I am so excited to introduce you to Kerry and her fabulous newsletter, website, and uncoming book. She is an expert on all things 19th century crime, forensics and criminal investigations, and her goal is to share that world with writers of historical crime and readers intereted in the 19th century world (trust me, you'll learn as much about class and mores as you will about arsenic). I urge you to subscribe to the newsletter; it's a fascinating read.
Kerry and I first met through a writing confernce held by Dana Kaye; she has since become a member of our writing community Novelitics, and boy, do we all value her expertise in crime, editing, writing, and all around good humor.
Tell us about your A Curiosity of Crime newsletter. What’s it about? What’s the inspiration?
The newsletter is about aspects of nineteenth-century society that can enrich historical fiction; things an author might not have thought about, or would have had to read dozens of pages of research to stumble across. Each month has a theme, and so far, it’s included topics such as thievery in nineteenth-century France, crimes of passion, and hypnotism in the law. September’s topic is autopsies and October’s is grave robbers. The newsletter includes a review of a research source, vocabulary or slang, and a pet peeve which is an error that has become part of mass media’s presentation of history. (I consider my pet peeves section a cheap form of therapy.)
The inspiration for the newsletter comes from my own experience reading historical fiction. I love it when there’s an interesting tidbit which enriches the text, but also makes me think, “Wow, never knew that.” I thought I would provide those tidbits to authors. As for the topics, they’re pretty much things I come across when doing research; something that never occurred to me to research or puts ideas, or actions, or social mores into context and explain the “why” of things. Mostly, it’s what I find fascinating.
What is your research process?
Start big, then go small. I begin with the large survey books, then move to specialized books, and then articles. The gems are found in the articles. I pillage the bibliographies of every research book I get my hands on. I read a lot (a lot) of contemporary sources. They provide social context, but also, for writers, let us know where to place the emphasis on the tidbits we’ve gathered in our research. And pictures. They’re goldmines of information. I have been lost down rabbit holes exploring sites like the open access collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and the Wellcome Collection (which has both books and images).
Anything surprise you in your research?
Many, many things. But they’re the small things; the spice that gives flavour to what would be a bland meal. I love finding out stuff that contradicts common knowledge or shows us insight into how people viewed the world. Things that require a lot of effort to fit them into party conversation. Things like “stuck his spoon in the wall” means someone died. That passports have existed since the eighteenth-century and currency conversion since (at least) the early Renaissance. That autopsies in Britain in the 1990s, on average, took only 15 minutes if there was no suspected wrongdoing. That et tu Brute was a curse rather than a plea of betrayal. These are the things I fill my head with.
You write fiction, also. Can you tell us about that?
It’s called The Key, and it’s my foray into historical fiction. It’s set in London in the early 1890s and is about a thief, Liza Cunningham, who steals an old key from a hotel room to add to her collection. This places her in the centre of a war between rival societies who will kill to recover it. Liza is tossed into a world of magic, secret societies, treachery, and resurrected bodies.
What's your favorite genre to read?
Have to confess to being a huge fantasy reader in the past. One of my favourite authors was Guy Gavriel Kay. Though still a fan of fantasy, I tend to read historical crime, now. I’m a fan of Will Thomas’ Barker and Llewelyn series, but am waiting for Andrew Hughes to write another book. Fell in love with his The Coroner’s Daughter, set in Dublin in 1816.
What are you reading right now?
For research, Henry Goddard’s, Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner. Goddard was a Runner from 1824 until they were disbanded in 1839. He died in 1883, but his memoir wasn’t published until 1957. It is prim, dare I say, very British, but is entertaining and a fascinating glimpse into policing in the era before police forces. It provides wonderful insight into attitudes of both law enforcement and criminals, how crime was investigated, and how the Runners interacted with the public.
For leisure I’m reading, Elise Vernon Pearlstine’s, Scent: A Natural History of Fragrance. (For leisure means I don’t have to take notes.) Pearlstine is a perfumer with years spent comparing and contrasting smells. It is a wonderful blend of story-telling, history, and science. I now know what volatile organic compounds are (they’re what make plants aromatic). It starts in ancient times, sets each group of fragrances in its “homeland,” gives them cultural context, and ends with the modern industry of perfumes and scents. I’m only one chapter one, but, so far, it’s fascinating.
What's the next project and when can we expect it?
The most immediate project is a reference book on arsenic that’s aimed at authors. It talks about the fundamentals of arsenic, and the different types, a little bit of chemistry, and why it was such a (diabolical) superb murder weapon. It’s intended to give writers the technical knowledge they need, but also to (hopefully) inspire ideas and relieve writer’s block (when you just can’t figure out how to bump off the rich auntie). There are methods of murder, forms of evidence (including autopsies), and a selection of monkey wrenches you can toss in to complicate things for you sleuth. It gives guidance on the implications each option has on your story.
It will be available for pre-order in August, and for purchase in September.