Today the Dolls would like to extend a warm welcome Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, an author who has long been on Noa’s ‘Must Read’ list.
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles was born in Shepherd’s Bush in London. She was educated at Burlington School, a girls’ charity school founded in 1699, and at the University of Edinburgh and University College London, where she studied English, history and philosophy. She wrote her first novel while at university and in 1972 won the Young Writers’ Award with THE WAITING GAME.
Afterwards she had a variety of jobs in the commercial world, beginning as sales manager for the Coca Cola Company in Edinburgh, and ending up as pensions officer for the BBC in London, while writing during the evenings and weekends.
The birth of the MORLAND DYNASTY series enabled her to become a full-time writer in
1979. The series was originally intended to comprise twelve volumes, but it has proved so popular that it has now been extended to thirty-four.
In 1993 she won the RNA Novel of the Year Award with EMILY, the third volume of her Kirov Saga, a trilogy set in nineteenth century Russia, and she also writes the internationally acclaimed BILL SLIDER MYSTERIES.
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles still lives in London, has a husband and three children, and apart from writing her passions are music (she plays in several amateur orchestras) horses, wine, architecture and the English countryside.
Dolls: You write two very different series, in two different genres, how did you get started with the Morland Dynasty and Bill Slider?
CHE: There is an honourable precedent for writing both historical and crime fiction – for example Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers. They do seem to go together, though I’m not absolutely sure why. Perhaps it is because historical research in many way resembles a criminal investigation: you start with what people say they did, then look for the concrete facts that tell you what they really did, then try to fathom out why they did it. The Morland Dynasty series was suggested the publisher – or rather, its then Managing Director, Anthony Cheetham, who came up with the idea of a twelve-book series portraying English history through the eyes of fictional characters, and then had to find someone prepared to write it! Fortunately, my method of combining history and fiction was to his liking, and the series went from twelve to twenty and eventually to eventually thirty-four volumes.
Bill Slider was my own idea, but the series owes its existence to my sister, who asked me to write her a detective story of the sort she likes, with fully realised characters and lots of background. Bill just walked into my head – I knew at once everything about him, from his appearance to his habits to his life history. On the other hand, I knew nothing about writing detective stories, so he and I had to work it out as we went along. The publisher liked the end result and gave me a series.
Dolls: Which do you find you most easily connect with?
CHE: They’re very different. I love the Morland family, who seem like real people to me, and I find the history fascinating, but the Dynasty books are very hard work because of all the research, though equally very rewarding. Writing the Slider books is more relaxing: I don’t have to worry about anachronisms, and I can get rid of some of the puns and silly jokes that silt up my head.
CHE: I couldn’t possibly have two books on the go at once. Each one takes up my whole mind – my husband would say my whole life! – until it’s finished.
Dolls: The Morland Dynasty is now reaching its 33rd installment, with over 500 years of history, how do you even start to research each book?
CHE: I like to read a general history of the period to give me an overview, then go into detail on events and aspects that particularly interest me. I follow the research trail backwards, looking at the sources of the general history, then the sources of the sources.
Dolls: How do you decide which historical events to focus on/How do you approach certain events?
CHE: I try to include the events which I think are crucial to understanding the period, or which changed people’s lives and/or the course of history. It’s generally fairly obvious what ought to go in, but sometimes I discover something that hardly anyone knows about, but which is really interesting, so then I indulge myself. For instance, the bombardment of Scarborough during World War One, though it wasn’t pivotal, came as a surprise to me. Since I included it in Dynasty, lots of people have written to say they’d never heard of it either, but were fascinated and wanted to know more. In all cases I like to get as close to first-hand and eyewitness accounts as possible. Letters and diaries are wonderful sources, because they show what people thought at the time, not with hindsight. Things can get very warped by subsequent commentators with their own axes to grind. So much of what we think we know is just not true. I always want to get to the real truth, not the ‘everyone knows’ sort.
Dolls: The series follows one family, the Morlands, through history – this means that you have seen generations born, and generations die. How do you cope when it’s time for a character to die?
CHE: I hate characters dying, and I have to confess to shedding tears on occasion. Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence that the Morlands are a long-lived family and regularly make it into their eighties?
Dolls: Noticed that! They must have wonderful genes! 😉
Dolls: Some of the Dynasty books span ten years or more in one book, others cover a year or less, is this a decision you make before writing the book?
CHE: Originally, when the series was to be twelve books, the publisher mapped out a schedule of periods to cover, with big gaps in between. But as the series extended, the times covered grew shorter and the gaps shrank. This was partly because there was so much more history to cover (the sources on the early periods are relatively meagre) and partly because readers grew attached to the Morlands and wanted to know more about their lives. I was always being asked what happened to so-and-so in between volumes – so the in-between-volumes spaces had to go.
Dolls: Each generation in Morland history has a strong female character, one who takes center stage in many ways, do you have one character that is your favorite?
CHE: I know it isn’t a popular choice, but I did very much like Annunciata, because she was such fun to write about. I also got very attached to Lucy, who had so many adventures; and in recent volumes, Jessie has become very dear to me.
Dolls: Favorite Male character?
CHE: I loved James (Lucy’s brother) because he was so complex – I never fully understood him, which made him interesting to write about. I adored Papa Danby, and was very tearful when he died. And in recent volumes, Bertie has become my darling. I always knew he would be brave in war, but I think he was very brave in private life, too.
Dolls: I have a soft spot for Beauty Hazelmere…
Dolls: The Morlands have been with you so long, how do you say good bye? Do you know where the series ends? Have you visualized it?
CHE: From the beginning the series was meant to take the story to the end of World War Two. I always had a vision of the end – two old Morland ladies living in Goodramgate in the 1950s and safeguarding the family history and a few treasures for a young nephew to inherit. I thought perhaps the Coronation of our present Queen might be the place to stop. Sadly, however, the publisher has been taken over by a multinational conglomerate who are saying they don’t want to continue with it beyond number 34, so I won’t be able to get that far. It will be very painful to leave the family, and I know I shall miss them very much. They have been central to my life for thirty years.
Dolls: The Bill Slider mysteries take place in modern day London – what made you decide to “go modern” rather than write historical mysteries?
CHE: It never occurred to me to write anything other than contemporary detective stories.
Writing a mystery set in today’s London must involve a lot of research into forensics, police methods…
Dolls: how did you do your research?
CHE: I started by going to my local police force, and they were very helpful, answering endless questions and even taking me with them on a murder investigation. Since then I have built up a network of serving- and ex-policemen who advise me (and make me laugh a great deal). I have been on a special four-day forensics course, which was gruelling but fascinating, and there are plenty of specialist books out there. Interestingly, when I was a child my father was a post-mortem assistant (among many other jobs), which probably helped to get me interested in the forensic side of detection. I remember him telling me about the Stephen Ward post mortem…
CHE: There is an old saying, write about what you know, and since I knew nothing about detective fiction when I began, I thought I’d better have a background I knew. Yes, I had a very happy childhood there. It was a poor area, but honest and hard-working, and of course to live in London was such a privilege. I have since come to the conclusion that the 1950s were the perfect time to be a child. We had so much freedom – wandering all over London, out playing all day without our parents even wondering where we were – but with the boon of an outstanding education system, and pretty good medicine. I wouldn’t want to have lived before anaesthetics and penicillin!
Dolls: One of my favorite things about the Bill Slider books, is the wonderful team of detectives, such great characters and so much fun to read – how do you create balance between the humor and fun in mysteries and the serious side of murder and crime solving?
CHE: Golly, I don’t know! It just sort of happens. Murder is hateful and harrowing, but I know from first hand that the policemen involved use humour to defend themselves against the horror of it all. Slider and his team all seem quite real to me, so I never feel as if I’m ‘making things up’. In my head, it’s as if I just let them get on with it, and record what they say and do.
Dolls: The latest Bill Slider comes out November 25th – can you tell us anything about it?
CHE: Body Line is the new Bill Slider book. It begins with a wealthy consultant (is there another sort?) being shot in his luxury Shepherd’s Bush house. He has girlfriends galore, but none of them seems to know much about him, and Slider can’t find out where he was a consultant or what branch of medicine he practised. Like all Slider’s investigations, it has many twists and turns, and ends up a long distance from where it begins.
Dolls: In addition to the Bill Slider mysteries and the Morland Dynasty, you have also written a biographic-style book about Queen Victoria, and a historical trilogy set in 19th century Russia – do you have a favorite historical era?
CHE: I really loved writing those, but then I’ve enjoyed every single Dynasty, too. Before I started, I would have said yes, I had favourites; but I’ve discovered as I’ve gone along that every period has its USP. Most of all, ‘doing’ history as I have, sequentially, is the most rewarding thing, because it makes you realise that when it happened, it didn’t happen in ‘periods’. Queen Victoria was born in Georgian times and grew up under William IV, but to her, her life was a seamless progression. Everything that happens is part of, and a consquence of, what happened before. If only politicans could realise that!
Dolls: England is the focus of our Passport feature this month – so many books from so many different genres – mystery, chick lit, romance, historical etc… are set in England, what makes England such a magical place for books?
CHE: I think what makes England different is that it has such a long history, and that the history is so accessible. Our institutions have evolved gradually over centuries, and bear their ancient names. There are buildings from every era from the Romans onward, not just preserved but being lived in and used every day as they were intended. It is fabulously beautiful, with a wonderful variety of landscape somehow tucked into a tiny country. Our predecessors were great travellers and merchants, so the goods and cultures of all other civilisations have flowed in and been assimilated, creating wonderful variety, and giving us, as a by product, the richest vocabulary of any language. Oh, yes, and that language happens to be the most widely spoken on the planet, which has got to be a help when it comes to publishing books!
Dolls: What says “England” to you more than anything else?
CHE: The greenness and gentleness of the landscape, the tolerance and politeness of the people. Oh, yes, and the humour. As Bill Bryson said, let any two English people meet in the street, and before a minute has passed, one will say something to make the other laugh.