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R N Morris getting to grips with villainous historical fiction.

June 30, 2018

 

The Red Hand of Furybook blog

R N Morris’s The Red Hand of Fury is the latest Silas Quinn crime novel and it’s a nail biting read because Quinn is really put through the wringer. I wanted to understand more about writing historical crime fiction and what makes an enthralling villain. I was lucky enough to be able to interview him for The Red Hand of Fury book tour.

Why does writing historical crime fiction appeal to you?

I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction and I studied classical history, the Greek and Roman period, at university. I think the appeal of that it was something that had come to an end and you could look back on it and can make a judgement about it, whereas contemporary stuff is dynamic and happening now. This might make for an exciting read, but it’s also challenging for a writer because you can’t have the same perspective on it as you can with something that’s happened in the past.

Writing in the past is a challenge to the imagination because you’re thinking about lives that were lived before you were born. It’s that leap of understanding and empathy that you’re trying to think about what people’s lives were like before you were on the planet. It’s like thinking about what your parents’ lives were like before they had you and what their relationship like and how they met. As a writer of historical fiction, I’m thinking about this on a more universal scale and what was it like to be alive at a particular moment in time.

I’ve always felt that 1914 was a turning point year for the world. When I began writing The Silas Quinn series in 2011 we were coming up to the anniversary of the start of the First World War, so there a lot about this period in the news.

The beginning of the twentieth century marked the start of the modern era and a new way of thinking about the world. There were technological advances and a radical change in the arts. We know now that the First World War was soon followed by the Second World War. Catastrophic global events which people at the beginning of the twentieth century had no idea were going to come along.

This is why the eve of the First World War struck me as a thought provoking era of history.

Worldbuilding is usually associated with fantasy and science fiction, but there does have to be a sense of worldbuilding in historical writing to orientate a reader who might not know much about that time. In this case you have the crime, Quinn’s personal trials and tribulation and a huge world changing event about to take place. How did you balance all this out?

It’s interesting with The Red Hand of Fury. There is a fair amount of it set within a lunatic asylum. So, for this reason Quinn wasn’t necessarily that focused about what was going on in the wider world. The idea was that we, as the reader, know with dramatic irony that Quinn’s focus is so far away from this terrible event yet to happen, building in the background. I didn’t do too much to bring that in because there would have been an underlying consciousness that something was brewing. I did this with the occasional report in newspapers and things mentioned in passing which contrast with what the story’s doing.

There are two side to historical writing, the big events at that time, but also getting a feel for the texture of people’s lives. Imagination does also come into it. It is trying not to overdo the detail so it gets in the way of the story, but about getting that balance. Putting enough in to make people feel as if they are in the past and keeping the plot moving.

I researched as much as I could by reading general background histories of the period, and memoires (some in diary form). For the scene in London Zoo, I did look at photographs of that time and there’s a great deal of information on the internet.

What other sources do you use?

I also googled some obscure books which I was able to buy. For example, the book at that time someone who is interested in birds might use, because I wondered what the state of birdwatching was at the time. Was it a hobby back then? Was it as big a thing as it is now?

I had discovered there weren’t that many authorities on birds at that time as far as I can tell. But I found a second-hand book, which I bought, on birds The Birds of Britain and Their Eggspublished just before the time I’ve writing about. I thought the character I was writing about might have that book because it came out just a few years before. I won’t necessarily read all that book, but it nice to look through it, look at some of the illustrations, read through it and feel this is the kind of thing the character might have also done.

You’re not only writing historical fiction, but historical crime fiction. How did you research the way the police went about investigating a case in Quinn’s time?

This is the side of the story I take the most license with. One of the things that puts me off writing contemporary crime fiction is that it is too technological. We’ve all seen the TV dramas where crimes can be solved by watching CCTV footage. What I was trying to do was trying to achieve a nod to the type of crime detection that might have been done by an experienced detective who thinks things through but also has intuitive leaps rather than a reality crime fiction.

But the story was also based on psychology. A form of detecting which might not be realistic for that time. GK Chesterton’s character of Father Brownwas one of the inspirations for the way Quinn goes about investigating, because that was a similar period and some of those Father Brown stories are quite surreal and crazy. I like to push the surreal aspect of my crime stories.

This is not as outrageous as it seems if you consider the TV programme “Midsomer Murders”, which is prime-time crime drama. There’s always some crazy stuff going on in a very quiet, rural village.

This is why I felt I could play with this type of concept and with the idea of all the oncoming destruction of the war, which in itself was surreal. But I had a focus of deliberate and quite nasty crimes happening in a short space of time in a concentrated area.

A historical crime writer had to use their imagination a bit, because the detectives would be limited as to what they could do. There would certain forensic capabilities, like fingerprinting, which is why I check to make sure I’m doing anything too glaringly wrong with regards to what would have been done at the time. There has to be some license because I want the stories to entertain and be enjoyed by the reader. You also have to remember that Quinn is a maverick detective.

The story is very much about psychology, and how the mind can be manipulated. An asylum becomes a location for the story. How did you go about researching this part of the story?

I read some accounts of people who had been inmates in Colney Hatch, as well as a history of the place. I also read a book on how mental disorders in general were regarded historically.

I was amazed at some of the strange ideas doctors were coming up with to treat the patients in what might be considered the modern era of 1914. Tonsils and teeth were removed because Henry Cotton, an American psychiatrist considered that bacteria was the cause of mental illness. He didn’t stop at the tonsils, but also removed but the stomach and other organs as well, even though there was no scientific basis to this approach. Other people copied him in what seems to be a very mediaeval approach to mental health care, particularly when you consider the more human approach of Freud and his analysis that was also being done at that time. Insulin comas were also used as a shock therapy in the 1940s and 1950s in an attempt to calm patients down. But they would often die because of the injection. Now we can’t understand this brutal mindset.

I did get the impression so many of these huge places were being built because society had to deal with so much mental illness at that time, due to the way society was then. The Victorians and Edwardians built these warehouses for people they didn’t want to let out into society because they were considered too frightening and the best place for them was those places.

I’m sure there must have been people who did try to do their best at that time, but we do know that some professions do attract some no very pleasant people.

The book reflects the madness on a global scale at that time in the manifestation of war.

How do you construct an archvillain who really grips a reader?

Maybe it evolved in my mind. My villain is introduced in a very benign way in the story. At the early stage of writing The Red Hand of FuryI had written about someone who might have just been seen in passing, but I had a feeling this person was going to be someone important in the story with a significant role to play. It was just at that stage I hadn’t worked out the details of where he fitted. I only knew he had to be in at the beginning so the reader saw him.

I had been researching Sir Isaac Newton for another book I was considering writing but eventually abandoned. However, the research I did for it I used in Red Hand of Fury, taking the fact that he considered he was a Christ-like figure because of his belief that his birthday was the same day as Jesus Christ and therefore he was Jesus Christ. He was also a mathematical genius and a very difficult man.

This is why I decided to write about someone with an equally brilliant mind in the period just before the First World War, taking those numerological ideas of Newton’s and the idea that, like Newton, my character would have an absolute conviction that they are right about everything, then they can do no wrong. Even when he does something very bad, it must be right.

That kind of arrogance is very interesting in villains. He is motivated by a desire to accomplish something that isn’t evil in itself, but what he chooses to do with it is immoral. The reasons why he can be considered a villain are not clear cut and layered. So, my character evolved rather than appeared immediately.

A villain, no matter how well described wouldn’t work effectively without interactions with the other characters.

I thought if Quinn is put in a situation where it’s going to be difficult and isolating for him this would be a good way for Quinn to interact with a villain who is as obsessed about Quinn as Quinn is with him.

There is a nemesis relationship and now they are thrown together. Given this situation and that they are so fascinated with each other means there is the possibility of them forming some kind of bond. That area of ambiguity was something interesting. I quite like that in writing a story. In The Red Hand FuryI played with this quite a bit, so we really don’t know if Quinn knows what he’s doing or whether he’s lost it.

The Red Hand of Furyis the latest in the Silas Quinn series. I haven’t read any Silas Quinn books before, but found it read well as a standalone book and would like to read through the previous books. How does it work for you as a writer with regards to a series? How do you make it possible for a reader to access each book without having read the others and have you had any readers who have gone back through the timeline of your books?

I do try and write each Quinn book as a standalone, but there are elements in the other books which do come in others. I do have an overarching plot. I did have a reader contact me who had read The Red Handof Furyand then went on to read the previous ones and found she didn’t have a problem reading them out of sequence. Colney Hatch is part of Quinn’s history and always lurking in his past. I mentioned a troubled incident in his past in a previous book. I finally reached a point where there was a case that would take him back to Colney Hatch. This was the starting point. As well a crime being committed, this is a book about whether Quinn will emerge unscathed or it will be the undoing of him.

I’m always interested in a story where you’re not quite sure whether the hero will go to the same lengths as the villain to achieve what he needs to do to save the day. How does this work when you’re writing considering you may already had the plot laid out?

I work out the story in a general form. I may even do a spreadsheet where each chapter has a box and I write a brief description of each chapter. That is to do with the development of the story. Quinn’s character development comes when I’m writing. It’s an instinctive thing where I feel I have to make him interesting in some way.

There are two sides to writing, one is making sure that the story has everything in it that it needs to make sense as a story, the other side is about bringing it to life and making it feel that it’s not just you writing to a grid and working through a series of tick boxes, until the whole narrative becomes very mechanical.

The characters are one of the main components of a story that brings the whole thing to life. They need to be believable and you need a central character who makes you feel a little bit on edge, because you’re not entirely sure the way they’re going to go.

Working this way, I often find I write in a scene I’d never thought of when I was doing my plan and then I have to deal with that by having to adjust the plot, because it takes me away from my original concept. But that’s what happens when you try and get the drama in there. The minute by minute, line by line interest. This type of detail can complicate the writing of a story, but it’s what stops the story feeling like its painting by numbers. We all know what a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa looks like. The real thing in the gallery is very different.

Although a plot is a useful framework, it is the actual writing when the depth of story begins to take form.

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R N Morris

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3 Comments
  1. Excellent post. The book also sounds really interesting.

    • The style of writing does have a very old fashioned feel to it. As I said, it wouldn’t be out of place against the side of a Richard Hannay novel. I quite liked that.

      • I sometimes like to read an old fanshioned writing style of book. Makes me want to read this book even more now.

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