Thursday, November 06, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Patricia Wynn

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Patricia Wynn
with Patricia Wynn

We are delighted to welcome author Patricia Wynn to Omnimystery News today.

Patricia's fifth book in her Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean series, Acts of Faith (Pemberley Press; October 2014 hardcover) deals with the risks Roman Catholics were driven to take under the punishing laws against them.

We recently had the chance to talk to Patricia a little more about her series.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the principal characters of your series.

Patricia Wynn
Photo provided courtesy of
Patricia Wynn

Patricia Wynn: The two detectives in my Blue Satan series are Gideon Fitzsimmons, Viscount St. Mars, and Mistress Hester Kean, waiting woman to her cousin the Countess of Hawkhurst. Gideon is accused of a murder he did not commit, but English justice being what it was in 1715, he can mount no defense, so he engineers an escape to avoid being hanged. He is declared outlaw and by a curious set of circumstances he is mistaken for a highwayman and given the name Blue Satan.

Mrs. Kean (spoken as Mistress Kean) is a young lady whose father has died with no money, leaving her dependent on her manipulative Aunt Mayfield and empty-headed cousin Isabella. Like other unmarried women in her day, she must work as a servant to her relatives or face life on the street. There were no jobs for women outside the home. She has to balance her gratitude and loyalty to Isabella against her own honesty and integrity.

Aside from his groom, Hester is the only person who believes Gideon innocent. Over the course of the first book, they pair up to solve the mystery, and as their friendship deepens, they go on to solve others.

I got it stuck in my head that I wanted a highwayman for my main character, but having an outlaw for a detective poses obvious problems. Gideon can do a certain amount of sleuthing in disguise since the dress of the day included shoulder-length wigs, face paint, and patches, and people would wear masks to some evening events, but he cannot show himself at Court where he would quickly be recognized. He needed a partner who could detect from within society. Mrs. Kean does most of her work by day and he usually does his at night.

Gideon is a young, athletic man with energy and grace. I enjoy coming up with adventurous schemes for him and scenes in which he finds himself in physical danger. Hester is an intelligent listener. People talk to her. Having been a clergyman's daughter and housekeeper, she is wise and capable beyond her years. What the two share are their senses of justice and humor. The better they get to know each other, they more they can drop their pretenses and have fun.

OMN: How have these characters changed over the course of five books?

PW: My series follows a definite timeline, according to the passage of real events in the reign of George I. The characters are not static like Miss Marple, who goes on being her gentlewomanly self from book to book, but in all fairness to Miss Marple, by her age, most of us have done our "growing." My characters are young and experience huge changes in their lives, so they do learn and grow. Both are vulnerable to mistakes of all kinds. Gideon — Blue Satan — is passionate and has to learn to control his temper. Like many young men, he's fearless when it comes to physical danger, and since he's been robbed of his place in society, he feels he has nothing else to lose. These feelings get him into trouble, and if he did not learn from his experiences, he'd be just plain stupid. He also has to learn whom to trust and what is important in life.

Hester is a realist, but she encounters many circumstances for the first time and occasionally is faced with difficult choices with no one she can trust for advice. She has to rely on her basic decency, but she can be deceived. With each mystery, she learns more about the things that motivate people.

On top of this, the series itself has two plots: Will Gideon ever be exonerated and regain the title that should have been his? and Will Hester and Gideon become lovers and/or marry? Their relationships with other ongoing characters also change over the series. I have plenty to work with to help them grow.

OMN: How did you go about finding the right voices for your characters?

PW: Obviously, I have one character with my gender, Hester, and one without, Blue Satan. Before writing this series, I published 10 romance novels and in all of them I split the viewpoint between the hero and heroine. That's just what has always come naturally to me. I've heard one author explain this choice as wanting to experience all the cool things guys get to do. Certainly, if I confined myself to Hester's point of view in this time period, it would be a completely different series, minus the adventure, because women were extremely confined. I was a bit of a tomboy as a child, played lots of sports and rode horses. I've always loved adventure classics and films and TV. It's fun for me to write Gideon's scenes because I get to fight with a sword, climb trees, ride and run, etc.

As to making my male characters believable, I did grow up playing alongside boys. I also did some research of the Mars vs. Venus variety to do a workshop on writing from the male point of view, which was a bestselling tape for a while. When I write dialogue for Gideon, I always go back and cut out as many words as possible, since on average women use 11 words for every 1 a man will use. I also take out conciliatory phrases, such as "Don't you think that …" or "Would you rather …" — phrases women use to persuade when men are more likely just to give commands.

Two things have pleased me very much. One is that a reviewer once said that I write with energy. The other is that men seem to be my biggest fans. That tells me that I've got Gideon right.

OMN: Into which mystery subgenre would you place this series?

PW: My books are historical mysteries, but I always have to go beyond that phrase to describe them. They combine history, mystery, romance and adventure. The history is factual and chronologically tied to the events of the period, more so than nearly any other series, I believe. The description does help to get me some readers from two genres, historicals and mysteries, and we all need a way to try to reach our niche. With so many novels on the market, I can't come up with a better way to do that.

OMN: Tell us something about Acts of Faith that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

PW: I can give you two things in Acts of Faith that are not in the publisher's synopsis: 1) in the time of George I, under the laws of England, Catholic households were limited to one horse and one gun. This was so they would not have the resources to mount a rebellion. 2) Finally (partially in answer to some readers' pleas) Mrs. Kean and Blue Satan do get together — I won't say how far.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

PW: Very little of my books is based on my own experience other than things like what it feels like to ride a horse or pet a dog. I do put myself inside Mrs. Kean's and Blue Satan's heads and have them respond or act as I think they would, so naturally both express facets of my character.

I have modeled a few characters on people I know, traits of theirs taken to extremes. A person with a complex personality or contrasting traits, abrasive but generous, gentle but obstinate, for instance, makes a good model for a character in any period. But most of my characters have been inspired by people I have read about in my research since this is what inspires my plots. I use the description I've found, change the person's name, and build a character to suit my needs. I also have my characters interact with real historical figures, but I try not to make the historical figures say or do anything they weren't known to have said or done — except for interacting with my fictional creations, of course.

I love to come across a historical event, like the Frost Fair on the Thames, for instance, or the first attempt to walk underwater using a breathing apparatus, and use it to stage a scene. In Acts of Faith, the murder plot was taken from something I read that Catholics in the period practiced.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

PW: The only outline I work with is a timeline of historical events, usually about three to six months per book, so I can weave my story through them. I do not outline my plot. I need the process of the writing to inspire connections and revelations that naturally grow out of the story. To me, outlining stifles that process, plus when I tried to outline first, going back to write from the outline bored me. The greatest pleasure I get from writing is making discoveries as I go along. It's true what some other authors have said — your mind really will plant things in your novel whose relevance becomes obvious later. That said, I've never started a story without having the major characters drafted in my head. I know who will be murdered by whom and how. I don't know how Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean are going to prove it, however, until just before they do.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any particularly challenging topics?

PW: Believe it or not, the most challenging for me was early on discovering whether the English had sash windows in 1715. It necessitated a trip to England and a tour to Kensington Palace to find this out. Of course, later, I must have read the fact a million times, but at the moment, it was very frustrating and I could not get a scene written until I could envision the windows.

I started this series before the internet had much useful information on it, so I accumulated my own research library. I use the OED, historical dictionaries of slang, dialect, and phrases, as well as literature from the period to create believable voice, dialogue, etc. I have a set of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, THE collectors' edition, and hundreds of books from biographies to books on crime and punishment, laws, scandals, superstitions, dress, customs, etc. I used the amazing collection on English history at the University of Texas libraries, including the daily newssheets from 1714-1716.

I've been to England quite a few times in the past 10 years and am a card-carrying member of the British Library. For Acts of Faith, I spent a week in Yorkshire touring historical houses and churches and getting the lie of the land, but I also found what I needed about Church history in the Borthwick Papers online. I can now find facsimiles of old books on line that I used to have to read in reading rooms in libraries.

I love to do research. For me, it's like solving a puzzle or a mystery. It's exciting to find what I've been looking for, especially if it turns out to add interest to my story.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of the books?

PW: By now, you've probably figured it out that I'm obsessive about accuracy. For Acts of Faith, even after visiting Coxwold in Yorkshire and taking my own pictures, I spent hours on Google Earth, trying to walk where my characters were going. I do similar things with the books set in London. I have old maps and books on the streets of London in 1715, architecture, art, etc. For Acts of Faith, I did have to make up four country houses and estates. I modeled them on 16th, 17th, and early 18th century National Trust houses that I visited, but I did have to take over a large area for my characters' lands. I apologize to the actual owners.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

PW: I've always wanted to write a big, sweeping historical novel set in Africa, so I'd see everything from the Congo to Kenya.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests?

PW: Reading is my biggest hobby. With that and writing, I have to exercise regularly to keep healthy. I do like to hike and walk, use the gym, and cycle. My biggest interests are travel and animals. I've studied modern languages all my life, am fluent in three, and have a smattering of another five or so. Wherever I go, I try to study the history, culture and language. My travels and languages do contribute to my books.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

PW: The best advice I ever got was to find a setting and make it mine. That led me to think about what distinguishes one author from another and to realize that none of the bestselling authors were writing "like" anyone else, as so many authors are promoted on covers. To stand out, an author has to invent or at least claim her own world, even if the setting she chooses has been written about before. In my case, I wanted to set a mystery series in 18th century England. Several mystery authors were working in that period, but no one I could find had set their novels in the earliest years of George I. When I started researching those years, I found a wealth of material that no one else was mining, including espionage, rebellion, a German court, rampant sin and corruption — perfect for a mystery series — and I've loved learning about it.

The harshest criticism I ever received was in an Amazon review on my last romance that started, "B-O-R-I-N-G!" and went downhill from there. Fortunately the reviews after that one were universally good, but as someone who had never had a mean review, I was pretty flattened by that one. I'd either made an enemy somewhere or caught a mean person on a very bad day.

What genuine criticism I've ever received has been welcome. As long as it is delivered in a helpful spirit, I can take it. I advise aspiring authors to get into a critique group, preferably with at least one published author, and to learn from criticism and from the mistakes other writers make. One of my critique partners told me that I was too cerebral, meaning that I dealt with facts more than emotions. Since then I've worked harder to engage readers in the emotions my characters experience, and my writing and my reviews have improved. A big point, though, set up a critiquing pattern in which your partners say what's good about your chapter before they start in on what could make it better. It's always easier to take criticism after hearing what's good.

OMN: How did Acts of Faith come to be titled? And were you involved with the cover design?

PW: The title Acts of Faith refers to the methods Roman Catholics used to practice their religion in secret and to evade the harsh laws against them. It also refers to the change in the relationship between Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean.

I am particularly excited by the artwork on the cover. It is a painting I saw when touring Dyrham Park outside Bath. As soon as I saw it, I thought it would be perfect for the cover, and Pemberley Press was able to license its use from the National Trust.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

PW: It's all good! It tells me that somebody is reading my books and likes them, since in my experience those are the only people who take the trouble to email me.

OMN: Suppose your series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

PW: If I had only written this earlier, maybe Charles Dance could have played Blue Satan. Maybe Viggo Mortenson or a younger version thereof? It would have to be an action hero with blue eyes and charm. Failing the blue eyes, Hugh Jackman could do it. For Mrs. Kean, gee, I don't know. Maybe Joanna Vanderham, who is starring in The Paradise on Masterpiece Theatre. She has the right combination of youth, innocence and gravity.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

PW: My parents' house was full of Edwardian and Southern romances, and Golden Era British mysteries, all of which I devoured. I loved biographies, especially of adventurous people like Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and Mary Kingsley, African explorer. Looking back, I realize I had a thing about heroes who were either masked or had a second identity, in books and films: highwaymen, Tarzan, the Prisoner of Zenda, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Count of Monte Cristo, etc. Later, I discovered romance through Georgette Heyer's Regency and 18th century novels. Blue Satan was actually inspired by a character of hers in The Black Moth, and the opening scene of The Birth of Blue Satan is a tribute to it. I love social satire and Jane Austen is my favorite author. I've read all her books several times.

OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?

PW: Mostly mysteries, preferably British or the English tradition. About two per week. I also listen to them on tape when I'm exercising. I read non-fiction about my period, and occasionally a history about something that interests me, like Africa. I still work in an occasional classic or literary novel if it grabs me. I shy away from serial killer thrillers and women-in-danger books. I've always identified too deeply with the characters in my reading, and I don't like to be scared too much. That said, I do read some darker mysteries and like Jan Burke and Robert Crais. I guess I like them because I find their detectives sympathetic. Plot and characterization are excellent. Their books pull me along.

OMN: Give us a Top 5 list on any topic.

PW: Top 5 places to visit in England:

1. Sir John Soane's Museum, London;
2. St. Bartholomew the Great Church, London;
3. The Yorkshire Dales;
4. The Cotswolds;
5. The Close of Salisbury Cathedral.

OMN: What's next for you?

PW: A bike tour of Southern Spain, a trip to somewhere in the North of Great Britain, and finding a plot for my next Blue Satan mystery. Preferably the last one first.

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Patricia Wynn was born in Houston, Texas. She has a B.A. in History from Rice University and a Masters from the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird). She lives in Southern California with her husband and a little mutt named Puppet.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at PatriciaWynn.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook.

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Acts of Faith by Patricia Wynn

Acts of Faith
Patricia Wynn
A Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean Mystery

Convinced that she will never see the outlawed Viscount St. Mars again, and nursing a broken heart, Hester Kean is not sorry when her relatives send her alone into Yorkshire to prepare her cousin Mary for life at the English court. Travelling on the stage, she befriends a reserved young gentleman, returning home after many years, whose mysterious behaviour is due to his fear of being arrested for receiving an illegal Roman Catholic education in France.

When the young man arrives home to learn that his father has been murdered, Hester wants to help, but her efforts are stymied by the secrets the young man and his family are forced to keep. Encountering degrees of prejudice against "papists" on all sides, Hester cannot blame them for their clandestine lives, but was it that very secrecy that led to the murder?

Hester has an affair of her own to keep private, for Gideon has tracked her north in disguise, determined to win her. Elated to know at last that he loves her, she still has to discover whether he wants her for a mistress or a wife. Somehow, they must hide their intimacy from Hester's cousins, while stealing the moments alone they need to resolve their future together.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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