Jeri Westerson is a US based author of historical fiction and mysteries . This interview is largely based upon Traitors Codex from the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, though Jeri is a prolific writer with series also published in the paranormal and LGBT genres. This interview is one of a series we hope to publish with authors of historical fiction. It gives an insight into the way in which plots are formed and the way in which fact and fiction are balanced. With thanks to Jeri for taking the time to discuss her books.
What inspired you to get into writing?
I just liked creating stories. At first it was me as a kid inventing detailed scenarios for my toys. They had backstories and story arcs and lives. And then, in high school, I took it more seriously and started writing out these Tolkienesque adventures, and all sorts of other things. And through the years I continued to write without really telling anyone I was doing it, even as I went through college and got my art degree to be a graphic artist. And when I’d been doing that a while and semi-retired to have a baby, two years passed and it was time to get back into graphic design. But the whole industry had turned to computers and I didn’t have the funds to buy a computer or take classes again. So I decided that maybe I could turn a hobby into a career, something I could do at home and raise my kid. When I told my husband I wanted to give being a historical novelist a shot, he said, “That’s great. I’ll support you in this. But, uh, do you WRITE novels?”
With that in mind, you write in more than one genre, what are the similarities and differences in your approach?
Actually, I write in THREE genres. Besides medieval mysteries and paranormal, I also wrote an LGBT mystery series under the name Haley Walsh, the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, a humorous romantic amateur sleuth series.
It’s all the same in how you approach it; I want to tell a story and figure out how I can do it. Two are mysteries and even the paranormal has a mystery running through it, and so you start with the premise; who gets killed and how, and then why. I fully develop the characters first because there really isn’t a reason for a reader to spend 300 plus pages with a mystery if the characters aren’t compelling or sympathetic enough. A reader should WANT to spend time with them, and follow them through book after book because you just can’t get them out of your mind.
With the medieval mysteries, I wanted a hard-boiled aesthetic and so the stories are a bit darker, though there is plenty of humor that comes through with some of the characters and the situations. But the protagonist—a disgraced knight turned detective, Crispin Guest—has had a hard time, and early on in the series, he’s a little bit of a sad sack. A noble one, because he strives to be honest and do his duty to his clients. And as the series goes on and years pass in the books, he starts to become seasoned by his young servant/apprentice, Jack Tucker, and ends up raising him from when the series begins to the young man he eventually becomes…and he knows that not only did he raise Jack, but Jack tempered him. He’s a great character, and I’ve loved taking the time to know him and stick with him as he changes and grows.
With the LGBT mysteries, I wanted a rom com sort of series with gay characters, good friends just trying to live their lives in a sort of conservative part of southern California (close to the area I live to take jabs at it). Skyler Foxe is a brand-new English teacher at his old high school, a bit of a player who suddenly falls for Mr. Right…and all the hijinks that involves, including solving murders.
And with my paranormal series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, I wanted something fun and funny with some great dramatic scenes with a protagonist who is an everywoman who gets thrown into an impossible situation and comes through because of her own courage and the help of her friends. A sort of Buffy meets Grimm meets Supernatural. I also get to write about a myriad of supernatural creatures; Zombie Vikings, a headless horseman who uses a human spine as a whip, a demon horse…all sorts of fun stuff. With a romantic triangle between a handsome and human sheriff and a devilishly sexy demon, our heroine Kylie Strange has to eventually choose. And to what lengths will she go and what sacrifices must she make to get rid of the deadly Booke of the Hidden for good?
Could you give a bit of background on how you developed your historical fiction characters, are they entirely fictional or based on real people?
All but one of the main characters are fictional (the only real character—John Rykener—did live in fourteenth century London, and was a cross-dressing male prostitute. No foolin’.) There were several good medieval mysteries out there by the time I decided to write the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, but many of the protagonists were monks or nuns, and I didn’t want that. I wanted something different. I wanted a knight as a protagonist so we can get some action and romance in there. And I also wanted to do something different and make it a hard-boiled detective in a medieval setting, something on the order of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, hence the moniker “Medieval Noir”. I worked out how to write a mystery and a hard-boiled one at that, while still keeping the books true to their time period. So all the other characters act and speak true to the late fourteenth century, and even some real folks—like King Richard II, John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster, and Geoffrey Chaucer make important appearances. As you can imagine, this takes a good deal of research to keep everything correct, their thoughts, their manners, their way of thinking about the world true and correct. With murder.
Crispin Guest is made up of those hard-boiled detectives, a bit of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and the very picture of chivalry itself.
What is your planning process for your historical fiction works? Does it require a lot of research?
Each of the books also includes the search for or protection of a religious relic or venerated object (the Crown of Thorns, the bones of a saint, even the Philosopher’s Stone), and so I sometimes start there, with the relic and devise a way to get my detective involved with it. Or sometimes I start with the body—how it will be found and in what state. And still another way is what is happening on the timeline of my character, what historical thing is going on. Richard II’s reign was fraught with all sorts of conspiracies and problems that make it a good background for drama. Certain scenes then begin to suggest themselves, and you start putting together a loose idea of what can happen. Then voila! A book. I just finished writing the 13th in the series, in fact. And that one deals with the sword Excalibur.
How do you balance the fiction and historical accuracy in your work?
You start with the premise and then find out what is happening in that year and research that and the people involved so you can slip your fiction between the facts. In historical books, you never change the history to suit your narrative. You always change your narrative to suit the history. Researching also opens up interesting avenues for your plot to go down. You’re constantly rechecking to make sure you don’t go down a road in your plot that isn’t historically accurate. Because you WILL hear from readers if you’re wrong.
Who are your favourite authors? What kind of influence have they had on your work?
Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare to begin with, from prose and the humanity of the characters, then on to JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling for their world-building (because even historical books—or perhaps especially historical books need world-building so that readers can ground themselves in the action). Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler for the mystery aspect, as well as Dorothy Sayers. And from there it’s a pretty eclectic mishmash of all sorts of works, from Mark Twain to Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
I noted that you said not all of your work has been published. What tips have you got for aspiring authors, and are there any plans to revisit those that haven’t yet been published?
If you aspire to write full time…keep your day job. There’s seldom any sustaining income in it. But DO YOUR HOMEWORK. I can’t tell you how many would-be authors I’ve encountered who are in such a hurry to publish. They get a few rejections and then run to self-publishing. Nothing could be a bigger mistake than that. It takes time to write well. Do you want a doctor who got tired of medical school and just decided to strike out on his own? No! You want someone who knows their craft, who is willing to be critiqued and to LEARN FROM IT. To write and rewrite, to cast things aside that aren’t working, and start again. To send out those queries to agents and then start on the next book and the next. They go to writing classes, critique groups, and writing conferences to LEARN. To work to get an agent and to publish traditionally FIRST. After a while when you make something of a name for yourself—booksellers and librarians recognize your name in the catalogs at least—THEN you might wish to self-publish something here or there. But you’ll make more money with a publisher. Those stories of people self-publishing and making it big are very few and far between. Most of us will never make a bestseller list. Or get reviewed in the New York Times. Get used to it.
As for my “vault” of stories that haven’t been published (some twenty of them), some I did take out of the vault, dusted them off, rewrote, got them edited, and self-published them, but there were precious few of those. So the others remain unpublished for a very good reason!
Where do you envisage your storylines going in the future? have you a clear idea of where you want to take things? (appreciate that may be a spoiler)
For the paranormal Booke of the Hidden series, that is a four-book story arc and that is finished. The fourth book in that series, THE DARKEST GATEWAY, will be published this October. But I’ve already planned some spin-offs that I will self-publish.
As for the Crispin Guest books, I always planned an endpoint and we are quickly coming upon it. There are two more books for me to write in the series and then it will be done, at fifteen books. This was planned since the first book. And I promise I won’t be killing off any main characters. Unless they are real people and already do die. I can’t help that. But I don’t believe in a series going on forever. A writer can get stale and start to repeat themselves and I don’t want to do that.
The Skyler Foxe Mysteries are finished, at six novels and three novellas.
And I’ve planned more. I hope to have up and ready to publish before Crispin is completely done, a Tudor mystery series, with Henry VIII’s own jester as the amateur sleuth, so those should be interesting and fun with humor. Six are planned, one for each wife.
Then there’s a mash-up of medieval mystery and paranormal that I’m working on, the Necromancer series. And another contemporary paranormal series. And who knows what else from there.
Historical Fiction is used in some schools. How would you want your work to be used by teachers / children?
I don’t like the idea that historical novels are used to teach history, nor movies either. In movies especially the writers aren’t compelled to get the history right, and a novel, by its nature, is fiction. But they can encourage readers to find out what the real history is. It did compel me when I was a kid to learn the real history behind the novels. So as long as it’s used that way, it’s okay.
The latest release for the Crispin Guest series is TRAITOR’S CODEX:
Crispin Guest, Tracker of London, is enjoying his ale in the Boar’s Tusk tavern – until a stranger leaves a mysterious wrapped bundle on his table, telling him, “You’ll know what to do.” Inside is an ancient leather-bound book written in an unrecognizable language. Accompanied by his apprentice, Jack Tucker, Crispin takes the unknown codex to a hidden rabbi, where they make a shocking discovery: it is the Gospel of Judas from the Holy Land, and its contents challenge the very doctrine of Christianity itself. Crispin is soon drawn into a deadly maze involving murder, living saints, and lethal henchmen. Why was he given the blasphemous book, and what should he do with it? A series of horrific events confirm his fears that there are powerful men who want it and who will stop at nothing to see it destroyed.
SHADOWS IN THE MIST, the third book in the BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN SERIES (releasing in May):
Small town tea shop proprietor Kylie Strange already has a lot on her plate. The last thing she needs is more trouble to spring up from the mystical Booke of the Hidden. Keeping one step ahead of a scheming demon, supernatural assassins, and Baphomet—an angry god hellbent on stealing the Booke—it’s all more than enough for one person to handle. And that’s without mentioning her competing affections for the demon Erasmus Dark and the handsome, human Sheriff Ed.
But soon enough, Kylie and her coven hear whispers of new disturbances in Moody Bog. Strange creatures have been stalking the townsfolk and rumors of violent encounters confirm their deadly intent. Worst of all, the Booke of the Hidden is not to blame, and no one is sure what is. Kylie and her coven of Wiccans need to prioritize. Which is worse? The mysterious and lethal creatures…or Baphomet, who—if he gets his way—will unleash Hell upon Moody Bog…and beyond.
WATCH the series book trailers:
Crispin Guest series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_d3x4HkagA
Booke of the Hidden series trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LPfNQAIasc
Skyler Foxe Mysteries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryiEsnDfTdk
Jeri’s seies based around Crispin Guest is set in Medieval England. You can find background information about some aspects of the period here. Additional contextual content relates to the Plantagenet era.