Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Inspiration. Or How Brother Cadfael Begat Alafair Tucker

I have always loved historical novels. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and would read anything I could get my hands on, but I would always choose a historical novel above any other genre. For me, a historical novel is like a cheap vacation. I love to go to a place and a time and live there for a while.

I discovered English author and scholar Edith Pargeter when I was in my twenties, and she quickly became one of my favorite historical novelists. The day came, of course, when I had read every historical novel of hers that I could find here in this country. Though I’m always happy to reread a good book, I did find myself hungry for any new historical dish by Pargeter.

It didn’t take much research on my part to find out that under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter had created a fabulous series of historical mysteries featuring a Benedictine monk by the name of Brother Cadfael. The Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the long war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Cadfael may be an elderly monk, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the ways of the world. He gained all the skills necessary to untangle the knottiest mystery during his young manhood and middle age, when he served as a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades. There is little of human nature he hasn’t seen. And since he is also an accomplished herbalist, growing and mixing medicines for the Abbey, he is an expert on the properties of plants and poisons.

I had never had anything against mysteries, but neither was I a mystery addict in any sense of the word.But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries rocked my reading world and inspired me to write historical mysteries of my own. Peters’ voice - the very way the books are written - evoke the times and the place with the language she uses.The character of Cadfael himself captured me. He is wise, tolerant, and world-weary, a man of his times. He has a true warmth, and by that, I don’t mean sentimentality or emotion, necessarily. I mean a deep humanity and heart that transcends even his formidable intellect. I want to spend time with him, and that is the secret of a successful fictional character. The setting, 12th Century Shrewsbury, is evoked so strongly that the reader comes away with the sense that she knows what it must have been like to live in that time and place. The Brother Cadfael mysteries contain everything I love about historical novels, as well as a clever, thought-provoking, always surprising mystery in every installment.

My protagoninst has absolutely nothing in common with Brother Cadfael. She's a woman of the early 20th Century, twenty-five years younger than the old monk. She probably doesn't even know any Catholics. She's never seen anything of the world outside of the hills of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. She's married with ten kids, for heaven's sake. But I shamelessly reached across the centuries and evoked Cadfael's humanity, competence, and compassion. Then I reincarnated it in the person of Alafair Tucker.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

And what a wonderful character Alafair is! I look forward to 'another historical dish' from Casey.

Donis Casey said...

Soon, Irene! Look for it in June.

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