Friday, March 20, 2009

Adapting Noir to the Middle Ages


Today I'm excited to have the very talented Jeri Westerson as my guest blogger. Jeri is the author of Veil of Lies, a brilliant medieval take on the noir subgenre of detective fiction. While I refer to my own Thirty-Nine Again as "chick noir," the truth is it's voice is a lot more "chick" (as in chick lit) than it is "noir." But Jeri has perfectly nailed the voice of noir fiction and done a remarkable job incorporating it into Veil of Lies.

Here's what Jeri has to say about adapting that voice to a story set in the Middle Ages. . .

Noir, to me, is at once milieu and emotion. It’s quite literally the black and the bleak. It’s shadows and the dark longings in the soul. The medieval period seems perfect for this set-up.

My debut medieval mystery, VEIL OF LIES, is styled a “medieval noir,” dealing with the grittier, darker side of the Middle Ages rather than the grandeur of palace life with its furs and jewels. These are the bleak streets of London, the seamier side of things, and what holds the story together from sinking into drear oblivion is its strong protagonist, Crispin Guest. Heathcliff meets Sam Spade meets Brother Cadfael, I suppose. Though Crispin is definitely no monk. He’s the dark and brooding type because of his circumstances. In such a rigidly defined society, he stepped out of line by committing treason against the newly enthroned Richard II, and instead of the expected execution, his life was spared, but little else. His knighthood was taken along with his wealth, title, and status. With just the clothes on his back, he was exiled from court and forced to make his way on the mean streets of 14th century London. He could have become an outlaw. He could have become a henchmen. But he chose instead to reinvent himself as the Tracker, a sort of “private sheriff,” solving puzzles and righting wrongs for sixpence a day...plus expenses.

It wasn’t hard to adapt the trappings of noir and hard-boiled pulp to a medieval setting. Keeping the language and sensibilities strictly in the Middle Ages (no gats, no car chases), we can still translate the milieu, the hopelessness of noir to that era. The darker shadows and the people who populate them--the thieves and whores--thrive. There are femme fatales who use sex to get what they want from our hero, and because he was raised as a knight, his knightly vows urge him to protect when he might be better off backing away. They also prevent him from fully succumbing when he finds himself falling for a woman far below his former rank. It’s walking that fine line from what might be expected from a storyline and what was expected of the medieval mind, that makes it both fun and a challenge to write.

Getting into Crispin’s mindset is sometimes tough. But it’s as much getting into character as an actor would do, finding motivation, backstory, and making your character feel feelings that are as far from one’s own experience that can be had.
Crispin is a complex man but he is a man of his time. Making that work for a modern audience means getting the reader on Crispin’s side right away, and that means showing qualities that are universal: loyalty, bravery, and, let’s face, stubbornness. With subtle and not so subtle introductions to medieval life, his stage is set and the reader doesn’t have to worry about what it means to have a hard-boiled detective in the Middle Ages. They can appreciate the candlesmoke standing in for cigarette smoke, that light from a cracked shutter might be that venerable shading from the hatching of Venetian blinds, that knives and swords are used instead of guns, and chases can be had on foot or on horses.

Deep down, the people are the same. Loyalty is the same. Murder, my sweet, is the same.

Read the first chapter of Veil of Lies on my website www.JeriWesterson.com.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Jeri! Hi Lynn!
    Wonderful post, Jeri. Veil of Lies sounds like a really fantastic read :) Ellen

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  2. Hi Jeri and Lynn! Wow, this sounded intriguing. I read the first chapter. I want more! I am putting this book on my reading list. Thanks for the post and the excerpt.

    Candace

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  3. Thanks, Ellen and Candace. Crispin is a pretty sexy guy. He's a lot of fun to write. He has his own blog, too (doesn't everyone?) at www.CrispinGuest.com

    Jeri

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  4. That's pretty cool, Jeri. I'll have to invite him to guest blog one of these days too!

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  5. Very interesting blog. I like the idea of a noir Middle Ages story. Your story is very imaginative and creative.

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  6. Thanks, Carolyn. It's a good old-fashioned locked room mystery as well as the hard-boiled variety. Hope you enjoy it.

    Jeri

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  7. Thank you for posting. This sounds right up my alley and I'm very intrigued.

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  8. Veil of Lies is such a great genre-bending story. I also love your website, Jeri!

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  9. This sounds fantastic. I love noir fiction and films. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler being one of my favorites. I'll have to check your books out.

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  10. Cindy, you'll really enjoy VEIL OF LIES. Jeri captures that Raymond Chandler mood perfectly and transfers it to Medieval England.

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