Rummaging around in her family history and finding a couple of skeletons was the inspiration for Wendy Percival to start writing her Esme Quentin series of historical mysteries. If you’re new to Esme’s books, read here how she creates her unique stories, historical inspiration, and more about those dodgy relatives. And don’t miss Wendy’s special offer of a FREE ebook novella – a prequel to the series, Legacy of Guilt. More about that below.
What was the first spark for the character of Esme Quentin? Is there a part of you in her?
The idea for Esme grew as I was taking my first steps in family history research. After stumbling upon a couple of family skeletons, I realised how little most of us know about our family history and my writer’s brain started plotting. My initial thought was that the protagonist solving the mystery would be a sort of genealogical Miss Marple. But at the time I came to write the book, there was a push for more protagonists to be women in their forties. I really liked that principle, so Esme developed from there. As to whether there’s a part of me in her… some would say we share a similar tenacity but Esme is way more courageous than me!
Which part of your research captivates you – a genealogical mystery, the history, the locations, the characters etc?
I love researching the history in any story I’m writing as it’s always fascinating to learn new things, especially if it’s something most people know little about. But I’m equally excited by the genealogical mystery itself and I love working out how the mystery will be revealed. It’s then that the characters involved begin to come alive and that’s great fun. I set the first book in the series in Shropshire because that’s where I began my ancestral research, but the landscape of the north Devon coast [below], near to where I live, is stunning and it fitted very neatly into the storylines of the next two novels, as did its history.
Is there a particular time in history that draws you back again and again? And have you written about it yet with Esme?
I suppose the Victorian era is always a pull, given it’s so rich in accessible historical documents. I’m also drawn to it because I associate the period with my grandparents, as that’s when they were born. Also we have an abundance of Victorian family photographs (though, sadly, not all labelled) and I’m a sucker for old photos! The second Esme book, The Indelible Stain, has much of its historical fact from that period, given the mystery is tied to a young convict woman who was transported to Australia the year Victoria came to the throne.
What genealogy books / television programmes are your favourites?
I’ve a pile of non-fiction genealogy related books I’m currently reading my way through, each of them chosen because the subject matter intrigues me – crime, insanity & asylums, body snatching, a scandal onboard a ship – any of which may spark a future Esme story. I enjoy the TV series Who Do You Think You Areand A House Through Time and I’ve recently discovered The Repair Shop, where people bring a variety of items, usually with a family history connection, for the experts to repair or renovate. It can be quite emotional to watch!
Where do you start when planning a new novel? Where do you get your ideas from?
It’s usually an event in the past which sparks an idea, often something that I’ve stumbled across while I’ve been doing my own family history research or reading about someone else’s in Family Tree Magazine or a family history society’s journal. Sometimes the actual event is strong enough in itself to become the heart of the story, another time I might create a secret surrounding what happened and build on it. As I work out how the secret will be revealed, other bits and pieces I’ve come across find their way into the plot to add extra layers. My most challenging task is to come up with a way that the event or secret will impact strongly enough on the present day to create a good story.
How do you combine true historical events with a fictional story? What comes first? How do you stay historically true to facts when you are making things up?
What I make up is what happens to my characters, so that’s entirely up to me. Historical facts will always be true and I tend to use them as a framework for the backstory. In The Indelible Stain, the experiences of convicts is factually correct and it feeds the motivation of my character. In The Malice of Angels, what happened to my character in France during WWII actually happened to a real person. But I can get so hung up about being totally authentic I can give myself a real headache. For example, the North Devon Archives have recently changed their opening hours which plays havoc with Esme’s research regime. Sometimes I could do with her discovering something crucial on a Monday (in my ideal plotting timescale) but they’re not open on Mondays! I can’t bring myself to say, it doesn’t really matter, this is fiction, because I’d hate for a knowledgeable reader to frown and say, that’d never happen, the office is closed!
What’s next for Esme?
I’m currently writing the fourth novel in the series, as yet untitled, inspired by Bideford’s infamous history about three women from the town who were amongst the last in England to be hung for witchcraft in 1682. Esme is commissioned to research the history of an old mill on the edge of the town, and unwittingly gets caught up in a longstanding family feud.
Which genealogy fiction authors do you read/novels do you recommend?
I’ve read a few genealogy mysteries by authors such as MJ Lee, Steve Robinson & Geraldine Wall, and I still have most of their books on my TBR list.
I like Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s “forensic genealogist” Morton Farrier novels. The subject matter is always intriguing and I usually learn something about research methods at the same time as enjoying a good story!
Dan Waddell’s Blood Detective series is very good. He’s written three books, plus a novella, and I’m hoping there’s another on the way.
My first experience of genealogy fiction was reading Fiona Mountain’s Natasha Blake books, Pale as the Deadand Bloodline, about 10 years ago, which I really enjoyed – Bloodline,especially.
While Robert Goddard’s novels aren’t genealogy mysteries per se, his earlier books (his best work, in my view) invariably have a tantalising link to history, or are historical novels in themselves, and are always full of secrets and intrigue. He’s been described as the master of the double-triple twist, which tells you a lot about them. They’ve been a real inspiration.
Finally, tell us three genealogy facts about yourself that no one will guess.
I think I’ve probably already confessed all my genealogy secrets in my blog over the years! But for those who don’t know:
My maternal grandfather was a professional pantomime dame (I never met him, as he died when my mum was a child);
My great-grandfather played for Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club in the late 1800s, along with his brothers, one of whom was captain;
Another great-grandfather, for a number of years, lived a parallel life a few streets apart in London, with two “wives” and fathering several children, before my great-grandmother discovered his deception and kicked him out.
Thank you Wendy for answering my questions today. I have to say, your family secrets make my relatives look positively boring! I’m a fan of Esme Quentin, read my reviews of Blood-Tied and The Indelible Stain. The Malice of Angels is on my Kindle, waiting for my next holiday!
Wendy was born in the Midlands and grew up in rural Worcestershire before taking up a teaching post in a small village school in Devon. After twenty years writing lesson plans and school reports, she turned to fiction. She got bitten by the family history bug after discovering a “box of old documents in the attic” which inspired her Esme Quentin genealogy mysteries. She lives in a thatched cottage, beside a 13thcentury church with her husband and a particularly talkative cat.
The Esme Quentin books
Esme Quentin is devastated when her sister Elizabeth is beaten unconscious, miles from her home. Two days later Esme discovers that Elizabeth has a secret past. Desperate for answers which the comatose Elizabeth cannot give, Esme begins a search for the truth, unaware of the dangerous path she is treading.
THE INDELIBLE STAIN
Esme Quentin’s arrival in north Devon is marred by the gruesome discovery of a fatally injured woman at the foot of Warren Cliff. Troubled by the woman’s final words, Esme follows a trail which leads back to a 19thcentury mystery of a Devon convict girl transported to Australia for her crime.
THE MALICE OF ANGELS
Esme Quentin is alarmed when a journalist colleague of her late husband, turns up asking about a 35-year-old unsolved murder. Then while researching the mystery of her friend’s Aunt Vivienne – a WWII nurse who never came home – she stumbles upon a disturbing connection between the two cases.
A FREE book for you today
Your chance to meet genealogy detective, Esme Quentin, in a FREE ebook novella – a prequel to the series, Legacy of Guilt.
The shocking death of a young mother in 1835 holds the key to Esme Quentin’s search for truth and justice for her cousin.
With the tragedy of her past behind her, Esme Quentin has quit her former career, along with its potential dangers, and is looking to the future. But when she stumbles upon her cousin in traumatic circumstances, Esme realises that her compulsion to uncover the truth, irrespective of the consequences, remains as strong as ever.
Join Wendy’s Readers’ Group mailing list to receive her quarterly newsletter, with exclusive book news & updates, and get your FREE ebook Legacy of Guilt.
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LEGACY OF GUILT by @wendy_percival #free #book https://wp.me/p5gEM4-42N via @SandraDanby