Saturday, June 07, 2014

A Research Junkie Writes the Long Ago and Far Away

We're delighted to welcome Annamaria Alfieri to Type M for Murder as this weekend's guest blogger.

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of Strange Gods set in the burgeoning British East African town of Nairobi in 1911. Described as Out of Africa meets Agatha Christie, it captures the beauty and the danger of the African wild and the complexities of imposing a culture on a foreign land. Her previous historical mysteries, which are all set in South America, have garnered critical acclaim. The Christian Science Monitor chose her Blood Tango as one of ten must-read thrillers. Of her Invisible Country, Kirkus Reviews said, “Alfieri has written an antiwar mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd.” The Washington Post said of her debut novel, “As both history and mystery, City of Silver glitters.”

Writing as Patricia King, she is the author of the short story “Baggage Claim,” in the anthology Queens Noir. Her five books on business subjects include Never Work for a Jerk, which was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show. A world traveler, Annamaria takes a keen interest in the history of the places she visits. She lives in New York City and is Vice-President of the Board of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

A Research Junkie Writes the Long Ago and Far Away

I am going to pick up on Frankie’s recent post about steeping oneself in the past. Nothing fires my own creative juices like researching the time and place I have decided to write about. I became a lifelong fan of historical novels at the age of fourteen, when I read Anya Seton’s great Katherine,about John of Gaunt and the love of his life. But I did not begin writing fiction thinking I would write a historical novels. I started out in a completely different place.

Every writer I know has boxes of practice novels, attempts that never saw the light of publication but were essential to the story teller’s development—rehearsals, if you will, for the writer’s debut. I wrote five of them. They were all contemporary stories. Woman in jeopardy thrillers, that’s what I thought I was going to write. The fifth was left unfinished because during a vacation I had fallen in love with a piece of South American history—a time and place that spoke to me of intrigue and romance. Potosi’s history and physical beauty took over my imagination. The result was a story that FINALLY looked worthy of publication. After a long wait and much persistence, it launched in 2009 as my “first” novel—City of Silver. My creative juices never returned to the present and never showed their face again in the United States.

But still I remained a slow learner.  It took me three stand-alone books to pick up on a lesson most mystery authors seem to start off knowing: that writing a series has many advantages.  If readers like the book and the next one carries forward with the same characters, an author can develop built-in fans for the next work.  Historical novelists also understand that staying in one period can bring a lot of efficiencies in research.  Duh!  Having blithely gone from The Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru in 1650 to Paraguay in 1868 to Buenos Aires in 1945, I finally got a firm grasp on the obvious.  If I stuck with one setting and one collection of characters, I would not have to start from scratch researching each book.

These realizations came to me just about the time that a dear friend and traveling companion dropped the BIG HINT.  “Why don’t you write about that Africa that you are so in love with?” he asked.   In a nanosecond, my imagination zoomed to the African wilderness that so infatuated me.   But not to the Serengeti plain where my friend and I had walked together.  To British East Africa in the early Twentieth Century—the time and place where my Africa fascination first took root, thanks to the brilliant words of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.  I read her book one summer during my college years.  It made me long for a place I had never seen and, at that time, had no prospects of ever visiting.

Life took its time, but eventually it brought me to Africa’s majestic wilderness on two life-changing trips.  After experiencing it first hand, I walked around with a part of soul homesick for Africa.  Then my friend John asked me that question.  A lightning bolt hit my imagination.  I had read Isak Dinesen’s memoir repeatedly over the years.  I would write about the place where she had lived, right around the time she lived there.

But I still had a lot to learn.

Dinesen gives a vivid, incredibly engaging close-up view of her life in east Africa starting in 1914, but she says precious little about the larger picture of the times in the budding colony of what is now Kenya.  My research had to begin by clicking the minus button on her images.  A broader, sweeping view revealed everything needed to quicken a crime writer’s pulse.  The Protectorate of British East Africa in the early 1900’s was awash in conflict.  The Brits had only recently solidified their political hold on a territory that already had its share of animosity before they ever got there.   Local tribes had been warring for millennia.  Arabs in the port of Mombasa called their city “Island of War.”  It had been battled over by Portuguese and Ottomans over and again.  The British empire builders came in to impose their rules on a bunch of disparate cultures, which would not easily knuckle under.  Then, there were The Brit’s own internecine struggles— the Protectorate’s  hard-working officials against the spoiled aristocrats who came to settle the land.  Caught in the middle, the King’s on-the-ground administrators also had battles to fight with and great resentment against the Home Rule bureaucrats in London.   What a feast for a mystery novelist.

From the start, my intention was to stay there for ten books, each one named after one of the Ten Commandments.  Also, lurking in the background of each story is another evil that has nothing to do with the commandment in question.  From my perspective that other sin is such a blight on people and society that it really ought to have its own commandment.  I am talking about crimes like slavery, the subjugation of women, the very notion of empire building.

The first book in the series launches this month.  It is called Strange Gods. And deals with the murder of Scottish missionary doctor.  The most obvious suspect is the tribal medicine man.

The second in the series is drafted .  The third just beginning to form.

I am happy to say that the research I did for book one is standing me in good stead for the ensuing ones.  But I am even happier to say that I have lots more reading up to do for each one.  I am a research junkie: learning new details is where I get the grist for my mill. 

By administrative policy, the Brits moved their policeman from post to post around the territory, which varies greatly from the coast to the highland farms to the malaria-ridden shores of Lake Victoria.  As my characters move from place to place and crime to crime I will have to delve deeper in my understanding of the geography, the various tribal customs, and the attitudes of the Europeans and the local peoples.

I will spend hours reading about what it was like to live there then.  The part of my soul that hungers for Africa will get fed in the process.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, again, for joining us. Just found Out of Africa on Youtube in audio form. This is the kind of book I'll enjoy having read to me.

Donis Casey said...

Your novel sounds like my cup of tea. I love exotic locations and eras. I identify with your publication path, as well. It takes a while to find your perfect niche.

Annamaria Alfieri said...

Frankie, thanks do much for inviting me here. I live the idea of listening to OOA. I am going to do it too. I often listen to books walking along the streets of NYC.

Annamaria Alfieri said...

Donis, you and I certainly see eye to eye when it comes to book selection. I read lots of different kind of books, but the ones that take me completely out of myself take me to faraway places.

Sheila York said...

Annamaria is just brilliant at setting place and mood -- and telling a great yarn. Can't wait for Strange Gods!

Eileen Goudge said...

Looks intriguing. And yes, research is key. Woe unto the writer who gets his or her facts wrong. Punishment comes in the form of an Inbox flooded with reader gripes.

Annamaria Alfieri said...

Sheila, we are a mutual admiration society. Eileen, is that you? Wow! You and I met many years ago when Al Zuckerman was my agent for Never Work for a Jerk!!
I remember Reading Garden of Lies.