Laurie R. King hardly needs an introduction to readers of any persuasion. From contemporary mysteries to historicals to post-apocalypse scenarios, King has delivered a score of entertainments and mainstream novels since publication of her first work, A Grave Talent, in 1993. That novel featured her San Francisco lesbian cop, Kate Martinelli, and won King an Edgar Award for best first novel and the John Creasey Memorial Award. The next year King introduced her popular protagonist Mary Russell in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Russell, a bookish and intelligent teenager in 1914, almost steps on a recumbent Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs; a most auspicious meeting, indeed. Holmes, retired from detective work, has retired to the Downs, there to raise bees. But a bond quickly forms between the orphaned Russell and this icon of detection. Forty years separate them, but soon they are solving cases together and avoiding enemies out of Holmes’s past–oh yes, and becoming man and wife.
The Mary Russell series takes the pair from through the Great War and into the Twenties and around the world in the ten books of the series to date. The tenth, The God of the Hive, out April 27, finds the pair back in England chasing answers to deadly mysteries. A Booklist critic felt that Kings wields “her virtual pen like a burnished sword” in this “absorbing” read. Reviewers have long praised King’s nuanced characters and substantive plot lines, in part a result of King’s own background in academia and theology.
Scene of the Crime tracked Laurie down in Lisbon where she was busy researching her new book.
Laurie, it is a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime.
Your books have a real sense of place to them, in both a geographical sense and as regards time or historical era. Can you speak about how you are able to convey that spirit?
I write about various places, from England to India, San Francisco to Jerusalem. I almost never write about a place where I haven’t spent some time, although I don’t generally write about places I know really well, such as my hometown. I seem to need the eyes of a relative stranger to see what is new, interesting, exciting about a city or country.
Right now I’m working on a book set partly in Lisbon, while I’m in Lisbon. I haven’t tried this before, but it’s been interesting, having characters walk down a street in the morning and then going out onto that street in the afternoon.
Hmm. To talk about that would be to talk about the plot of the book, which I don’t like to do until the first draft is finished. Suffice it to say that Portugal was in the 15th century what the United States was in the 20th, dominating the world. And that sense of being a world power has never really left this small country.
That’s the kind of texture I look for in a setting: visually interesting, sure, but historically and psychologically even more so, in order to lend depth to the story line.
Do you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or does this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Sometimes it’s deliberate, more often I only see how the setting interacts with the plot and the characters after I’ve worked with it for a while. At which point I work on increasing that interaction, sometimes to the extent that the place becomes, as you say, a character.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Both. I write scenes that rest comfortably where they’re taking place, and then later I go through and emphasize the idiosyncrasies and flavor of the setting to sharpen those elements of the story line.
How do your series protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about their locale, boosters? And conversely, how do the settings affect your protagonists?
All of the above. It’s more interesting when a character is new to a place, since s/he can then exclaim at the oddities and butt heads with weird customs and locales. And I realized at a certain point in the Russell novels that the poor woman is forever dropped in a cold place: cold and dry in the desert, cold and wet in Dartmoor, cold and inside in a country house. I keep trying to get her to a warm place, but even when I got her to California, it was to San Francisco, and the fog was out.
Putting characters in new settings is one way of kicking their comfortable props out from under them. Which makes a story more interesting.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Oh sure. Some are typos, others slips of memory, a few just plain ignorance (although I have a pretty good internal alarm for things I’m not sure about). Every so often someone will query me on a detail, but because I am no longer writing academic papers and hence don’t conserve and cross-reference every note, it means I generally can’t give chapter and verse of that snippet of research. However, I can usually scratch my head and vaguely remember reading it in a biography or collection of letters.
One of the most jarring goofs was in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice when I have my characters marching through 1919 Palestine and then–poof!–they’re in southern California, because my pen wrote “Salton Sea” when it meant to write “Dead Sea.” Although I suppose one could argue pedantically that the Dead Sea is indeed salton, in lower case…
What’s next for your protagonist?
The new book, The God of the Hive, follows closely on the heels of last year’s The Language of Bees, and thus opens with the various characters shooting in all directions across Britain and northern Europe. The novel I’m working on for 2012 finds Russell dragged into an absurd film venture and sailing off for Portugal in the company of a megalomaniacal director making a movie about pirates.
Thanks again, Laurie, for taking time out from your research to talk with us on Scene of the Crime. Good luck with the launch of The God of the Hive.
For more information on Laurie R. King, visit her home page.