the period.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
SC: I try to balance accuracy and authenticity. I try to be as accurate as possible, using period maps and primary sources to help me with details, and scholarly secondary sources to help me make sense of the larger social, cultural, religious and political trends. But there were certainly a few things that I had to simplify—for example, there was no police force at this time period, so I had to give my constable a broader range of duties and powers that were probably a bit exaggerated.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
SC: I created every character in my book. I do reference historical figures like King Charles II or the diarist Sam Pepys, but those details just serve to enhance the larger historical backdrop. I made the decision a long time ago not to use real historical figures, because I think I would feel too limited in what I could let the character say or do or act. I would want to be scrupulous in the way I portrayed this person, and that just seems very challenging.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
SC: I like to think of the historical setting as another character. I have my characters see the carts in the streets, listen to the cries of the soap-sellers, smell the offal that has been flung out the window, taste the savory hot pears sold on the street-corner, feel the cobblestone streets beneath their leather boots. I read a lot of sources from the time to help me get these kinds of details right, although of course most of the research ends up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other? And, if so, why?
SC: That’s an interesting question. Lucy came to me a long time ago; I knew I wanted her to be a servant but one who pushed against some of the constraints of her sex and station. Even though I write in third person, I felt more comfortable writing from a female perspective—it just feels more natural and authentic for me.
Thank you for answering my questions, Susanna.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog today, Dianne!
About Susanna Calkins: Susanna became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons. A Death Along the River Fleet is her fourth novel.