Step Back Into the Ming Dynasty

Today P.A. De Voe is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us about No Way To Die, her latest novel in the Ming Dynasty mystery series.

Welcome. Let’s get started, shall we?

Tell us about your novel.

PAD: My latest book is No Way to Die, A Ming Dynasty Mystery. Here’s a short description:

“When the mutilated body of a stranger is found in a pigpen, the search for justice once more brings together the unlikely duo of Shu-chang, a school teacher, and Xiang-hua, a women’s doctor. Their search through Ming Dynasty’s underworld of back-alleys, gangs, gambling, and thugs-for-hire uncovers a twisted tangle of jealousy, greed, and revenge. These discoveries, however, only create more confusion for our intrepid duo as their list of suspects continues to grow to include a lustful herbalist, an unscrupulous neighbour, a vengeful farmer, a jealous husband, a scorned wife, and a band of thieves. So many questions: How will they determine who is innocent and who is guilty? Are they being manipulated? Is this a case of misdirection? Was the victim’s death due to a case of mistaken identity? Will they be able to untangle the truth and solve the murder before the murderer strikes again?”

Is the book part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.

PAD: Yes, it is. It’s second in the A Ming Dynasty Mystery series. Deadly Relations is the first and I’m working on the third, which will come out early next year. The series is set in late fourteen century China—a period that fascinates me because it’s the beginning of a new, Han dynasty. My goal is to transport the reader into this complex and engaging world of early Ming China through the use of story filled with mystery and intrigue.

There are two protagonists. One is a poor scholar/teacher and the other a young women’s doctor. To delve into all aspects of Chinese life, I needed a male and female protagonist. Thus: Shu-chang and Xiang-hua.

Traditional Chinese society was a meritocracy. Meaning that people (men only in this case), no matter what their family background, could achieve wealth and status through their own abilities. Success or failure depended on an individual’s (males) intelligence, drive, and work, not birth right. The path to success was a series of three National examinations. It involved three levels of exams. Our hero, Shu-chang just passed the second exam when his personal life is dealt a tragic blow, threatening his entire future, and thrusting him into the threat of even greater abject poverty. To survive, he becomes a teacher in a nearby town’s clan school. Shu-chang’s character is based on the trials and tribulations of intelligent, ambitious, but poor, young men found throughout Chinese history.

After finding Shu-chang as a main male character, I wanted a realistic female character for him to work with. As it happened, I was reading a book about women’s medicine at the time and found a reference to a real-life women’s doctor. She lived in the Ming Dynasty and was the author of the only medical book ever written by a woman during the traditional period. She was perfect! I now had a model for my female character. My version is not the historical woman herself, but what I think these educated, female women’s doctors might have been like in a highly gendered society such as early China. Given her work as a medical practitioner, she can move freely through all social classes. Thus, I now had access to a panoply of secondary characters otherwise not available.

Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?

PAD: I have a background in China studies and have been fascinated by the Ming Dynasty for a long time. The first emperor was a complicated and controversial character and his period of rule left all kinds of openings for stories. I’ve published a couple of contemporary cozy mysteries and have a couple of amateur sleuth mysteries sitting in my drawer (don’t we all?!), but I kept feeling a pull toward these historical Chinese stories. After successfully publishing a couple of Judge Lu short stories (as you’ll guess: set in early Ming China), I was emboldened to launch into a full-fledged historical novel.

Because of my experience with first experimenting with the short story format, I now fully encourage new writers and want-to-be writers to write short stories. They give you the feed-back you need. They can also give you encouragement and validation on your journey to becoming a published author.

Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?

PAD: Not so much a theme as a playing with the culture and society of a different international and historical people. I am an anthropologist and these things dominate my world-view.

How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?

PAD: I don’t actually have favourites. All my characters are interesting to me—or they wouldn’t be included! J

I do like Shu-chang. He embodies the struggling and optimistic young man who feels that if he can succeed in the examination lottery, he can make a difference for his family and his community.

I like Xiang-hua because, while she has exceptional advantages due to being lucky in the family she was born into, these benefits come with an almost over-powering sense of responsibility. As with Shu-chang she is devoted to her family and community.

And then there are the secondary characters, I do find different characters in each story more interesting than others and sometimes wonder about writing short stories or novels about them. I may do that in the future.

How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?

PAD: This is an area in my writing that I am still working on. I want to let my readers know about the setting, time, culture, law, social norms, etc. without carrying on too much. China is not as familiar to a lot of readers as, say, early Europe or historical American. Therefore, I need to fill in a lot. For example, the dishes (clay/porcelain wine cups, not glass), even the clothing is somewhat unfamiliar, not to mention the law, medicine, religion, and familial relationships. At the same time, I can’t drag the pace down through long passages of description. Not in a mystery. As a result, I try to evoke the place or setting with as few words as possible. I try to keep it to no more than a couple of sentences at a time. It’s an on-going challenge: how to inform without overwhelming. I’m always learning through reading books on how to improve my writing. There are so many excellent ones out there. This is often my pre-bed reading.

What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?

PAD: I do a lot of research. This is the part, I admit, that I absolutely love. I look at the web. Even YouTube. You never know what you’ll find and where it will lead! Plus, of course, I read a lot: traditional court cases, old magistrate manuals, and books on every topic and time period that could illuminate the lives and times of my characters. I want to be sure that what I use in my stories is valid. Case studies are particularly good in giving me a look into the lives of historical characters. This, in turn, feeds into my characters and their behaviours.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?

PAD: I hope that when you, the reader, pick up No Way to Die, you find that you are wrapped up in the mystery and intrigue of the story, and, at the same time, that you feel you have a window into the life and times of another world.

Thanks for answering my questions and opening up a place and era for me that I knew little about. Good luck with No Way to Die, the latest book in the Ming Dynasty Mystery series.

Readers can learn more about P.A. De Voe and her writing by visiting her website.

The novel is available online at Amazon.

About PA De Voe: She is an anthropologist with a PhD in Asian studies. Eventually, her interest in historical China and its culture led her to write stories set in the early Ming Dynasty: The Mei-hua Trilogy (Hidden, Warned, and Trapped), a collection of short stories and more. Deadly Relations, A Ming Dynasty Mystery is the first in a new series starring an ambitious young scholar and a woman’s doctor who join together in the pursuit of justice.

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About Dianne Ascroft

I'm a Canadian writer and author, living in Britain. My first novel, 'Hitler and Mars Bars' was released in March 2008. More information abo
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