A Guest post by P.A. De Voe
(posted by Jackie Houchin)
A few years after my retirement, my first novel, A Tangled Yarn, was published as part of a cozy mystery book-of-the-month series. I had found the opportunity to write for the series through a regional writer’s conference where I met a representative from the publishing company.
I tell you this for two reasons. First, it’s never too late to begin anew and reach for your dream. Second, dreams can come true if you’re proactive. I would never have published that first novel if I had stayed home and just dreamt about becoming a “real” author. I met the publisher’s representative because I had started attending conferences to learn more about the how and what of writing, and to meet agents and publishing companies’ representatives. Even though I am an introvert (a good many authors are), I really believe that joining writers’ groups and attending conferences are invaluable for building our skills, for learning about our business, and for networking.
Since that first book after “retiring,” I have gone on to publish a second cozy mystery, five historical mysteries, and a collection of historical short stories—with a sixth historical novel to be published this summer.
My historical stories are all set in Imperial China, specifically (at this point) in the late 1300s, the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. The first three—Hidden, Warned, and Trapped—is a young adult trilogy that I had been thinking about and working on for many years. My educational background is anthropology with an interest in Chinese culture and traditions. Of course, that was long before I retired from jobs that did not specifically involve much of this training.
So, when I decided to write historical Chinese mysteries, I needed—and still need—to do a lot of research on the time period. I read Chinese literature and whatever scholarly papers or books I can find dealing with Imperial China. I look at materials on the law, economics, religion, art, education, geography, medicine, local and family histories, and more. My research is broad because I never know what’s going to be useful for a story. Criminal case reports are, of course, important because they not only tell me about the why and how a case was handled, they also expose the tensions/stresses in the society at that time. Other areas also provide windows into the social, intellectual, and religious realities for people at that time in history, which are critical for forming believable, historically grounded characters and motivations.
Also, research is needed to get a realistic picture of what’s happening at the local level, beyond the Emperor’s court. In my newest series, A Ming Dynasty Mystery (Deadly Relations and No Way to Die), I wanted to show life from both a male and female perspective. The male character, Shu-chang, was easy to develop. He’s an amalgamation of striving young men struggling to achieve social and economic success through the long-standing Chinese merit system which was based on an examination process. There are many, many examples of such young men.
The female character, however, was more difficult because I wanted her to be educated and to have freedom to act outside of her home. At the same time, she had to be realistic. I couldn’t simply give her a contemporary mindset in order to create an interesting story. After all, she lived in a period and culture with a different set of expectations for men and women. Fortunately, while reading broadly, I ran across an account of a learned woman who had trained as a professional women’s doctor under her own grandmother. I was able to use her as a model on which to build my character Xiang-hua. I now had a strong female protagonist that I felt was also true to her time and place.
Fortunately for me, I enjoy research, sifting through and collecting historical tidbits. I can easily get lost in the details. However, only a small fraction of what I find interesting can or should go into a story.
As we know, an author has to be judicious in what and how information is used. It has to support what is happening without overwhelming the reader. A story is not the place for an information dump! This is true whatever the genre, but in historical fiction it is particularly important to get the balance right.
The trick is to provide enough detail that readers can easily envision the characters and environment—which may be alien or exotic to them—without being boring or bringing the story to a standstill. Consistently meeting this challenge is a skill that takes practice, and a good reader or editor can be invaluable in helping to correct the balance if and when it goes astray.
Finally, let me add one more thing on beginning to write fiction later in life. I have heard authors say they are compelled to write their stories. That’s not me. I don’t feel compelled. After all, until I retired, I wrote only a little poetry and few short stories or novels. Mostly, I immersed myself in whatever current job I had and in my family life. Once retired, however, I went back to dreams largely laid aside and dusted them off. Writing cozies and, especially, historical mysteries provides constant new challenges for me. Each story gives me a goal to work toward. A new world to share with others. And that brings me true enjoyment.
P.A. De Voe, an anthropologist and China specialist, writes contemporary mysteries and historical crime stories set in Ming Dynasty China. She’s a Silver Falchion award winner and twice a Silver Falchion award and an Agatha award finalist. Her short story, The Immortality Mushroom, was in the Anthony Award winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks edited by Art Taylor. She is a member of Sisters in Crime National, Tucson Sisters in Crime, the SinC Guppy Chapter, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, St. Louis Writer’s Guild, Saturday Writers, the Historical Novel Society, and Mystery Writers of America/MWA Midwest. Find her at padevoe.com. Her books can be found on Amazon.