As promised, Laurie King is guest blogging here today on a topic and period that for a while now has been of endless fascination to me. I'm a relatively new convert to the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but trust me, it only takes one book to become addicted. So, now I'll turn things over to Ms. King:
My choice of period following the Great War was not exactly a choice. I wanted to write about a young woman who comes of age under the guidance of Sherlock Holmes, and the latest that Arthur Conan Doyle set one of his Holmes stories was the very eve of the Great War, in August 1914. So I picked up Holmes, and his society, a few months later, and dropped my character into its midst.
Now, when I chose that time (or rather, had it chosen for me) I knew next to nothing about the period. My background is academic, but the history I worked on was a couple of millennia older than 1914, which meant I was starting pretty much from scratch.
So I read. I went to my university's library and I hunted down books on a myriad of topics related to England between the wars: politics, fashion, technological developments, the women's movement, the War itself, memoirs and diaries from people both famous and obscure. And novels. A few good novels, but a lot of remarkably bad ones.
What a writer needs, and especially a writer of crime fiction, is realistic detail, to give texture and dimension to the characters' world. Details small and large, from the name of the prime minister to his passion for country cricket, the loss of an important battle in the trenches to the terror of the man facing the ladder, from the wartime policy of using Land Girls to fill the shoes of farm workers to the dates of the first brassieres, vacuum cleaners, color photographs, and zippers.
In the process of assembling a body of knowledge about the Teens and Twenties, I began to discover some unexpected and provocative patterns. In the War, half a generation fought in the trenches, the young men literally so, but even those remaining on what was called the Home Front suffered. A young woman like Vera Brittain could lose friends, brothers, a fiancé, virtually everyone she knew and loved. So many young aristocrats died, the yearly updates of the guides to the Peerage were suspended. Among the working class, villages of men would join together, be posted to France together, and die together when their position was overrun, leaving entire communities with no men between the ages of sixteen and forty.
Women stepped into men's shoes, and ultimately the women's movement burgeoned. During the War, women ran the country from delivering beer casks to patrolling the streets. As a result, they were granted social rights that long-battling suffragettes had hardly dared to imagine.
The Twenties were a time when everything that was England came into question. The Empire was feeling cracks at its base, that in a few years would widen, splitting off most of the former colonies. Aristocrats saw their holdings diminished by the new death laws while mine workers had their living wage cut, and cut again. Vicious rifts developed in what had been a relatively stable society, and the classes turned against each other, until with the general strike of 1926, the people saw revolution threaten.
My own coming of age was in the sixties, when a war threatened to split the country apart. When women's rights made huge strides. When many thought the western world was on the brink of revolution.
Which brings us back to the writing of historical novels. We don't read historical fiction because the people are so different from us, so weirdly foreign and incomprehensible. We read it because it shows ourselves, under a different guise.
When I write about the impossibility of controlling the politics of northen India, I write with an awareness of the situation in Afghanistan now. When I write about two men who move to a foreign country inorder to be free to live as they must, both I and the reader know that I am also talking, to some extent, about people who wish to marry in the Twenty-first century and cannot. When I write about a young woman who goes from losing her entire family to creating a new and demanding family of her own, I write about us all.
And when I write about a Victorian detective who encounters a young woman and is revitalized by her, I am also writing about his society as a whole.
The past is another country; they do things differently there, And, they do things the same.
Laurie R. King's ninth Mary Russell novel, The Language of Bees, will be published on April 28, 2009, shortly after the first in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, turns fifteen. Her website is celebrating with contests, activities, and Russell and Holmes events during this spring's Fifteen Weeks of Bees.
Be sure to check out the rest of Laurie King's Fifteen Week's of Bees Blog Tour:
February 2: Bookish Ruth
February 13: Reading Group Guides
February 18 & 19: A Striped Armchair (review & Guest Post)
February 26: Jen Robinson's Book Page
March 4: Age 30+...A Lifetime of Books (Guest Post)
March 11: A Work in Progress
March 18: Age 30+...A Lifetime of Books (Interview)
March 26: Presenting Lenore
April 2: Reading Group Guides