Susan McDuffie is author of the medieval Muirteach MacPhee mysteries, A MASS FOR THE DEAD (2006), THE FAERIE HILLS (2011), and A STUDY OF MURDER (September 2013). Her interest in Scotland was fueled by stories of the McDuffie clan's ancestral lands on Colonsay and their traditional role as "Keeper of the Records" for the Lord of the Isles. She will be speaking on the Sunday morning panel "Historical Fiction: The Search for Research" at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference next weekend. You can learn more about Susan and her novels at her website.
I have always loved historical fiction. I guess I’ve always read to escape and the contemporary world just lacks some luster! In elementary school I used to choose books according to the time period they were set in. Two early favorites were THE FORGOTTEN DAUGHTER by Caroline Dale Snedeker and TWO SWORDS FOR A PRINCESS by R.J. Green.
2. How do you find the people and topics of your books?
My first mystery, A MASS FOR THE DEAD, was somewhat based on the early history of the McDuffie clan. They were the record keepers for the Lords of the Isles, and that always sounded wonderfully mysterious to me as a child. I later found a little booklet that listed all the clan chiefs of the McDuffies, as well as the priors of Oronsay. Muirteach, my sleuth, was invented but the McDuffie Chief and the prior of Oronsay existed. Their characters, of course, are fictional.
3. Do you follow a specific writing and/or research process?
For my present work in progress, I’ve gotten wonderfully carried away on some intriguing research tangents. Hopefully they will all fit into the book. Researching Henry Sinclair led to a rather intensive investigation of the Norse colony in Greenland and more! As I read more ideas came up I wanted to explore. Thank goodness it’s so easy to find out of print books these days!
4. For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?
If characters are factual I try to stick with real dates and real events in their lives. For example, THE STUDY OF MURDER, which comes out in September of this year, takes Muirteach to medieval Oxford with Donald, the son of the Lord of the Isles. Donald did actually attend Oxford for a few years in the 1370s.
5. Is there an era/area that is your favorite to write about? How about to read?
I’ve written both Regency and medieval. You have to get into a certain mindset, and I remember when I switched from Regencies to writing the Muirteach MacPhee mysteries it took a little while to find the right voice. As far as reading goes, I love to read about many eras. Nobody does Egypt like Pauline Gedge, I’ve enjoyed Gillian Bradshaw’s books about the classical era, as well as her newer books about the English Civil War, and Karleen Koen’s books set in the 17th and 18th century are wonderful, just to mention a very few.
6. What are your favorite reads? Favorite movies? Dominating influences?
The one book I would take to a desert island is SWORD AT SUNSET by Rosemary Sutcliff, a wonderful retelling of the story of Arthur. Movie-wise I have a couple of strange favorites: The Navigator, in which some 14th century Cumbrian miners wind up in modern New Zealand and Andrei Rublev, about a Russian icon painter.
7. Is there a writer, living or deceased, you would like to meet?
I’d love to meet Ellis Peters. She and her Brother Cadfael books inspired me to write historical mysteries.
8. What book was the most fun for you to write?
THE STUDY OF MURDER was fun; in some ways the tone is a little lighter than the first two mysteries. And I enjoyed writing about drunken adolescents and Muirteach’s futile attempts to control their behavior!
9. Can you tell us about your latest publication?
THE STUDY OF MURDER comes out in September of this year and pits Scottish sleuth Muirteach MacPhee against a mysterious adversary. At the command of the Lord of the Isles, Muirteach and Mariota accompany the lord’s thirteen-year old son to Oxford. Shortly after their arrival, a winsome tavern maid disappears. When an Oxford master is found brutally bludgeoned to death, stirring the ever-simmering discord between townsfolk and university students, Muirteach investigates. Gleaning clues from a cryptic manuscript, a determined Muirteach tracks a wily killer through a dark and twisted labyrinth of deceit.