Book Talk: Witch trials and sleuthing in 1890s Maine

TOKYO, March 29 Thu Mar 29, 2012 5:50am EDT

TOKYO, March 29 (Reuters) - When a prostitute is found stabbed through with a pitchfork in a ritualised death said to be a way of killing a witch, local marshal Archie Lean is forced to call on Perceval Grey, a half-Native American sleuth, for help.

Set in the city of Portland, Maine in 1892, "The Truth of All Things" by debut novelist Kieran Shields follows the pair as they set out on the trail of a killer whose moves hark back to the Salem witch trials two centuries in the past.

A lawyer turned novelist, Shields - who has described himself as a "literary tomb raider" - found himself inspired by the history of his hometown of Portland as well as odd bits of news, such as the fact that six bodies believed to be buried in one particular tomb in a city cemetery had gone missing.

Shields spoke with Reuters about writing, the character choices he made and how being a lawyer influenced his work.

Q: How did you come up with the characters?

A: "The other detective in the story is the straight man, the standard authority figure. He works for the police department and was a useful contrast to the character of Perceval Grey... In terms of Grey, it was a delicate balancing act. I have him being of mixed heritage and he has an upbringing where he starts out in the Native American community and after his father's death he is essentially forcibly removed and reintroduced into upper-class white society against his will. I just thought it was really interesting. In some of the research I was doing I was coming across all sorts of tidbits about history and I was coming up with things like Maine, which was at that time in history a dry state -- the first state in America to outlaw alcohol. There were statutes on the books explicitly prohibiting use of alcohol by various groups of people such as soldiers, children and (in pre-political correctness) 'imbeciles' and Indians. This shows how American society viewed Native Americans at the time -- very paternalistic and condescending.

"So it was nice to have this character who turns that a little bit on its head. He ends up being intellectually superior and more rational than the other members of society he has to deal with, despite their expectations that he's going to be some sort of wild man or hocus-pocus Indian shaman."

Q: So there's a couple of different threads and unusual bits of history here.

A: "You have different time periods coming together: the witchcraft period, and then the late 1800s where there's still a lot of overarching societal views that today we find a bit eccentric. I tried to incorporate some of that in a light-hearted manner in that the white detective sometimes jokingly teases Gray a bit about his Indian heritage... So there is that sort of sub-text there. I didn't want to make it a focal point of the story that this was about Percival Gray's personal struggle against prejudice or expectations, but it is there in the background. I think it does lend some layering and some texture to the basic mystery plotline."

Q: When you write, do you emphasize plot, setting or character more?

A: "Well, I think it obviously has to be a mix. Part of my struggle was that I probably emphasize plot a bit too much. Years ago, when I had started writing this, the original ideas - I don't really remember what they were - grew and changed over time. At some point I had to start cutting plotlines out of the story because it was just spiraling a bit out of control in terms of length. There were more plot twists than I had originally envisioned, it had just become too cumbersome. So that was a problem. I had to go back and refocus on character development. Again, some of the things that tend to end up on the cutting room floor tend to be character pieces because in a mystery, you can't necessarily carve out pieces of the plot because it's a house of cards and if you take something out early on, the rest no longer holds together."

Q: What did your training and work as a lawyer contribute to your life as a writer -- or did it?

A: "It did in some senses. I was a lawyer for let's see - I've probably washed some of that out of my memory, it was a traumatic experience - probably around 5 years practicing as a litigator. In some senses it's very different from fiction writing but in other ways some elements of it are similar: the research ability for the historical side of the historical fiction. Then also when you are a lawyer, it's not the same set of skills exactly, but you do have to be able to get into your audience's mind, for lack of a better word, and present a story in the way that you want other people to understand it. Not manipulate, but have them view the world or a story or a set of facts as you see them, or think they should see them. A sort of persuasive approach to laying out a set of facts that is not totally lost in translation when you move to writing fiction.

"On the other hand, there are a lot of differences and that's why I'm happy I'm a writer now and not a lawyer."

Q: Advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Probably the most important thing is just to make the commitment to actually sitting down and putting the words on the page. It's very easy to think about what you're going to write, or how you're going to write, or when you're going to write. You've got to get the words on the page and afterwards you can worry about whether they sound right or is this what I want to say, am I telling the right story? I sometimes suspect people get all wound up in all the what-ifs and all these concerns that keep you from actually doing the physical act of writing." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

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