The Real-Life Character, or How Much Can You Fudge?In deciding to use actual, once-living people as the main characters in my new historical mystery series, I had to think about what that meant. Even if they weren’t really well-known or at least popular historical figures—like Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde or Julius Caesar—there would be plenty of people who knew enough about them to take exception to blatant inaccuracies or even just differences in timing.
But then there’s the other challenge—using historical figures, and (what’s worse, some may say) depicting them as amateur sleuths!—like Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries or Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries. The known elements of the main character’s life—family, occupation, accomplishments, virtues and vices—need to be woven into the plot of the story, and in a way, may take precedence over the intricacy or importance of the actual crime. Also, these characters obviously lived in a specific historical time period, and may have had a public impact which also needs to be taken into account.
In my new mystery series, I have as amateur sleuths the painter John Singer Sargent, the more famous of this detecting duo, and Violet Paget, who wrote under the name Vernon Lee, and who was widely read and celebrated during her life, but whose works are fairly obscure today. I had written about the two of them in a previous novel, Portraits of an Artist, about the time in Sargent’s life when he was the toast of Paris, and the spectacular disaster that unseated him—in the form of the scandalous Madame X. I came to know and love John and Violet, and when the book was done and published, I missed them dreadfully! So after a year or so, I decided to put all that biographical reading I had done to even more purpose, and star them in their own mystery series.
In looking ahead to the whole series, I am fortunate in having several biographies of both my characters to consult and compare their personal travel itineraries, publications and exhibitions, as well as the people they met, corresponded with, and loved and lost—so I think it’s going to be fairly easy to follow them from 1877 to 1925, making up mysteries for them to solve. But along the way, especially as the series begins when they are both only twenty-one years old, I intend to have them grow and change, develop and mature, fall in and out of love, cause trouble (which they both did, at various times), have successes and failures—in short, be human in the best sense of the word: alive, curious, thoughtful, self-aware and lovable.
Questions for you! As a writer, I am always curious about how a reader sees things! Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions by leaving a comment below. Thanks so much!
• Let’s say a person’s biography states that she was in Venice during November of 1878; how much leeway does an author have to place the character there in May instead? Or two years later? As a reader, do you care about this level of accuracy?
• If you know that a character is a “real person”, do you look at that character differently from say, a minor character in the novel who is obviously fictional (like a secondary character, a maid or a policeman) even if the fictional character has a significant role?
• At the end of this kind of historical novel, do you want to have the author give you more information about the real-life characters, or tell you which ones were real and which ones fictional? Or does it matter?
About the Book
Publication Date: November 1, 2014 | Sand Hill Review Press | Paperback; 300p
Series: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery (Book One)
Genre: Historical Fiction/Historical Mystery
The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings—including the legendary Arthur—as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different—the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.
First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.
Friends from the age of ten, Paget and Sargent frequently met in the popular European watering places and capitals, frequenting the same salons and drawing rooms in London, Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Vienna and Madrid. Both were possessed of keen minds and bohemian tendencies, unorthodox educations and outsized egos (especially Paget). Their instant, natural bonding led them to address each other as “Twin”, and they corresponded frequently when they were apart.
Henry James once described Violet Paget as having “the most formidable mind” of their times, and he was an active fan and patron of John Sargent, introducing him to London society and his own inner circles of literary and artistic genius.
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Praise for The Spoils of Avalon“An artist, a writer, a murder, a mysterious tome, a dissolving time, a crime, Arthurian legends, ancient saints books and bones. Burns’ prose drives and is sublime, with characters and settings that live on in your mind. This is an original historical mystery connecting the Age of Industry with the Age of Miracles.” - Stephanie Renée dos Santos, forthcoming novel: Cut From The Earth
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Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood. Ms. Burns has a law degree from Golden Gate University, has been president of her neighborhood association and is active in citywide issues. During most of her working career she was employed as a director of employee communications, public relations and issues management at various San Francisco Bay Area corporations, was an editor and manager of the Books on Tape department for Ignatius Press, and has managed her own communications/PR consulting business, producing written communications, websites and video productions for numerous corporate and non-profit clients.
Ms. Burns may be contacted by email at email@example.com. For more information please visit Mary Burns's website. You can also connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or read her blog posts at:
The Spoils of Avalon Blog Tour ScheduleMonday, November 3
Review at Buried Under Books
Tuesday, November 4
Review at Book Dilettante
Friday, November 7
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Monday, November 10
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review at History From a Woman's Perspective
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, November 11
Review at Layered Pages
Spotlight at CelticLady's Reviews
Wednesday, November 12
Guest Post at Passages to the Past
Friday, November 14
Interview at The Maiden's Court
Monday, November 17
Review & Interview at Jorie Loves a Story
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Tuesday, November 18
Review at Impressions in Ink
Wednesday, November 19
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Thursday, November 20
Review & Giveaway at Beth's Book Reviews
Friday, November 21
Review at Bibliotica
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