This week C.S. Harris, the author of the Sebastian St. Cyr series, answered several interview questions for us. Ms. Harris is a bestselling, award-winning author. She has also written a nonfiction historical study of the French Revolution. She earned a degree in Classics before going on for a MA and Ph.D. in history. Ms. Harris taught at the University of Idaho and Midwestern State University and also worked as an archaeologist on a variety of sites. She has lived in Spain, Greece, England, France, Jordan, and Australia. She now makes her home in New Orleans, Louisiana, with her husband, retired Army officer Steve Harris, her two daughters, and an ever-expanding number of cats.
I hope you are excited as I am to get some insight into her writing process and characters. Let's give her a warm welcome.
I write because I must; I have these stories in me that I simply must tell and characters that I must breathe to life. When the writing is going well, I love it. But sometimes the writing does not go well, and I am abjectly miserable. I can’t say I love having done it, because I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written until about ten years have passed. Then I’ll go back and reread a book and think, “Oh, that’s so much better than I remembered it being; I could never write that good of a book now.” In other words, like most writers, I’m neurotic and more than a bit crazy.
What is your routine when you're facing your next novel? Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?
I don’t think I’ve ever started with the killer. Sometimes I start with how the victim is found—Where Shadows Dance, for instance, started with the idea of having the surgeon, Paul Gibson, realize that a body he bought from the resurrection men was murdered. Other times there’s an historical event or situation that I want to tie into. What Darkness Brings was inspired by the fact that the Hope Diamond briefly surfaced in London in September 1812. The idea for the ninth book in the series, Why Kings Confess, due out in March 2014, came from some of the research I’d for What Darkness Brings. Basically, the books start with several tiny germs of ideas I think I can weave together. Then I go hunting (in my imagination, in research, and lots of long brainstorming sessions) for the identity and background of my victim, the killer, other suspects, and events for my plotline.
Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc.) before sitting down and writing?
I do outline, very meticulously, laying out the events and progression of each scene, and sometimes even snippets of dialogue. I have used the three-act structure in the past, but I now tend to divide a book into eight segments, with a significant event tripping the storyline from one segment to the next. I use 3x5 index cards, one card for each scene, and spread them out on my dining room table as I structure my plot. I even color code the scenes, with different colors for each suspect, and I also have color codes for action/danger scenes, emotional personal scenes, etc. It’s a very visual process. If I ever went blind, I’d have to quit writing.
What do you and Sebastian St. Cyr &/or Hero and yourself have in common? How are you different?
I suppose Sebastian shares my moral sense and my weird mix of idealism and cynicism. I wish I were as brave, confident, and self-possessed as Hero!
Sebastian St. Cyr is a captivating character (described as Mr. Darcy with a James Bond Edge), as well as the rest of the memorable crew. So memorable that fans have formed team Kat and team Hero camps! What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write? How do you handle minor characters?
I have never used pictures, worksheets, letters from the characters, or any of those methods; I know they work for some people but I find them too artificial. But before I ever began the first book in the series, I spent years thinking about Sebastian, Hendon, Hero, Jarvis, and Kat, about who they were and why they were that way. My approach to the characters who appear in the individual books is very different: I simply start writing, and they come. Sometimes they don’t come, or they don’t come right, and then I have a terrible time. But in the end, they come. The subconscious is a wonderful thing.
Do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?
No. Sometimes I listen to classical music, but I’m more likely to do that if I’m having trouble and I’m hoping the music will help me relax. If I’m stuck, I’ll often go for a walk or wander around my garden for a while, or do laundry, or play my guitar (I’m terrible, by the way). I write all over the house—in my office, on the living room sofa, at the breakfast room table, on the porch swing, up at our lake house. I’ve written at the pool while my kids were having swim lessons, by lantern light in the middle of a hurricane, at my mother’s bedside when she was dying. I write by hand on legal pads, so it’s very portable.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?
I’m a very slow writer, although some books seem to be harder to write than others. Usually it takes me about a year to write a book, including the thinking, plotting and revision time. As for my schedule, I get up whenever I wake up (that’s one of the nicest parts of being a writer), sit down and start writing while I’m still eating breakfast, and keep at it most of the day. I have an alarm set on my phone to remind me to stop at eleven and practice my yoga. I have been known to write for 18 hours a day, day after day, when I’m under deadline pressure (that’s one of the worst parts of being writer). But I must admit I’m not as disciplined these days as I used to be. And life sometimes gets in the way of writing. A lot. At the moment, we’re fixing up my mom’s old house to put it on the market, and that’s taking a lot of my time and focus. Anything that distracts my focus is a disaster for my writing.
Being a historical mystery set in regency era, how much research goes into your work and do you complete that up front or "just enough" as you go to transport your reader back in time?
I do a lot of research, because each book is different. The book I’m writing now, Who Buries the Dead, has Jane Austen in it, and in preparation I’ve read half a dozen Austen biographies, I’m rereading all of her books, and I’m watching the various versions of the films made from her books. It’s overkill, I know, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with less. As I’m writing, I’ll frequently stop to look up details of various things, but most of the research is done at the plotting stage, since many of the ideas for scenes come from the research.
Setting seems as important as the characters in your mysteries, how did you pick your setting and how do you like to interject a sense of place? Do you use places that you know well for your settings?
I like to use setting to help create mood or build tension or for characterization, rather than simply for its own sake, although a certain amount is always needed to help readers visualize what is happening and why. As for where I get the details, it’s now possible to download free e-books of all sorts of early nineteenth-century guidebooks to London, which are very useful because I’m always trying to find new, interesting places in London to set scenes. I have old maps of the city that I consult constantly, and a six-volume history of London from the Victorian period that basically goes street-by-street and is full of all sorts of useful little historical anecdotes and facts. I’ve spent a lot of time in London over the years, but it has changed so much that I try not to think too much about the modern city as I write.
What in your background prepared you to write mysteries?
Ha. Well, I’ve certainly never been a cop or a court reporter or a private investigator. But since I write historical mysteries, I’m able to use my training as an historian. And the time I spent as an archaeologist studying human osteology and digging up graves sometimes comes in handy.
In literature (not your own) who is your favorite mystery/suspense character?
Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?
In terms of mystery writers, my favorites are Martin Cruz Smith and James Lee Burke. But when it comes to all writers, I’m a huge Dorothy Dunnett and Georgette Heyer fan from way, way back.
How did you get your first break to getting published? Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?
I had a hard time first getting published because I was living in the Middle East and then Australia, and in those days you had to send queries and manuscripts snail mail. That was an expensive proposition, so if an agent rejected one of my manuscripts, I was reluctant to send it out again. Finally, a published friend in the U.S. recommended the fourth manuscript I’d written (Night in Eden) to her literary agency, and they snapped it up.
What's the one thing a reader has said that you've never forgotten and perhaps found startling?
Believe it or not, I’m still stunned when people tell me how much they love my books. It’s very humbling, and I never get tired of hearing it.
If your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your top character's roles?
People are always asking me this, and I honestly don’t know! I can’t think of anyone that quite captures the image I have of the characters in my head. Frequently readers will give me names of actors they think would make a good Sebastian or Hero or Kat, but when I Google them, I’ll think, “Really?” I suspect we each have our own, unique vision of the characters.
Tell us about your next book in the series - or next
project? What is your biggest challenge with it?
The ninth book in the series, Why Kings Confess, is already in the hands of my publisher and will be out soon. I’ve been having fits with the book I’m writing now, Who Buries the Dead, I suspect because working on my mom’s old house has stirred up my grief over her death. I’ve written through all sorts of crises, but I’ve found I have a difficult time writing through grief. My writing comes from my subconscious, as does my grief, so when I try to tamp down the grief I simultaneously shut the door to my subconscious.
Do you have a newsletter or blog for readers to stay informed of your news?
I have a newsletter that readers can sign up for on my website, at http://www.csharris.net/. I also have a blog at http://csharris.blogspot.com/. I am on Facebook but I don’t post very often because I can never think of anything to say!
THANK you C.S. Harris for a great interview. Readers, any surprises? What was particularly interesting for you? I found the research she does quite fascinating and extensive.