Today I have a visitor to my blog. Please welcome Wendy Percival, author of the Esme Quentin series of genealogical mysteries. Wendy featured in my historical novel advent calendar last December and you may have seen her article in Family Tree Magazine recently. Here is a chance to learn more about her and her work.
What made you decide to write about a genealogical sleuth?
I’d just stared researching my family history and I was also writing short stories at the time, but I wanted to start a novel. The idea of buried family secrets being at the heart of a story appealed to me and it made perfect sense that the central character who’d unravel the secret – whatever it was – would be someone with the knowledge to do so. Around that time, a call had gone out in the publishing press for older female protagonists, rather than the twenty-somethings which were dominating the market. So Esme was born.
The North Devon landscape features in your work; how important is the setting to your writing?
I always love reading books when I recognise locations I’ve been. But from a writer’s perspective, it helps, I think, for the setting to fit the story in some way.
The first Esme story, BLOOD-TIED, is set in Shropshire, where I began my family history research and the idea for the story evolved. The fictional town of Shropton was inspired by the historic town of Shrewsbury, with its fabulous old buildings and narrow alleys where many of my ancestors lived. It has a huge impressive park which became the setting for Esme’s sister Elizabeth’s attack. The beautiful Long Mynd, a heath and moorland plateau in the Shropshire hills, also featured and as Esme stands on the top, gazing into the mist and fog which has engulfed the area and obscured the view, it became a metaphor for Esme’s confusion in discovering her sister has a secret past.
As for the other books, the South West Coast is magical and having lived here for so many years now, I wanted to embrace it for its drama and atmosphere, so it was the perfect setting for the second story, THE INDELIBLE STAIN, where a museum ship, telling the story of 19th century Devon convicts “banished from British shores”, is moored in the harbour.
I used the north Devon coast again in the latest book, THE MALICE OF ANGELS, adding in another local landmark, with its true wartime history, while applying a little artistic licence by moving it a bit closer to the coast!
Tell us something about your own genealogical adventures.
The first “adventure” started with the discovery of a death certificate from 1868 in the proverbial “box of old documents in the attic” belonging to my husband’s late parents. At the top it read, “Paddington” but then we realised it was Paddington, New South Wales, not London, England! As nothing was known about any family member going to Australia, in modern times, let alone in the 19th century, it was very exciting. The steep learning curve to unravel the story behind it took several years but I found the process fascinating and I was hooked!
Since then, I’ve uncovered stories of illegitimacy, bigamy, convict transportation, many sad stories and some shocking ones. The latter being my 3x great grandfather who was hauled up in front of magistrates accused of “assault and cruelty” to my 3x great grandmother, in collusion with the housekeeper, with whom he was having an affair, resulting in at least one child.
I love using the process of family history research to learn more about social history of the times, and the thrill of uncovering “secrets” which our ancestors must have assumed would be long forgotten. One of those is the discovery that my maternal Great-grandfather was living a double life – two “wives” and two families – for several years in London in the 1880s, until my great-grandmother found out and he was given his marching orders. He and his “alternative” wife ran off to Australia and went on to have many more children.
It is exciting to hear that the third full length Esme Quentin Novel, The Malice of Angels, is now available. What can you reveal about the plot?
It begins with Esme being approached by Max Rainsford, an old colleague of her late journalist husband, Tim, who died years before in tragic circumstances while investigating a story. Max wants Esme’s help on a cold case murder of an old soldier that he and Tim had worked on when they were rookie reporters. Esme’s not keen to rake up the past so declines.
But circumstances force her to get involved when, while researching into the mystery of a friend’s aunt Vivienne, a nurse who disappeared during WWII, she stumbles upon a disturbing connection between Vivienne’s past and Max’s murder case, and its implication of a link to Tim’s death.
Esme has to decide which direction she wants to go – back away from her distressing past to avoid the hurt it will cause her? Or face her demons to discover the truth?
If you could go backing time, what period would you choose and why?
There are lots of periods of history which fascinate me – around the civil war, Tudor times (I loved C J Sansom’s Shardlake novels), early 1800s, 1920s – but with so much of my family history research taken from the Victorian period and feeling that I “know” those ancestors best, I’d love to go and “walk with them” in their time and develop that familiarisation.
Apart from writing and family history, what fills your time?
Reading, obviously! Gardening, catching up with friends, walking, especially the coast path and exploring the fantastic locations here in the South West in our campervan. Occasionally I have a sudden urge to be “creative”, usually with textiles or making jewellery with Fimo (a cross between plasticine and clay) and/or beads. And I’ve recently started to learn to play the ukulele!
Will we be hearing more about Esme in the future?
I’m sure I won’t be able to keep Esme down for long. She’s bound to stumble upon some buried secrets sooner or later – you know what she’s like! In fact, I’ve an idea brewing already…