Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Interview with Scottish mystery author CA Asbrey

September’s Author of the Month of Scottish mystery author CA Asbrey (the pen name for Christine Lyden). CA is becoming rapidly known throughout Facebook’s mystery-reading and -writing indie community with her new Innocents mystery series set in 1860’s Wyoming.

15) OK, you’re Scottish by birth and presently live in England. How on earth does a Scottish author come to write a western mystery series set in the American West of the 1860’s? What was your inspiration for doing so?
I first became interested in early women in law enforcement when I joined the police in Scotland. Going further and further back meant going to the place where the first professional female detectives actually worked – The Pinkertons between 1856 until 1884. When Allan Pinkerton died his son Robert got rid of them. It’s alleged that Robert got rid of them due to complaints from wives about their husbands working with women. It’s likely that this was a motivation, and that his own mother might have been one of them, as Allan Pinkerton’s relationship with the first female Pinkerton, Kate Warne, was so close that she was actually buried in the Pinkerton family grave. Mrs. Pinkerton’s view on that matter is not recorded. The answer is simple; in order to write about these women I had to go where they actually worked. The books are not all in the Old West. They go all over the country, coast to coast, just like the Pinkertons did. They even go to Europe and Canada later in the series. British Columbia was actually The Pinkerton’s biggest contract outside of the USA, but they had many of them

14) Even though Abigail is Scottish, how difficult was it for you to strain out all the Britishisms in your dialogue and narrative? Did you have to go back during the revision process and remove any stray ones?
I have worked in the USA and been a regular visitor for years. I have many American friends. Outside of the USA, American television is everywhere. I think that people in the USA have less experience of us than we do of them.
Getting into a ‘US’ headspace is as simple as tuning to a TV show and paying attention to the dialogue. I can imagine that doing it the other way around would be far more difficult. In fact I know it is. There are thousands of posts on the internet made by Scots insisting that we don’t say ‘verra’, despite it featuring in an international best seller.  
Even with all that I absolutely did have to go back and find the idioms which slipped through. Lots of people helped and I’m very grateful to them. It’s more than just spelling. Some words mean a completely different thing to us than they do in the USA. Don’t even get me started on ‘fanny’! Just don’t say it over here. That’s all I’m saying.

13) Abigail MacKay is portrayed as a tough, intrepid, scientific-minded Pinkerton detective. For those who haven’t had the pleasure to peruse your Lady Pinkertons page on your official site, what was your inspiration for her?
Real women who enforce the law. I know plenty of them. They are strong, clever, brave, and human. The real women who were ground-breakers and who were bold enough to step outside the box society built for them and forge through resistance to force change. I didn’t want her to be a damsel in distress, and I certainly didn’t want her to be a sidekick.
I was most particular in what I didn’t want her to be. When she faces discrimination, she isn’t a victim. She stands up and gives as good as she gets. She isn’t perfect or superhuman. She makes mistakes, and just like real life, some can be fortuitous and others can be disastrous. She doesn’t turn to men and say, “What are we going to do?” No women worth their salt ever does that yet it’s all over fiction and movies. I wanted her to be a fully-fledged, properly-skilled investigator because that’s what these women were. They were extremely good at their jobs and commanded great respect at a time when women couldn’t vote and they’d only had the right to own property since 1838.
I don’t think strength is a male or female quality, it’s a human quality. Strong men and women have always been around. People never change, only times change, so it’s really a case of placing the characters in the time and place in which the story unfolds and watching them react to the situations they are in.

12) Writing western mysteries from the UK can be daunting from a hands-on research standpoint. When you research for an Innocents novel, to what places do you usually go?
As I said, I used to work over there and have visited countless times. I’ve been coast to coast and north to south. I may mention a state in the book, but I invent the smaller towns and make them generic. The exception to that would be the large cities like San Francisco or Boston. Apart from knowing the places very well, I also use historic maps and research the internet and books to ensure that the places I mention are not just correct, they are accurate to the period in which they are placed.
There have been plenty of Western writers who never lived there. Owen Wister was born from Pennsylvania and Zane Grey grew up in Ohio, played baseball in Pennsylvania, and practiced dentistry in New York before reading The Virginian and deciding to write frontier-tales of his own.

11) Mystery readers demand authenticity and accuracy perhaps more than anything else. How difficult is it for you to research what forensic advances had been made no later than the 1860’s?
That’s actually one of the easiest parts for me as forensics have always fascinated me and I have a scientific bent. There are plenty of books and documents which detail the actual processes used back in the 19th century, not to mention court transcripts which can be a fund of little gems as to how doctors tested for poisons or noted wounds.
You do have to be careful about the dates of discovery and usage, as well as looking at when the processes were superseded by a new one.
I also have skilled friends I can ask when in doubt.

10) 1868 Wyoming was a surprisingly progressive place in at least one respect- That year it became the first state to give women the right to vote. Even though you never mentioned that in THE INNOCENTS, what was it about Wyoming that attracted you to the point of launching your series there?
That’s an easy one. There’s no statute of limitations in Wyoming and that is important to the plot.  

9) How would you like to see latter day mystery fiction evolve?
For me it’s all about the plot. People a whole lot cleverer than me are taking ideas and running with them – stretching us psychologically, mentally, and sometimes foxing us completely.
I don’t really have a view on how it should evolve. I think readers will always be ready for anything writers throw at them.

8) Imagine THE INNOCENTS greenlighted for a movie version and you had the final say on casting. Who would you tap to play Abigail and the other characters?
You’re going to hate this answer but I have no idea. I haven’t cast my characters from favorite actors. They exist organically in my head as their own thing. Abigail would have to be more than just attractive; she’d have to show strength and intelligence – so any actress would need to have those qualities herself.
Nat would need to have one of those faces with expressive eyes. He’d be good-looking, but not boyish or too pretty.
The actors would probably be not very well-known, or come out from left field.
Just as an aside I made Abigail so dark as it’s a very Celtic characteristic, but the stereotype in the USA tends to be red hair and blue eyes, which is actually a minority. Think Catherine Zeta Jones, Sean Connery, Aidan Turner, and Colin Farrell. They are very Celtic.
I gave Nat dimples purely because it’s another way to describe emotions and reactions and to make his stand out.   

7) Aside from mystery fiction, what other genres, if any, would you like to try or what others have you tried?
The Innocents is my first book and the first three are already written. I honestly haven’t tried any other genre. They say write what you know and I’ve always read mystery. I love the game of playing along and trying to guess whodunit. I hate it when it’s too easy.

6) We’re historical novelists, not historians writing novels. However, having said that, do you think those writing in our genre have the right to reinvent established history instead of merely reimagining it?
If we reinvent it, we must be honest with the reader. We have a duty not to spread falsehoods about important events. It can be very interesting to put a different point of view, or tell a story from a lesser-known perspective though. It can make us see events through new eyes.
I don’t think it matters too much if we stick in a train (for example) and don’t make it stop at every station, or describe the exact route across town with every turn identified. We are invoking a sense of place, not making a documentary. Sometimes research shows things which were invented far earlier than people think, or actual events don’t match the popular version of a tale. In those cases it’s great to confound expectations. I love doing those.
In a way my female Pinkerton does exactly that for many people who don’t realize that they existed or how skilled they were.

5) In TATTERDEMALION, I’d used real life people such as Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Fred Abberline, Queen Victoria and so forth. Why don’t more historical figures pop up in your Innocents series and how do you resist the urge to use them?
They actually do pop up, but in dialogue about their scientific and forensic skills and their contributions to their fields. When I name chiefs of police in a specific place, governors, or the like, they are the correct ones for the date and their characters have been researched.
At the end of the day, how often do you meet a queen or famous person in out of the way places? My characters don’t really mix in glamorous circles.
If I need a famous person to drive forward a plot I’d have no hesitation in putting one in.

4) Plotter or pantser?
A bit of both. I start with a general idea of who did it and why. I then research all the ways to support the evidence and what was possible at the time. I then look at how to plant red herrings.
When a character starts to act up and make their part grow, I’ll go with it. Even the end can change if the story goes a different way. In that case the original story will be converted into a red herring. And, yes. I’ve done that.

3) Describe your drafting process. Do you use notebooks, your laptop or a combination of both? What time of the day or night do you most often write?
I’m a night owl and do my best writing at night or in the evening. I’ve never been a lark. I use a laptop and a nest of cushions on the couch despite having a desk. I’ll start with research, a series of notes and start at the beginning and write the book right through. Then I’ll re-write at least twice. I then give it to trusted people to read and comment on before a thorough editing.       

2) How difficult is it to juggle and balance the romantic angle with the serious crimes that take place, especially with a pair of bank robbers who are more lovable rogues than bad guys?
That’s actually well-researched. There were many criminals who were either humane or who saw it as a great way to ensure cooperation to treat ordinary people well. There is also a long history of people who had a special grudge against the rich and powerful – and that’s really who my criminals are. Their back story unfolds throughout the trilogy.
I wrote a whole blog post about men like them and you can find it here.
      I didn’t really want it to get as romantic as it got. It just sort of went that way.

1) What’s next for Abigail and when will the next installment of THE INNOCENTS series launch?
Part 2 is already out and more of the men’s back story unfolds and you understand more of their motivations. In it Nat’s uncle is concerned when Abi is working with a bounty hunter who never brings in anyone alive, and fears that she is trying to trap Nat. The book features irritable heart, the 19th century term for PTSD, and also shows discrimination and violence towards immigrants, the beginning of the early nativist parties who feared that Catholic immigrants where changing the face of the country, and the consequences of immigrant children ripped away from families. Abigail also gets to showcase her scientific skills in this one.
It might seem opportunistic timing, but this book was actually written about four years ago and has been doing the rounds being turned down by multiple publishers because ‘westerns aren’t selling’ (it’s not a  western. It’s 19th century Americana) or ‘it’s not western enough’ (it’s 19th century USA from the perspective of a female immigrant) or there’s not enough character development (code for it’s not romantic enough and they don’t get their rocks off by chapter three of the first book)
Part 3 is a howdunit. Abigail’s sister has run away to marry someone of whom her family disapproves. The biggest problem is that when Abigail investigates she finds he has multiple identities and that each of his wives died mysteriously. They know he is killing but don’t know how, but need to find out fast. We also find out a lot more of Abigail’s back story in this one.   
Part three will be released in November this year. 
Blog - C.A Asbrey - all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period
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