Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Relevance of History

Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction (novels and short stories). She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, a city she loves to write about. She is the author of two crime fiction series, one set in 1940 San Francisco (featuring hardboiled female PI, Miranda Corbie), the other in first century Roman Britain.

Her novels include City of Dragons, Nox Dormienda, The Curse-Maker, and City of Secrets (September, 2011). "Children's Day", a prequel to City of Dragons, was published in the International Thriller Writers anthology First Thrills: High Octane Stories From the Hottest Thriller Authors. Kelli earned a Master's Degree in Classics, loves jazz, old movies, battered fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies. You can learn more about her and the worlds she creates at http://www.kellistanley.com.

First, let me thank Kate for inviting me to write for the Crime Writers' Chronicle — I'm happy to be here! Particularly because today — February 1st, 2011 — marks a significant occasion for me. The Curse-Maker — a "reboot" of my "Roman noir" series, and sequel to my out-of-print debut novel, Nox Dormienda — is officially released into the wild, left to forage what it can on its own in a hardscrabble world.

The Curse-Maker is my third published book and the second that I wrote. The setting is first century Roman Britain, and thus millennia apart from City of Dragons and the Miranda Corbie series set in 1940 San Francisco. (For the record, City of Dragons was the third book I wrote and the second to be published. City of Secrets is the fourth book I wrote and will be the fourth to be published when it launches in September.)

What do they have in common? A love of the noir style, used and tweaked and pulled and tucked in very different ways. And, of course, history.

I'm sometimes asked why I write historical mysteries, and the question always surprises me. Maybe I spent too long in the classroom — I earned two Bachelor degrees in Art History and Classics, and a Master's in Classics — but it's hard for me to look at history as something apart from everyday life.

History is a record of the human condition. It's yesterday and all our yesterdays, whether lighted by fools or hallowed by angels. We need to glance at the past occasionally, focus on it, study it, and recognize the forces — and the fools — that shaped it, not hold it at arm's length and memorize dates and names. It can help guide us past contemporary mine fields, help solve the problems of a more complex world ... because no matter how complex the world is, human beings are roughly the same as they've always been, good, bad, indifferent, trying to survive.

For me, history is as much a part of life as breathing. Think of human life as a number line ... we learned about negative numbers at a young age, and moved up and down the number line, tracing integers with a child's finger. Why can't we do the same with time? If we can't literally travel backwards — yet — surely we can do so in our minds.

So I write historical mysteries. And I write them, actually, for the readers who don't normally read them. I try to breathe sensuality and life into the time and place, to transport the reader so that she becomes a part of the action, not a spectator watching a travelogue. I write to overcome the impression of boredom and narrow-minded and immutable opinion that characterizes so many people's experience of history class. I write to overcome the idea that it is a preoccupation of intellectuals and art-lovers and aesthetes, something alien to be roped off and gawked at, spectacle now, forgotten tomorrow.

I want to write other things, of course. A graphic novel. Contemporary crime fiction, too. I struggle against the ghetto of category, and resist type-casting. After all, today is as important to me as ... yesterday.

Kelli Stanley

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