In November of last year I was invited by the Classics, Medieval, and Early Modern Studies Graduate Research Cluster at the University of Washington to talk about my career writing fiction about late medieval England, Scotland, and Wales. I flailed around for a topic specific enough to provide some focus, yet sufficiently expansive–so far it’s been quite a ride and I’ve lots to say! I finally chose to talk about the murder mystery writer as a cultural lens.
In case you haven’t encountered the term before: A cultural lens is another term for viewing things from the perspective of a foreign culture. In order to apply a cultural lens on a situation, skills like empathy and understanding are needed. I explained that it’s important for my sleuths to not assume that the people of York (or Edinburgh, Perth, Windsor, St. David’s, etc.) view things the same way they do, or their places of origin did. So this applies on both a personal and government level. I like to emphasize empathy: In an investigation, a detective needs to listen—deep listening—and needs to hear all sides.
I thought I’d share with you the conclusion of that talk, given shortly after the US presidential election.
Something odd keeps happening—my books mirror current affairs in uncanny ways. I’d begun writing about the Scottish Wars of Independence from the perspective of the Scottish people—the Margaret Kerr trilogy, seeking to expose the horror of living in a war zone, and how that might give rise to violent rebellion, when 9/11 happened. And we declared war.
When I wrote The Riddle of St. Leonard’s [Owen Archer #5]—about corrodians in medieval hospitals and the financial crisis they were causing at St. Leonard’s in York—the care they received helping them live longer—too long, costing too much to support, I found echoes in political arguments about Social Security and Medicare bankrupting the nation.
And most recently, … in A Twisted Vengeance [Kate Clifford #2] I’m writing about the edginess of the populace in the midst of political upheaval. As I worked through my editor’s notes on the manuscript last week I felt a sense of déjà vu as the election results came in and I realized the enormity of the changes ahead —talk about political upheaval. As a writer I was pleased with the veracity of my depiction of the characters’ fear about the future. Personally I’m in shock to be in their shoes. I have a character question why people have rushed to support the king’s cousin, Henry, who is a cipher to them—yes, he strikes a heroic figure, a tournament champion, but why do they believe his rule will be better for them than Richard’s? Because he says so? And then… almost half the voters in my country go for the guy who promises change—huge change—though he’s never held public office and… well, you see the similarity.
How does this happen? Is it because in writing about the past with empathy novelists are tapping into universals? I think so.
So—since the election I’ve been wondering what lessons I can take from my work. How would Owen and Kate approach what has happened? They would examine the things the other side holds dear, they would frame their questions in ways that opened up dialogue, so the others would reveal themselves. When they met resistance they’d explore different routes in. All in the interest of understanding so that they might see how to restore order.
I’m hoping that the deeper reward for me in using the mystery as a cultural lens, even more resonant and life confirming than my original fascination with discovering what life was like in the past, is in teaching me how to open my eyes in the present, in this difficult present in which I find myself. To look at those I don’t understand as a cultural anthropologist, and to engage them as my sleuths do, with unloaded questions that have some hope of opening up a dialogue in which I might find clues as to how to communicate that we’re all in this together, and this is what’s at stake.