Thursday, April 3, 2014
Interview: Charles Mossop, Historical Mystery Writer
When I recently finished The Devil at my Heels, by Charles Mossop, I couldn’t wait to ask Charles questions regarding the historical detail of his novel, and how he went about his research. And when Charles graciously agreed to an interview, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I hope you’ll join me today in welcoming Charles Mossop, multi-published author of a number of short stories, numerous articles on historical fiction, and two historical novels, with a third historical novel, entitled The Golden Phoenix, recently accepted by Muse It Up Publishing to be released this summer!
RTF: Thank you Charles for taking time out of your busy life to answer my questions regarding your novel The Devil at my Heels, and for sharing some of your writing savvy with myself and the readers. As you know I am interested in the research that goes into a story, and what process the author uses to gather, sort, and refine their research to ultimately weave it into the finished manuscript.
For instance I loved the minute detail with which you describe Brother Robert’s preparation of the materials he uses to illuminate the gospel of Saint John. The mordant, the gold and silver leafing, and the boiling of fish bones, all fascinating. And that is merely the beginning. The way you bring vivid life to your historical characters and describe the setting is wonderfully achieved, transporting the reader back in time as if we are actually there, whether in 1216 at the All Saints Priory in southern Lincolnshire, or in Germany in 1944.
In your author’s note you explain that except for a few key historical events and well known historical figures, the characters and events are otherwise fictitious, which means you possess a fabulous imagination! Please tell us what resources you use in your research, how much of your writing day is spent on research, and where you find inspiration for your stories. Oh, and what about the treasure? Was that bit based on real events or a complete fabrication?
Charles: Well, first of all, I’d like to thank you, Sara, for this invitation and for your very generous words about The Devil At My Heels. I feel both gratified and humbled by your high praise.
It’s a truism to say historical fiction is all about the research. Personally, I love it. I think you have to if you intend to tackle historical fiction of any length, and I do have an advantage in that I have undergraduate and Graduate degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Asian History, with a minor in European History. This background gives me a perspective in breadth, and also provides me with guidelines on where to go when I need depth. I have a fairly large personal library which is always where I turn first, and then I go to the Internet. However, using the Web can be perilous. I spend almost as much time cross-referencing my information as I do finding it in the first place. I try to find out who has written articles I find on the Internet, where they obtained their information, and what their background is. I have, on occasion, emailed people and asked them these things after telling them I want to use something they have written.
For example, you mentioned the descriptions of Brother Robert’s preparing his materials. There is a vast amount about the production of medieval manuscripts, but I tried to narrow it all down to reliable sources such as professional journal articles, museums and galleries. I have seen and read such manuscripts, and so that gave me a feeling for it to start with. I was born in Britain and lived there for several years on a couple of occasions, so when I write about Lincolnshire, old priories and so on, I can do it from first-hand experience.
I try to take a lot of care when I create my characters, and I believe one of the most important elements is dialogue. Put simply, it has to sound right. I use diaries and journals written by people who lived in the times I am portraying to find out how they said things. If I’m writing about the 18th and early 19th centuries, which I often do, I turn to writers such as Jane Austen who lived during that period, because in her books, she accurately portrays the speech habits of her time. Her narrative passages also provide clues on how people perceived the actions of others, and how events were described. I am also careful to include details on what people wear (I often use old portraits for that), the food they eat, the money they used, and so on. I also find it helpful to create ambiance in speech and narration through the occasional use of archaic words – so long as they aren’t so obscure as to be incomprehensible. I also read as much historical fiction as I can get my hands on!
As to the treasure, well, in fact, as George Randall says, it has always been believed that King John lost the crown jewels somewhere in southern Lincolnshire or Norfolk during the baronial wars of 1213 to 1216, but whatever happened to them, they disappeared. It occurred to me that a story could be woven around that on the premise he didn’t lose them, he hid them. And thus the novel was born. I debated the idea of having them found at the end, but decided against it. They were actually lost, and I left them lost.
RTF: Charles you’ve written and published several novels, how long does it typically take you to finish the first draft of a story?
Charles: That varies a lot. It took me four years to produce the first draft of my first novel, Jade Hunter, but only about a year for The Devil At My Heels. I have on occasion taken a year on a short story, but have also finished them in as little as a month. However, that’s only the first draft. In addition there is all the research time, and I tend to do the research both before and during the preparation of the first draft. As I go through the revision process, I do further research to add more detail or refine what’s there already.
RTF: Many of us writers sometimes find we’ve written ourselves into a corner. Does that ever happen to you? If so how do you work through it?
Charles: Ha! Yes, it happens all the time. I often get my characters into scrapes and have to spend time working out how to extricate them. The only way I have ever found doing that is simply to think about where they are, who and what they are as people, and decide how they would react to being where I put them. And if that doesn’t work, then I find I have to go back and adjust things a bit to give them some wiggle room, so to speak.
RTF: Though you make your home in Canada, you were born in England, and spent some of your academic life there. In what way did your years in England influence your writing?
Charles: They are a huge influence. I have never written a novel or short story that has not been set in Britain, for at least some of the time. I studied and taught British History, I was involved in archaeological excavations there and had the opportunity to explore the great cathedrals, monasteries and other buildings, whether still intact or in ruins. Such things always fascinated me, and I suppose they were what drew me to History as a profession. The writing of historical fiction has been a sort of natural outgrowth of that now that I am retired.
RTF: You’re retired from a career in education. What did you love about teaching?
Charles: I taught at the post-secondary level, but all teaching is a great privilege and a great responsibility. To see one’s students light up with interest in a certain thing, or hear them questioning conventional wisdom and asking why things are the way they are is, quite simply, wonderful. I think teaching has made it easier for me to understand what my readers might be interested in, what sorts of detail I should include. I can still hear students in my history classes asking, “Why did they do that?” I answered them as factually as I could, and in writing historical fiction, I see myself still answering them, but in a slightly different way; still as factually as I can, but at the personal level, creating a sense and feeling of what it was actually like to live in times past. My students were always interested in the human side of history, and I used to sometimes recommend certain novels for them to read and gain a different perspective.
I taught for thirteen years and then took over responsibility for my University’s international activities: international students, overseas programming, consultancies, development projects and so on. It gave me an unparalleled opportunity to travel the world and that has made it possible for me to write about China, India, Thailand and so many other countries from first-hand observation.
RTF: Charles, I understand you are a champion of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and that you yourself have been partially sighted since age nineteen. Would you be willing to tell us more about that, and how it has affected your writing process (if at all).
Charles: That's correct, Sara. I began to lose some sight when I was in my late teens, and from time to time since then there has been deterioration due to an incurable, genetically-based, degenerative condition which has slowly reduced all my central vision until now I have only very limited peripheral sight. This reduction in sight was the primary cause of my early retirement at age fifty-six, but I did manage to have a thirty-two-year career, and do some part-time consulting for twelve years after that.
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind helped me a great deal over the years in all kinds of ways, which is why I began volunteering with them right after I retired in 1999. Through them I learned about screen magnification applications for my computer which enlarge what I’m reading or writing. I also have a program which makes it possible for my computer to read what’s on the screen to me out loud (Optical Character Recognition, or OCR). I also have device called a CCTV which is, in effect, a vertically mounted camera with a zoom lens that magnifies anything placed beneath it. The image appears on a screen mounted just in front of the camera. I use that to read print material. In addition to all that, I have a scanning camera with which I can scan a printed page, and then, with the aid of special software, turn that scanned Image into a Word document I can save, make notes on, and refer to whenever I want without having to use the printed document again. The more I can use the computer directly, the easier it is. Without those aids, I could not do my research or even use a computer at all, since I have not been able to read normal print since about 1980 or so. I wrote a novel in the late 1970s and that was the last time I could read the print from a typewriter; thank goodness for word processing, because without it, I could not write at all. By the way, the novel was called Dragon’s Pearl, and I submitted it to a publisher, whereupon it achieved instant oblivion. Nevertheless, I was determined to write, although I could not find enough time for it until I retired. The eyesight problem certainly slows everything down, but with these devices and software, I am able to continue to write and accomplish my volunteer work.
I am also a member of the executive of the World Blind Union (WBU) which is a global association of blindness organizations which works as a consulting agency to the United Nations. The WBU work keeps me traveling, although not as much as I used to. I now have to rely on airline staff for assistance at airports, but I still have an opportunity to experience other lands and peoples, and in my hotel room I make notes on my laptop about what I see (to some extent), hear, feel and smell. It’s all grist to the writing mill. I tell people that going blind is a tragedy, but being blind doesn’t have to be in this day and age. I tell people, especially young people, coping with vision loss that although they may have no control over their sight, they do have control over their vision – their vision of themselves, the world, and their place in it. And after all, when I or those like me go to a party, there is never any danger of having to be the designated driver, and we can still mix a good drink if the power goes out.
RTF: Now for a tough question:) The publishing industry has gone through vast changes in the last decade, do you have any thoughts on the future of publishing?
Charles: Good question, Sara. The publishing industry is experiencing a revolutionary transformation, and it is very hard to know what the end results might be. Self-publishing is increasing at a phenomenal rate, and many large traditional houses have people scanning the Web full time to find self-published authors who are good enough to be approached to sign contracts. Print on demand (POD) has reduced production and storage costs, and the rise of eBooks is nothing short of astounding. Not too long ago, self-publishing was seen as something writers did if they couldn’t find a traditional publisher to accept their work, eBooks were thought of as not being real books, but no more. I think we’ll continue to see print books for many years yet, but basically, what’s happening is that reading of all kinds will become possible in many more ways and the publishing industry will have to adapt or die out in its present form. The industry is changing all right, but in some ways it’s still very conservative. From a writer’s point of view, I see all these changes as increasing opportunities to reach more and more readers. Small, Web-based publishing houses have proliferated astoundingly in recent years, and the successful ones seem to be those who embrace the changes and use them to their advantage.
RTF: When you aren’t writing, rumor has it you have a sailboat? Do you take full advantage of living on the Canadian west coast?
Charles: I certainly try to. My wife and I love to sail. I deal with the sails, and Louise handles the helm. Putting me on the helm is not a good strategy! We are not ocean sailors; we just potter about in local waters, but there is plenty to see on a coastline as rich and diverse as this.
Louise and I also love our garden. We have a half-acre lot which is fully landscaped in lawns, flower beds, pathways and paved areas. We bought the lot and had the house built ten years ago, and we have developed the garden from bare ground. Louise does the design work and is the one who knows all about the flowers, trees and shrubs, and I manage wheelbarrows (more carefully these days) and dig holes where requested. Fortunately I am still able to do a lot of things in the garden, and I really enjoy that. When I am outside, I often find I am thinking about a plot or a story I have on the go at the time. The great thing about writing is that there is a great deal you can do when you are not actually at your desk. We have a long growing season here, so garden work is almost a seven-month occupation.
RTF: Now for fun... What was your first job?
Charles: The very first thing I ever got paid for was doing a paper route for a friend while he was on holiday. I got four bucks for the two weeks, but then I was only twelve and it was way back in the early Paleolithic. Later, I worked a day as a delivery boy for a local drug store and pharmacy; I don’t remember what they paid me, but it was a terrifying way to earn money. Going to all those strange houses. After finishing High School in Britain at a boarding school on the east coast, I worked in London for a large manufacturing company in their accounting office. This experience convinced me I never wanted to be an accountant, but I saved a lot of money which I brought with me to Canada and used at University.
RTF: Do you have any favorite authors, and did they influence your writing?
Charles: Well, in actual fact, I’d have to say I really don’t have any favorite authors. I read a lot of historical fiction, of course, but many other genres as well. I read non-fiction for pleasure as well as for research purposes, but my reading is constrained by the fact that I have to use audiobooks. More audiobooks are being produced all the time, but their numbers remain minuscule compared to the amount of print material out there. I make use of libraries for the blind, such as that maintained by the CNIB, but in addition these days its possible to download books from many sources in digital form which can then be read electronically on computers, tablets, smartphones and other such devices. That has made a huge difference to the availability of material accessible to people who are blind, partially sighted or have some other form of print disability. Up until last year, a major problem was that if a book appeared in Britain, say, in audio format, I, in Canada, could not access it unless a Canadian publisher acquired the rights and produced it here. However, last year, after protracted negotiations over several years, over a hundred-and-fifty countries signed a treaty allowing for the free movement around the world of all books and other materials produced anywhere for the use of people with print disabilities. This will make a huge difference to availability, especially for those in developing countries whose situation is far worse than anything in the industrialized nations. The World Blind Union was centrally involved in the preparation and negotiation of the treaty.
RTF: I love music, and I understand you play the guitar? Do you have any favorite artists, or songs? Any that have influenced your writing?
Charles: I have played classical and flamenco guitar since I was about fifteen, taking my first lessons from my French teacher at that boarding school I mentioned earlier. Prior to that I had studied the trumpet, and played in a junior orchestra, but the school had no orchestra, and since it’s difficult to play the trumpet quietly to oneself, I took up the guitar. My two inspirations were the great Andres Segovia for classical guitar and Carlos Montoya for flamenco. I never met Segovia, but did meet Montoya once and spent a wonderful evening talking to him about the guitar and his music. My love of history led me also to traditional folk music and I enjoy singing the songs of England, Ireland, and Scotland. My mother was of Scottish descent, so I come by it honestly. I had difficulty keeping up the classical music because by age twenty-three or so, my sight loss was preventing me from reading music. This was a tough blow, but I have been able to continue to play and learn new works and songs by ear. In recent years I have also begun to play the piano which has been a lifelong ambition.
I think music does influence my writing. Before humans invented writing, all literature was spoken, or sung, and much of it was in rhyme because that made it easier to remember. I always read everything I write out loud, and I am not satisfied with it until it sounds right as well as conveys its proper meaning. This is especially true for dialogue, and I always speak dialogue before, during, or after I write it. Sometimes, I let the computer read things back to me, and that way I can really concentrate on the sound, the rhythm and the pacing. I believe the written word should flow easily, and should have a meter and cadence of its own. I do my best to put that into my writing.
As a final word, Sara, in addition to thanking you for this opportunity, I’d simply like to say that writing gives me a way to grow. I don’t intend to grow old, but I know I will become old if I don’t grow.
RTF: Oh such wise words:) Charles, it’s truly been a pleasure to have you at RTF today! Your in depth answers to my questions are hugely appreciated, not to mention fascinating. The fact that you’ve overcome obstacles in your life to do everything you love is inspiring to myself, and no doubt will be to anyone else who might stop by. Thank you again for taking your valuable time (out of a very busy life:) to share your writing life with all of us. Now here is more about the Author:
Charles Mossop, now retired from a forty-two year career as a post-secondary educator, administrator and private consultant, lives on Vancouver Island where he enjoys hobbies of gardening and playing classical guitar when he is not writing. A long-time lover of mystery and adventure stories, Charles has become a professional writer and using his background as a social scientist and historian has published a number of short stories as well as numerous articles on historical fiction. His first novel, Jade Hunter, appeared in 2007
Where to find Charles ~
The Devil at my Heels:
Following the murder of his friend, Dr. Michael Stuart, George Randall, mild-mannered professor of History, finds himself caught up in a dangerous race to uncover the killer’s identity and find the solution to an eight-hundred-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of a priceless royal treasure. Randall’s search takes him from England to Italy, Austria and Germany as he is confronted by a tangled riddle reaching back from the thirteenth century to the final months of the Second World War. Randall employs his research skills as well as deception and fast footwork as he searches for an ancient manuscript that holds within its illuminated pages the secret of a treasure long thought lost. In spite of attempts on his life and the lives if his daughter and his fiancée, Randall remains determined to unravel the secret and find his friend’s murderer.
Dr. Michael Stuart, red-bearded and in his early fifties, closed the door behind the last of his dinner guests and sighed in satisfaction. Thank heavens they've gone, he thought. He went quickly to his study, opened the small, fireproof safe he kept under his desk and withdrew a plain brown file folder. Relocking the safe, he put the folder on his desk and sat down. This is it, he thought, looking at the sheet of yellowing parchment the folder contained. The first definite proof in eight hundred years. That stuff will be worth a fortune, and the publicity will be incredible. Could get me a knighthood. When I publish this, we'll have to rewrite the history books. Thank you so much, good King John.
He looked up and frowned as the sound of footsteps reached him. He rose, walked out of the study and stopped abruptly at the sight of a man in dark jacket and slacks standing in the hallway.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded. “How did you get in?”
“Easy. You left the front door unlocked after you saw your guests off. Very careless of you.”
Stuart heard the cold menace in the intruder's voice and suddenly realized the danger he could be facing. He strove to keep his voice steady as he tried to take control of the situation.
“Get out. Now.”
“I want that parchment back. I only asked you to authenticate it; I didn't give it to you.”
“I've told you. I've got it in safekeeping. I can look after it for you.”
“Bollocks. You just want the glory. That document belongs to me, and I want it back.”
Cold-fisted fear squeezed Stuart's vitals as in the dim light of the hallway he could see the intruder carried the heavy iron poker from the front room fireplace.
The man took a step closer.
“Give me that letter, Stuart. I'm through playing games.”
A bead of sweat snaked coldly down Stuart's spine. There's a phone in the study, he thought. If I can get in there I can lock the door and call the police. They'll believe me, not him.
He spun on his heel and made a dash for the open study door. He heard a yell of anger and felt his shirt rip as a strong hand tried to hold him back. He stumbled, half turned.
The heavy poker struck the side of his head. Its thunderous impact was the last sound he heard.
An Act of Treason
It is 1799, and England is at war with France on land and at sea. Napoleon is laying waste to Europe, and England herself is preparing to repel an invasion. Aboard the frigate HMS Invincible, on blockade duty off Bordeaux in the Bay of Biscay, Admiral Lord Hayward is murdered, and Captain Sir Robert Foster finds himself entangled in a dangerous web of lies, sedition and treachery which threaten England’s very existence. If he cannot find the murderer, the war with France may be lost and Bonaparte crowned king of England. As he fights off attacks by French ships, he must use all his skill in the search for the traitor aboard his ship.
In the mid-fifteenth century a unique piece of jade is discovered in south-western China. Within days its discoverer is murdered. The jade is stolen, but the thieves themselves die at the hands of a cousin of the emperor Dai Zong, a powerful military leader, who sends the jade to Beijing where is it carved into a masterpiece depicting two identical dragons. Identical, that is, but for one remarkable feature. The sculpture is presented to the emperor by his kinsman but he spurns the gift and the jade is stolen once again and sold out of China along the Silk Road to Arabia.
From Baghdad the sculpture crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Italy where it becomes the property of the mighty Medici family of Florence, but eventually even they are forced by the Church to relinquish it. The sculpture travels north to Bruges from where it is acquired by English merchants who try to sell it to King Henry VIII. The attempt proves catastrophic, however, due to wholly unexpected circumstances, and an enraged King Henry orders it destroyed, a fate only narrowly escaped through the intervention of a nobleman who sends the carving away from London. Descendants of that aristocrat re-discover the sculpture after centuries of concealment, neglect, war and rebellion, and it is placed aboard an English warship which sails the high seas before going to war against Napoleon. Its rightful ownership disputed at the end of the war, the sculpture is hidden and remains lost for over a hundred years.
This sweeping tale of mystery and adventure is played our against the backdrop story of Jill Howard, a young British sinologist, who discovers the story of the carving in an ancient Chinese text and determines to find it and return it to China. She finally discovers a report that it has been destroyed in a fire, but is that truly the end of its colourful history?