Tuesday, June 20, 2017

THE TIMELESS APPEAL OF SERIAL KILLERS

by K.J. Howe

As writers, we're observers of human nature.  We chronicle the lives of characters who resonate with us, or infuriate us--and the most interesting stories are usually those that involve flawed people.  And the draw of serial killers is fascinating and timeless.  Although people like Dexter are responsible for less than 1% of the murders in the US each year, these characters stand out as the most memorable.  Is that because we can relate to their shadowy side, echoes of our darker nature, the one we hide from the world for fear of judgement or reprisal?

Jack the Ripper, the most notorious serial killer of all, whose identity remains a mystery, has been immortalized in popular culture.  Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), and Dennis Rader (Bind, Torture, Kill) have all held the public's fascination as notorious and deadly serial killers.  These men have become what one might call "celebrity monsters."  In many ways, serial killers in fiction are for adults what monster movies are for kids, a guilty pleasure that might illicit feelings of shame.  Good citizens who have been socialized to respect life and possess a normal range of emotions, including remorse, struggle to comprehend the pathological mind that would make one abduct, torture, rape, kill, engage in necrophilia, and occasionally even cannibalize another human being.  Yet the aberrance is fascinating.  Maybe because on the outside, many of these murderers seem rather benign, and the dichotomy intrigues us.

An investigation into serial murder by the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit in 2005 concluded that they "are not monsters and may not appear strange.  Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community."  But we all know they truly aren't normal or benign.

Hannibal Lecter is an excellent example of the powerful draw of serial killers in fiction, perhaps because he is depicted as a real, well-rounded person--he bleeds, feels pain, and is quite human.  In many ways, he's an impressive man--wealthy, an accomplished psychiatrist, highly intelligent, musical, linguistic, not to mention his knowledge and skills with food and wine.  Who doesn't want to have such a multitude of talents?  And he even uses discrimination when he kills, targeting rude people.  We've all been the recipient of brutal treatment, and it would be only natural to fantasize about exacting revenge in a Hannibalesque manner--but of course, we have a conscience and refrain from acting out those dark thoughts.  But the darkness that allows others to act on those thoughts is fascinating.

From Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, serial killers draw audiences in droves.  Perhaps serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us--survival.  The total disregard for life that serial killers exhibit shock us and make us question our safety and security.  With crimes that are so inhuman and brutal, we're drawn to serial killers as they provoke intense curiosity.

Which serial killers, real or fictional, do you find the most compelling and why?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

S. Lee Manning: What’s the difference between having an imaginary friend and creating a protagonist?

Kolya, sitting in the chair next to my desk, shrugs, hands up and to the side in the universal sign of dunno. “Your age, probably.” He’s watching me try to write a post on my relationship with my protagonist, with an amused and superior expression that he knows drives me crazy.

He’s in early thirties, blond, good looking in a way that reminds me of my husband when he was about the same age. He has other traits that mirror those of my husband. He’s witty, smart, has a law degree, pretends he’s fine when he’s not, likes music, likes to read, but not Jane Austin. He differs from my husband in his background,  3/4 ethnic Russian and 1/4 Jewish, his taste in music, jazz (Jim has more eclectic taste), his ability to play professional level piano, his knowledge of languages, and his addiction to high adrenaline activities. (Jim rides a motorcycle on Vermont back roads and skis, but he does not have shootouts or break into buildings to steal secrets – that I know about, anyway.)


Kolya’s also a creation of my imagination, and I do know he’s not really in the chair next to my desk – and that he’s not really talking to me.

Armed folded, he raises an eyebrow in my direction. “You sure about that? Who were you talking to on the ride to Burlington yesterday?”

“I was working out the plot,” I tell him. “And your dialogue. I wasn’t talking to you.”

He gives me that infuriating smile. “If you say so.”

Children have imaginary friends, and nobody thinks anything of it. When an adult drives alone in a car, talking out loud, she looks a little crazy. It’s especially a little crazy when she’s talking to someone who doesn’t actually exist. Thank God for modern technology. At least these days, I can pretend to be talking on the Bluetooth.

“You’re digressing,” he says. “You’re supposed to be writing about our relationship. How you’re attracted to me. And how it’s a little weird.”

Shut up, Kolya.

“I’m not attracted to you. I created you. It’s different.”

He bats those gorgeous blue eyes at me. Okay, Jim has blue eyes, too. “You mean, you’re not attracted to Jim? Don’t I look like him?”

The truth is that creating a protagonist that you want to use for a series is complex. You have to like him enough, find him interesting enough to want to spend years with him – writing multiple books. You don’t want to be in the situation that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, found himself in – loathing the character he’d created. Doyle killed Holmes off  because he didn’t want to write him anymore– only to be forced to bring him back to life to satisfy popular demand.

You don’t have to be in love with your protagonist, but it helps a lot to find him interesting. It helps a lot not to loathe him.

I based Kolya in great part on Jim for two reasons. Most of my knowledge of the inner workings of the male mind comes from Jim.  Then, there’s the fact that we’ve been together for thirty-five years – and we still enjoy being with each other. I doubt I’ll be writing about Kolya for the next thirty-five years, but it’s a good precedent anyway.
Jim and his motorcycle.

“Nice evade.” Kolya leans over my shoulder, reading the post. “Now that we’ve dealt with the fact that you find me devilishly attractive, you want to talk about pretending to be me?”

“I don’t pretend to be you. That would be really weird.”

“Then stay the hell out of my head.” He sees my look of shock. “You know what I’m talking about. You’ll have me hanging off a cliff by my fingernails, and then you’re writing about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. If that’s not pretending to be me, what is it?”

He’s got a point. We use our imagination in multiple ways as children: we have imaginary friends and we play make-believe, pretending to be characters we’ve seen in movies or read about in books. Isn’t that a bit of what we’re doing as authors? When we go into a character’s head, see a scene from a character’s viewpoint, don’t we, to some small extent, become that character?

It’s complex, and a little confusing. Maybe a little weird. But there’s nothing simple about writing novels–or creating a protagonist.

His point made, Kolya gives me a wave and leaves for now. He’ll be back tomorrow, or later tonight, when I’m working on the new novel. In the meantime, I’m back in the reality of Vermont. Jim and I are taking a run to the nearby town for local made maple cinnamon raisin bread. The bakery only delivers twice a week, and it’s in big demand. Someone could show up with guns and clear out the whole supply, so we’re getting there early, and we’re prepared. One never knows.

Happy writing.


Friday, June 16, 2017

LEE CHILD GOES ROGUE – OR, THE SECRET LIFE
OF JACK REACHER'S CREATOR

Gayle Lynds
Lee Child
Where does one begin with the iconic Lee Child?  Well, he’s tall and debonair, with a terrific Brit accent (born to), and a witty sense of humor.  He writes to-die-for thrillers about Jack Reacher, the testosterone-loaded Good Samaritan who solves problems with his brain until he comes up against bad guys so dense or so evil that he has to take them down with his fists, feet, knees, or head.  You pick the body part — all appear to be excellent, and lethal. 

Male and female readers (including we Rogues) love Lee’s work.  No wonder he’s a #1 internationally best-selling author, has sold more than 100 million books, and won many awards.  Reacher himself has become a Hollywood star and sky-rocketed into a billion-dollar brand.  And it couldn’t have happened to two nicer guys.  You don’t want to miss the first complete collection of the Reacher short stories, which is just out — No Middle Name.

So what do I mean by “The Secret Life of Jack Reacher’s Creator?”

I first met Lee at the 1998 Bouchercon in Philadelphia.  He had a hot new debut, Killing Floor, which went on to win Anthony and Barry awards.  The novel introduced Reacher, so you know it was serious suspense. At the same time, I’d just published my spy debut, Masquerade, which was making a fuss because a woman (that’s me) had
broken into the all-guy, tough-guy field of international espionage.

However, despite our genres, Lee and I were assigned to a Bouchercon panel focused on writing humor.  It was a great fit for the other panelists — their novels were intentionally funny, and they soon had everyone including us shaking with laughter.  Lee and I exchanged glances.  Being misfits is a great way to bond. 

Afterwards, we had a fine chat, and I thought, this is a very smart, very good man.  I’ve greatly enjoyed watching his work grow in acclaim and popularity.

At the same time — and not all successful authors do this — he’s continually given back to readers and supported fellow authors.  Among his many public contributions was helping to found 
International Thriller Writers.  This was no small feat, because there were those who said the organization was doomed to failure.  Still, Lee became one of the first members of the board, and later went on to be president. 

Over the years, he’s attended scores of fan conferences, making himself available to all.  His Jack Reacher parties were legendary for the free drinks, the fun, and the camaraderie.  But what few people know is that when other writers went through hard times, he was there to help, and with no fanfare.  

So this man who created über male Jack Reacher — the deadly hunk with a heart, one of modern literature’s most enigmatic and alluring heroes — is secretly, well, a sweetheart.  Dare I say it?  A pussy cat. 

Of course we had to have him in the Rogue Limelight.  Here’s the Real Lee Child answering ten questions he’s probably never been asked in an interview:

Thanks, Lee!  You’re Rogue!

Rogues:  Which is harder as you approach a Jack Reacher novel: writing the first or last sentence? 
Lee:  I love doing the first sentence, because it's structurally unique - the only sentence in the book that doesn't follow another sentence.  Equally the last sentence can be faded and elegiac.  I find both equally easy.  It's the thousands of sentence in between that are hard.

Rogues:  What's your favorite word?
Lee:  Midsummer.

Rogues:  Where do you like to write?
Lee:  In my office in New York.  My main problem is chairs.  I have such a bony ass I'm always uncomfortable.

Rogues:  What do you do when you need to take a break from writing?
Lee:  I get up from my uncomfortable chair and go do something else — out for music or theater or the Yankees, or reading.

Rogues:  If you could have lived in a different time period, what would it be?
Lee:  I read a lot of history and wouldn't want to go back to any of it.  May I head for the future?

Rogues:  What's your favorite drink?
Lee:  Black coffee, or failing that, Dom Perignon 2002, or Pol Roger Winston Churchill.  Or Paul Newman lemonade.

Rogues:  When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Lee:  Loved.

Rogues:  Do you have a literary hero? A teacher, mentor, family member, author who has inspired you to write your Jack Reacher novels & stories?
Lee:  My heroes are my fellow writers.  I am always inspired by the talent, energy and intelligence they have.

Rogues:  Describe your very first car.
Lee:  It was a red 1969 VW Beetle, bought seven years old for about $600.  It had 34bhp.  It ran and ran — totally spoiled me.  I had no idea you had to service cars.

Rogues:  Do you write what you know or what you want to know?
Lee:  Neither.  I write what I feel.  I remember the quotidian fears and joys we have, and blow them up into something larger.

Thank you, Lee!  And now ... what else is in the offing for Reacher?  His latest paperback reprint is Night School.  Plus, Reacher appears in a brand-new short story with Kathy Reichs’ Brennan in MatchUp: The Battle of the Sexes Just Got Thrilling, which Lee is also editing.  And finally, Reacher's 22nd thriller — The Midnight Line — arrives November 7th.  Preorder now so you can be among the first to read it.

Lee will be appearing at ThrillerFest from July 11 to 15 in New York City, where he’ll receive the ThrillerMaster Award for excellence in writing and contributions to the field.  Also in attendance will be Rogues Jamie Freveletti, Chris Goff, K.J. Howe, S. Lee Manning, and moi (Gayle Lynds).

Come join us!

What's your favorite Reacher book?  We'd love to know!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

FOR NOVELISTS, WHAT'S IN A NAME?

by Gayle Lynds

In my espionage novel The Book of Spies, Eva Blake’s name was originally Ann Blake.  This may seem like a small change for an author to make, but for me, it made all the difference.  In the story, Ann was a pretty woman with red hair and a sunny disposition who was a top curator at the celebrated Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  “Ann Blake” works, right?  She sounds solid, reliable, unpretentious.

But then Ann got into trouble.  The result was her husband was killed — had she really been responsible?  Apparently, yes, and Ann was sent to prison.  She changed, grew quiet, watchful, and strong.  Then in a couple of years she had a lucky break.  The CIA needed her expertise to help find the lost Library of Gold.  When she left prison, she was no longer sunny.  She was complex, and all of a sudden I couldn’t write about her anymore.  She didn’t come alive on the page.  She kept sliding back to my original creation.  The book stopped working.

These are the moments when writers resort to long walks, eat cartons of ice cream, drink a lot of wine, phone friends to catch up after five years of no communication.  These are the times that try a writer’s soul. . . .

“Ann Blake” sucked, and I didn’t know why. 

The truth was, I didn’t know her anymore.

In real life, our names are given to us.  Sometimes we like them, and sometimes we don’t.  If we dislike them enough, we can change them.  If we marry, sometimes we incorporate our spouse’s name into ours, and that can alter or clarify the idea of us as individuals.  Choices and opportunities help us to forge our identities.

And that was true of characters in books. . . . 

Ah-ha!  Ann Blake needed a new name! 

After trying many, I finally settled on keeping her last name, but changing the first to "Eva."  In a way, Eva Blake was brand-new when she left prison and started on her mission for the CIA, and her altered name gave her (or was it me?) the flexibility and energy to discover who she really was.

I resumed working, and at a feverish speed.  Eva drove the story and beckoned me on as she continued to take hold until at the end of the book she surprised me by choosing a life that hadn’t occurred to me.  But then, it was her life.  Brava, Eva!

Many writers relate to characters strongly through their names.  I’ve spent days finding just the right one, have finished entire novels and gone back and changed others until they rang true.  And it’s always worth it.  But then, that's who I am.

How do names affect you?  Please tell!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE BUCKET LIST  

by Chris Goff

I am lucky. I've been to a lot of places. My folks were responsible for my visiting forty-nine of the states, Canada, Mexico and thirteen European countries – either by taking me there or helping finance the journeys. Since then my family and friends have helped me add Israel, Jamaica, Morocco, Puerto Rico, UK, Scotland and Ireland; and my career has added Alaska, Ukraine and Poland.

For my latest book, RED SKYlaunching June 13th—I had the pleasure of spending two weeks with my youngest daughter, Addie, scoping out the backstreets of Kiev, Krakow, Gdańsk and Berlin. The last city didn't make the cut for the book, but it did put a dent in My Bucket List.

One of my favorite parts of exploring a new location is sousing out the essence of area. Because of my time in Israel, I was able to instill in my first thriller, DARK WATERS, a true sense of place. The time spent people-watching in Dizengoff Square, walking along the shores of Lake Kinneret and drinking coffee in old town Jaffa supplied anecdotes and ambience that helped make my story come to life.

The same can be said for the time spent walking over 40 miles around the city of Kyiv, strolling Old Town Krakow and buying amber in the market, listening to the chatter of school children touring Auschwitz, eating ice cream on the Royal Way in Gdańsk, or being terrorized by a bicycle-gang in Berlin—the latter weaving in and around the pedestrians on tricked out bicycles, wearing leathers, boom-box blaring and beers in hand. A little research turned up that earlier in the year, a bicycle gang of left-wing activists calling themselves the Social Democratic People's Bicycle Commando had claimed responsibility for torching 48 luxury cars parked on the streets as a political statement against gentrification.

The message for thriller writers and readers: you don't have to make this stuff up. But the fact remains, in spite of having been fortunate enough to see a lot of the world, there are many more places and things left to see. Here's the top-five on my list.

1. Russia.
Ever since I was a little girl and read about the Romanovs and the possible escape of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (a rumor I know has been proven false in recent years), I have wanted to visit St. Petersburg and the Alexander Palace.
2. China.
More specifically, the Great Wall and Emperor Quin's Tomb and the Terra-Cotta Army.

3. Victoria Falls.
The falls forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and has been described by the Kololo trip as "Mosi-oa-Tunya"—The Smoke that Thunders. During the height of the rainy season more than five hundred million cubic meters of water per minute plummet over the edge, a width of nearly two kilometers, into a gorge over one hundred meters below.

4. The Egyptian Pyramids.
Specifically the ones found at Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. The Pyramid of Khufu is the largest, and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence.




5. The Galapagos Islands.
The volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean is considered one of the world's foremost destinations for wildlife-viewing and shelters a diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. A province of Ecuador, it lies about 1,000km off its coast.

Oh, and

Bonus 6. The Great Barrier Reef.

The largest living thing on earth, it's situated off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia and is even visible from outer space. I'll admit to being a little scared of the Great White Sharks, but then I should never have watched the movie Sharknado (joke). It was actually JAWS that made me afraid of the water. Of course, I don't let it stop me. I'm just a bit of a nervous Nellie.

So what's on your Bucket List? I'd love to know. Maybe it's somewhere I've never thought to go.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

WHAT MAKES YOUR DREAM VACATION?

by Sonja Stone

LOCATION, COMPANION, OR ATTITUDE?

Huts over the water
The Four Seasons, Bora Bora

I’ve written before about my favorite vacations—a week at Miraval Resort, a full-service spa tucked in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona. Survival courses conducted by sandal-wearing field guides in the Grand Escalante Staircase. The sun-kissed Mediterranean cruise I took with my mother. These vacations, extraordinary and meaningful, aren’t typical getaways. Not for me, anyway.

I live in the Sonoran Desert, and our summers are brutal. It’s God-awful hot all the time. You wake at four in the morning to go on a run and it’s already ninety degrees. It’s a good time to travel, and for whatever reason, I always seem to head east.

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Minnesota. I traveled with my boyfriend and his daughter to a family wedding. It was my first time in Minnesota, and the climate surprised me. The air along the Mississippi River, humid and thick with cottonwood dander, reminded me of my college days. Washington College, located in Chestertown, Maryland, is nestled along the Chesapeake Bay, where the air smells briny, fishy, full of life and possibility. 

Over the course of the weekend we hiked several times, through tall fields and hardwood forests, alongside meadows and rivers. The leaves on the maple trees were as big as both my hands. The oaks and aspens felt like old friends. I’d forgotten how green summers can be. Pink peony bushes in full bloom, hostas lining front walks, irises flowering in the local parks.

trees in Minnesota
What's a vacation without a walk in the woods?
I don’t allow myself a lot of down-time, so a favorite part of vacation is reading something just for fun. A hot, humid summer day begs for a book. This past weekend, I reread THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett. I was so engrossed in the novel that I kept thinking I was in Mississippi, not Minnesota; Jackson, 1962, on a cotton plantation with mossy oak trees and waves of heat shimmering off the fields. Or standing with Minny in the farmhouse kitchen, frying up pork chops in a sizzling cast-iron pan. 

As a writer, the aspect of the craft I most struggle with is description and setting. I’ve always been told I’m good at dialogue, but when it comes to sketching a sense of place, I fall short—horrifically, dreadfully, consistently. I’m like that in real life, too. I rarely notice my surroundings, the vistas, the sweeping views. I notice the minutiae: the crack in the restaurant table that’s caked with grease and dust, the tiny albino spider crawling inside the jagged white crevices that make up Death Valley, the honeybee whose legs are heavy with yellow pollen. I also notice people: body language, posture, nonverbal communication, aberrations. I think this is why I’m so drawn to espionage as a genre. Words laced with supposition and innuendo; truth portrayed as relative rather than absolute; motives determining the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. People interest me.

Ironically, my dream vacation involves no people. I’m picturing a tiny hut with a glass-bottom floor built over a turquoise sea somewhere in the South Pacific. There’s a constant breeze, an endless supply of mangoes, no bugs, and a few quiet guests. 

Manhattan, July 9, 2016
On the other hand, last July I attended ThrillerFest in Manhattan. I thought I would hate New York—the crowds, the noise, the constant stimulation—but I absolutely loved it. Of course, any vacation that involves learning totally turns me on, and ThrillerFest provides amazing classes. I attended lectures by D.P. Lyle, MD, Meg Gardiner, Gayle Lynds, Steve Berry, David Morrell, and Walter Mosley, just to name a few. I’m saddened that I won’t be joining my blog sisters at this year’s ThrillerFest.

Come to think of it, my boyfriend accompanied me on that trip, too. He has an adventurous spirit, which is a lovely contrast to my excessively cautious one. He’s an extrovert, and so strikes up conversations with strangers all the time. I find this taxing, but he’s also really good about not taking it personally when I need to slip away for a few hours to recharge (in this case, with Kathryn Stockett and her imaginary friends). He’s spontaneous, but knows that I’m not, so he thoughtfully schedules our spontaneity. I receive ample warning that in three hours we will be venturing out into the world; I have time to prepare snacks and bottles of water. Last year, he presented me with one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received: a shoe box filled with packets of nuts and jerky, tissues, water bottles, and hand sanitizer. He keeps it in his truck, so if our adventuring takes us too far from home, I always have emergency rations. 

I can honestly say that if I make it to the hut in Bora Bora, I hope he’s by my side. With snacks.


So what do you think—what makes the vacation? The location, the traveling companion? Or are those things irrelevant—is it all about a positive attitude?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

WHEN THE PAST IS YOUR DESTINATION: HOW TO WRITE THROUGH TIME

By Francine Mathews

As a young girl, I read constantly and to the exclusion of the real world. This was somewhat unconscious--I could no more resist the siren call of stories than I could refuse to eat--but it was also somewhat calculated. I liked to escape. For numerous reasons too tedious to detail, I NEEDED to escape. The more distant the destination in time or place, the better. I became an early aficionado of the exotic. In fifth grade, I devoured War and Peace. It had the dual attraction of being about Russia, which in 1973 was akin to the dark side of the moon; but it was set during the Napoleonic Age, which no one could possibly remember.
Perfect. For several weeks, I became Natasha Rostova, and lived among cannonballs in 1812. It would predetermine me to love the Regency and Tolstoy forever. I studied Napoleonic France in college, and wrote my thesis on the invasion of Russia. I was, naturally, a history major.


As an adult and a writer, I have explored a number of genres. It is safe to say, however, that of the twenty-six novels of espionage, mystery, and women's fiction that I have published, only seven may be deemed contemporary. The rest are firmly historical. They range from Jane Austen's Regency England, to Victoria's. From Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury to CoCo Chanel's Paris and Jack Kennedy's World War II. The destinations that most often move me, as a writer, no longer exist--they have vanished into the past. So how, as a writer, do I access them?

It's popular and approved, at writers' conventions, to talk fervently and rather snobbishly about research, preferably pronounced re-SEARCH, in the English fashion, as though that made it more credible. I happen to love research--I've often said I write particular books solely because I want to learn about their subject matter--but I recognize the inherent lie in my attempts to master a time and place. 

The past is impossible to access except through an act of the imagination.

What do I mean?
I'll give you an example.
I write a lengthy series, published over two decades, about Jane Austen as detective (under the pen name Stephanie Barron.) I have gone almost everywhere in England Austen may or may not have visited or lived. I have walked paving stones in Canterbury that her feet trod, skimmed the walls of the Wool House in Southampton her own fingers touched, gazed at views across Godermsham in Kent she may have seen. But many of these places (Portsmouth comes to mind) were bombed to oblivion in World War II, or otherwise fell victim to urban renewal; only fragments exist as they were in Austen's day. Even her brother Henry's home in Hans Place, London--which bears an official blue English historical plaque--has been renovated.

I read and re-read her letters. I have memorized entire passages of her novels. I studied her epoch in English history. I own an entire library of related works on her period, her art, her literature. I have read the writers she read herself, men and women of letters who influenced her, as well as those she despised and ridiculed. 

All of that work is helpful. None of it has made me Jane Austen's contemporary. We are forever separated by two centuries or more.



She lived in a world lit only by fire. We live in a digital age. Yet her words still speak to us. Ours, to her, would be incomprehensible. When I travel to Bath, and stay on the outskirts for the night in a Palladian manor, Ston Easton Park, that dates to Austen's era, with a garden designed by a landscape architect she lampoons in her novel Mansfield Park (Humphrey Repton), I am approaching as closely as may be possible the life of a country house as she might have known it. Yet I arrive by car. My room is lighted by electricity. I watch, that evening, on the BBC, a rebroadcast of the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Austen's iconic hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Imagine trying to explain film--much less moving pictures--much less television--to a woman who knows only fire.

So what is a writer to do?

I have found that the most valuable sources for capturing the voice and mood of an age are the letters and memoirs written by those who lived it. Austen's letters are collected and edited within an inch of their lives--in immensely useful ways to the modern writer; but the letters of her contemporaries are also available on used-book markets. The memoirs of Harriette Wilson, for example--perhaps the most highly-paid courtesan of Austen's time--are totally accessible, amusingly frank, and manage to pin the most notable men of her era in terms that would make anyone but an Austen heroine blush. Similarly, the politicians of Jane's time published their letters, as did their high-born and respectable mistresses. So did women who wrote recipe books and remedies for common illnesses. A writer can find illustrated guides to coach-building and men's tailoring and the rituals of fencing, prize-fighting, or club life. Why is this important?

Because the language lives in these pages, as it did two hundred years ago. Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster will detail in a single page the mood of her lover, His Grace the Duke of Wellington, in the week after Waterloo. Wellington himself will note in a letter to his brother that the battle was "a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there." The force of his personality and the idiom of his day are in the words, as well as his unease about his own role; and all are essential to the writer who hopes to capture him as a character.

This remains true in later periods. When I decided to write about Jack Kennedy at the age of 21, during the spring of his junior year at Harvard, when he left school for six months to research his senior thesis and traveled alone through Europe at the same moment Adolf Hitler was preparing to invade Poland--I went first to his letters. Few have survived. Those that exist are in the Kennedy Library, along with his various passports from the 1930s, his school records as an adolescent at Choate, a slew of letters from a lover who signed her name in lipstick. 

What they gave me was precious.

Jack's idiom--his tendency to use cant from the period, like swell. His frankness. His obscenities. His obsession with the Free City of Danzig--which he believed, correctly, was key to Hitler's takeover of Eastern Europe, and would diagram on a scrap of paper to anyone who would listen to him. His frustration, as a protected and privileged thirteen-year-old marooned in boarding school, with his privileged isolation. He wrote to his mother in 1930: Please get me a subscription to the New York Times. I didn't even know about the economic slump and I feel like an idiot. 
Jack Kennedy, right, at Choate 1930
This, about the Great Depression that would change the world. His passports were all temporary--in those days, you obtained one only for the length of your expected travel, and returned it when you reentered the United States--and all of them list his eye color differently. Sometimes it's green. Sometimes it's brown. On one, it's listed as hazel--and I decided, as a writer, that this was probably correct. The other descriptions were errors of judgment about hazel eyes, dependent upon whatever Jack happened to be wearing and how they changed the appearance of his eyes the day the passport was issued.
 

I like to read books that my characters might have read during the period I'm writing about them. Joe Kennedy, Jack's dad, was a huge mystery enthusiast. Jack read spy novels. All the Kennedys loved Ian Fleming's Bond series, and Jack--who met him through their mutual friend, Pamela Churchill--invited Fleming to dinner at his home in Georgetown when he was a senator. So what might Jack have been reading in the winter of 1938-39?

The bestselling novel that year was Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. It was later used as a code-key to a German cypher, but I doubted that Jack was reading du Maurier that winter. I noted, however, that Leslie Charteris--the British novelist who created the enigmatic hero The Saint, a spy to die for if ever there was one, had also published a book that winter. Prelude for War. I'd never read it, but I found a first edition on the used book market. It's a somber and defiant manifesto of hatred for fascism, clearly aware that Hitler would be coming for the United Kingdom within months and that people who valued The Saint would have nothing to do with him. It's important, as a writer, to know how contemporary thriller authors in 1939 viewed the buildup to war--and wrote about it. Charteris, through The Saint, was capable of influencing the views of a huge reading public--Jack Kennedy among them.


Jack traveling in Europe, 1937
One item in the Kennedy library is particularly poignant to me. It's a simple telegram from a young woman named Frances Ann Cannon, dated February 25, 1939. This is the day Jack sailed from New York to England on the Queen Mary. How do I know? He's listed in the passenger manifest as detailed in the New York Times from that day. He'd asked Frances Ann, who was a year older and an heiress of the Cannon towel fortune, to marry him. She'd refused, because he was Irish and Catholic and Joe Kennedy's son--and nobody's parents approved of Joe Kennedy. But she sent him a telegram as he left the country for six months. Jack was always breaking out in hives and having fevers and vague illnesses....he told his friends it was allergies. It wasn't. It was Addison's Disease, but Jack had no name for it in 1939. Frances Ann telegraphed to him aboard the Queen Mary: "Stay Away from the Hay, Darling! All my love, Frances Ann." 

The telegram is in the Kennedy Library's holdings. Which means Jack must have kept it all his life. That, too, tells a writer something.

Frances Ann got married two years later--to John Hersey, a notable war correspondent and writer. Jack was on leave and went to the wedding. Hersey interviewed him later over lunch and was the first to publish an account of PT-109, in the New Yorker. It's still the version most worth reading.

Understanding all of these connections, the human interaction that underlies the stories, is essential to capturing time and place. When you enrich yourself with the details of actual lives in the context of their times, as a writer, the voyage of imagination into the past is suddenly not only possible--it's exhilarating.

If you could live any time in the past, when would it be? --And how would you live your one wild and precious life?

Cheers,

Francine