Carol Berg writes fantasy novels full of murder and mystery. I recently heard her speak at an Authors' Day event in Colorado Springs and found her thoughtful and engaging. I wanted to know more about the mystery side of her work.
Q: You've published thirteen novels. At what point in your writing career did you feel like you were really a writer?
I’ve felt like "a person who spends a lot of time writing" since halfway through my software engineering career, when an engineering friend persuaded me to exchange email letters "in character." That was so much fun that I wrote novels for nine years, just for the fun of it, never imagining anyone could want to read any of it. But I didn't call myself a writer in those days. For better or worse, I didn't do that until I started getting paid for it.
But if the real question is when did I come to think of
myself as one of those people whose books I've read my whole life...well, just
between you and me, I still feel like
a bit of an imposter. I'm not one of
these people who's imagined myself a writer since I was three years old. Writing happened to me late, after I'd done a
lot of different things: teaching, parenting, engineering. And it's taken a while to convince myself
that it's not just a fluke. But it's certainly
true, that when you start getting emails from readers, telling their reactions
to your stories and which characters are their favorites - that makes you feel
like maybe, yeah, you are really legit.
Q: Your books take place in a medieval kind of world, a world without private eyes, police detectives, guns, or car chases. How does this affect the murder mystery parts of your books?
All of us who've read novels like Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael stories know that you can create wonderful, believable murder investigations in historical settings. Observation, logic, information gathering, research, perceptive interviews, shaping a theory of the crime from collected evidence—all those techniques translate well, whether the victim is poisoned with herbs, stabbed with a poignard, or shot with a 45.
The trick with a fantasy/mystery crossover like my novel, The Spirit Lens, is the role of magic. One of the worst sins a fantasy writer can commit is allowing magic to solve too many problems, or, heaven forbid, lack rules, boundaries, or consequences. I did not want to write CSI Collegia Magica, where magic could come up with instant identifications or replace autopsies or fingerprint analysis. (CSI is a lot like unrestrained magic.)
For the most part, my investigators use ordinary observation and knowledge to formulate their theories of the crime. For example, a student of magic turns up dead after going missing for several months. She has died from a stab wound, but she is also emaciated and marked with bruised circles – cupping marks – as result from the practice of bleeding. As the marks were all over her body, this was more than just some primitive attempt at healing. Someone had a use for her blood, but didn’t want to kill her. In the Collegia Magica world, the blood of a sorcerer has power when used in formulating (wicked) enchantments. The tips of the dead girl's fingers were also removed – which tells my investigators that she had worked some magic for her murderers and they didn’t want that magic identified, because one of the "rules of magic" in this world is that every sorcerer leaves a trace of his or her own personality on any spell worked.
Magical forensics do have a place as well. My double agent sorcerer has the skill to take apart enchantments to reveal their purpose, the materials used in the work, and how the particular enchantment can change the nature of its object. Like a forensics specialist doing chemical analysis, he can determine, for example, that an arrow used in an attempted assassination "is an implement of death, precisely made from living wood, steel, and poison. Splintered now, but made to fly straight, to penetrate…everything." It can penetrate armor, in fact, which changes the meaning of the actions surrounding the crime. It is very much fun to come up with the techniques and their usefulness - and their limits.
Q: Since I'm a librarian, I'm always curious about research that writers do for their books. You mentioned the importance of doing research for your fantasy series. What kind of research do you do? Do you have any help with that side of things? Can you give an example of research that ended up influencing the plot (or characters, or setting) of a book or books?
One of the pleasures of writing fantasy is getting to create an entire world as the background for a story. But I can't just throw anything together to make a mishmash. I want to make readers feel as if the people and places I write about really exist. To make a coherent and realistic world, I need to give thought to everything from climate and geography to history, religion, politics, and social and family structures. But then again, I am not a person who likes to do months and months of research before beginning to write. So I always begin with just enough research to be able to set the opening scenes. I need to get the feel of the era I'm trying to create, and a sense of the local geography, weather, and customs in my particular version of the world.
For my Lighthouse Duet, I wanted to begin with my renegade hero taking sanctuary from famine, civil war, and a winter that doesn't end in an approximation of a 12th century monastery. So first off, I spent some time reading How the Irish Saved Civilization and A World Lit Only By Fire. I browsed the internet, which has a treasure trove of plans of Cistercian monasteries in Britain and journals of daily life in the monasteries. I also did a little reading about the Little Ice Age in Europe in the 17th century, and about the geography of Germany - since it’s easier to get the geography and climate to make sense when they’re based on a real place - and about medieval maps. I had decided that I wanted my renegade's obnoxious family to be a family of cartographers. As it happened my hero's grandfather had produced a famous book of maps that supposedly could lead one into the realm of angels, if one knew how to invoke the particular magic of the map.
As I moved on through the first book, Flesh and Spirit, I needed to give Valen tasks in the monastery, which led to reading about food and recipes of the era, about beer-making, about stripping a pig (I can show you a step-by-step how-to!), about manuscript illumination, and making ink. Most of my research goes into writing just a few evocative details to give the feel of the time. Some goes into the "business" a character is occupied with as a conversation takes place. You would never want to burden a book with everything you can learn about monasteries or stripping pigs! Later on in the series, as I developed my own version of the fae, who dance in the moonlight for a very special purpose, I wanted to know more about rigorous dance training – so I read a wonderful book called Mao’s Last Dancer – and I watched White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and other ballet movies.
For the Collegia Magica books, set several centuries later in a different world, I spent a lot of time with scientific timelines. Because I create my own worlds, I feel like I can adjust the time of certain discoveries, as long as the prerequisites are in place. I replicated both Foucault’s pendulum and Isaac Newton's parlor demonstration of splitting light through prisms as features of the "Grand Exposition of Science and Magic," which is where our mystery takes a sudden deadly turn. I also researched blindness when one of my investigators was left blind by a villain's enchantment, visiting medical sites and even discovering a blog where newly blind discussed their experiences. Networking is part of research as well. I have a friend who is partially sighted, and she passed my questions on to a man who became profoundly blind at just the same age as my character. There is nothing like having a real person at hand to answer questions.
I manage my own research, though I'll always use the recommendations of other friends, writers, and librarians about where I can find a good dictionary of swear words or such like.
Q: What's the best: getting the idea for a book, working on the manuscript, finishing the manuscript, selling the manuscript, holding the published book in your hands, or, in your case, winning various and sundry awards for a book? You can only pick one.
All of the above are wonderful. But the best is when you hear from a reader who says she stayed up much too late because she couldn't put it down, or when a young man walks up to your signing table at a convention and says he pulled one of your books out of a box of donated books in Iraq and the story both took him away from a place he didn't want to be, and made him feel better about why he was there. Nothing compares to that.
Q: What's the worst job you've ever had?
Most likely the semester where I was teaching three sections of 10th grade plane geometry and two sections of 9th grade algebra, comprising about 185 students total. That was rugged. But then again, I actually enjoyed the math and the teaching. I just wasn't ready for the teenagers, being barely not a teenager myself! Mostly I’ve been very lucky about jobs.Q: What do you like to eat for breakfast?
Most days it’s cereal and fruit: strawberries, blackberries, or - the best - Colorado peaches. Occasionally it’s oatmeal and blueberries. But on a frosty winter morning, my Southern roots cry for satisfaction, and nothing does the job like homemade biscuits, sausage, and scrambled eggs from our friend Dave's happy chickens. And always, always, as I sit down to write, I have a cup of Raspberry Royale black tea in hand.
Q: You mentioned in your talk that you love mysteries. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
I've loved mysteries since Nancy Drew days. Probably my all time favorite is Dick Francis. I am not a horse person at all, but I marvel at how he introduces a sympathetic heroic main character in about ten words and draws us into an adventure so smoothly. He was a master at spare prose. I also love Dorothy Sayers, Tony Hillerman, P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth George, and Charles Todd. All different, but all entertaining.
Q: You mentioned that the main character in one of your books (or series?) is a librarian -- could you talk a bit about that -- obviously I love that!
Coming from a family of teachers, librarians, musicians, and engineers, I often look to those professions for my heroes and heroines. I wanted to set my Novels of the Collegia Magica in a world experiencing an explosion of scientific discovery and exploration, much like our early 17th century. In our history, this was the age of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Champlain, and Sir Francis Drake. It was the time of Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher credited with devising the scientific method, who once said, "Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical."
My narrator Portier de Savin-Duplais really wants to become a sorcerer. He has the intelligence, the knowledge, the dedication, and the blood inheritance, but he just can't make enchantments come together. Determined to discover why, he accepts the position of the librarian at a collegia magica – a school of magic. He becomes an authority on the history and practice of magic – and a whole lot of other things besides. Nine years later, someone tries to assassinate the king of Sabria. The king goes looking for someone to investigate the matter, and he recalls a very distant (and poor) cousin. Yes, our librarian. So he summons Portier and offers him the job. The inquiry must be secret, because the last man who tried to look into matters has vanished. And the king requires an investigator familiar with magic, because the evidence left from the attempted assassination implicates a sorcerer doing Very Ugly Things.
Portier doesn't feel he’s capable. "Yes, I've read widely," he says. “But who would ever separate knowledge of sorcery from its practice?” But the king replies: "Skills can be bought. Knowledge takes much longer to acquire, and the ability to question, analyze, interpret, and deduce longer yet. The capacity for loyalty is born in a man, reinforced, I believe, with family connection. I believe you the fit person to pursue a confidential, objective enquiry into a matter of sorcery..."
Portier takes the job, and gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
Q: Now, a question for our readers. Here's a drawing of Portier de Savin-Duplais by one of Berg's many fans. Ain't the internet grand?