An Anthony Award-nominated website on all things mystery.
THE REVENANT OF THRAXTON HALL takes a page out of Sherlock Holmes and teams his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Oscar Wilde (what a fabulous combination!) as an investigative team. Unlike its classic predecessors, it also incorporates elements of paranormal, steampunk, urban fantasy, and others. What inspired you, both for the classic mystery element, and then to give it a new twist?
The concept for the book resulted from a confluence of personal interests. I had decided my next novel would be a mystery. First, I needed a setting. My first novel, Angel of Highgate, takes place in Victorian London, an incredibly rich setting for a novel, both moody and atmospheric. Plus I was well grounded in the period after a year’s worth of research.
Now I needed a sleuth. I am a big Sherlock Holmes fan and Conan Doyle is a personal hero of mine. I also like ghost stories and the paranormal. Conan Doyle’s abiding interest in Spiritualism and the occult promised a novel spin on the conventional mystery story. Novels with real-life historical figures are very popular, so the author who helped popularize the mystery novel seemed like a good choice.
As the Sherlock stories demonstrate, a hero’s interactions with a sidekick provide a smooth way to introduce much needed exposition. At first, I had in mind teaming Conan Doyle with the playwright J. M. Barrie. Something about the physical disparity between the tiny Barrie and the large Conan Doyle seemed comical to me. But early on the in the process I wrote a test scene in which the two authors met up at the Savoy. As I was riffing on the idea I thought it would be fun to have Oscar Wilde enter the restaurant. But Wilde’s overwhelming personality not only hijacked the scene but also the entire novel. If you read the chapter entitled Wilde in the City, you can watch it happening right on the page. Obviously Wilde was obvious. While he demonstrates his keen intellect and makes many germane observations, his sense of style and wit adds levity to what could otherwise be a very dark tale.
Now I tried something very unconventional. Nearly all mystery novels begin with a prologue in which an anonymous victim is murdered. The sleuth(s) is/are then introduced in the following chapter, usually Chapter One.
I decided to put a more original spin on the mystery novel. Instead of beginning with a murder, I had the murder victim be a psychic medium whose vision foretells her own murder. Conan Doyle and Wilde must then unmask the perpetrator before the murder is committed.
Based on the enthusiastic response from agents I pitched the book to, the concept has tremendous resonance.
It sounds like this would have been an immensely fun book to research - tell us about the process, and what your favorite part of it was.
I already had most of the Victorian era down after researching Angel of Highgate. Now I read the biographies and collected letters of Conan Doyle and Wilde as well as re-reading the Holmes stories and Wilde’s plays. Once I had their personalities down, it was simply a matter of dropping them into a situation and watching how they reacted.
That said, the book was written to be a romp, rather than a deadly serious murder mystery, with many aspects that are deliberately OTT (Over The Top). And so our setting is the classic gothic pile, Thraxton Hall, a crumbling ruin swarmed by ghosts. The house is suitably staffed by an odd and eldritch collection of servants. (Imagine Downton Abbey channeled by Edgar Allen Poe.) Lastly, we have our presumptive murder victim: Lady Thraxton, a shadowy figure with a mystery ailment who might or might not be mad.
Every scene was a hoot to write, especially those where Conan Doyle and Wilde have their bantering interactions. I’d like to take credit for Wilde’s witticisms, but in truth it was more like taking dictation.
You’ve now had experience both with self publishing (he self-published ANGEL OF HIGHGATE after the economic crisis of 2008 killed the deal for the book) and traditional publishing (THE REVENANT OF THRAXTON HALL is published by Minotaur). Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences? Do you have any advice for those in the querying process?
My first attempt at traditional publishing fell apart when the banking crisis hit and took down so many legacy publishers. So I decided to self-publish Angel of Highgate. Even though the novel received tremendous reviews from Kirkus and the Historical Novel Society (and Amazon readers), I never sold that many books. Based on my experiences I have nothing but admiration for those writers who break out and sell large numbers of books through self-publishing.
Although I do Tweet and Blog, I would rather be spending my time writing the next novel. I am thrilled to have been published by St. Martin’s Press. The market penetration that conventional publishers can achieve is truly dizzying. I’m being published as a hardcover, fairly unusual for a debut novelist. The book is already showing up in library catalogues. St. Martin’s went on to sell the rights to Titan Books, a UK publisher, who will be producing a trade paperback version sold in the UK and Commonwealth. And if that’s not enough, St. Martin’s also sold rights to a Russian publisher, who will begin the translation once the book is on the market.
My best piece of advice for all would-be novelists is to nail down the pitch letter before you write the first sentence of your novel. No matter how great your plot is and how deathless your prose, if you can’t pitch the novel you cannot sell it. I had to write several unsellable novels to come to that realization. Publishing is a business first and an art second.
What’s coming next for you?
I landed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Right now I’m working on revisions to the second book in the Paranormal Casebooks series. It’s entitled The Dead Assassin and will be available in 2015.
I’m hoping the first book is successful and sells well, because I have a dozen ideas queued up for subsequent books.
In other good news, Titan Books will be publishing The Angel of Highgate sometime in 2015, so I will have two books coming out in the same year!
Last question, where can I get one of your sculpted gargoyles?
Gargoyles Statuary in Seattle (on the web) owns the molds and rights to produce my gargoyles and I think most of them are still in production. My favorite was a gargoyle called Grymwish. (Nobody steal that name, as I own the copyright.)
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QUICKIES WITH VAUGHN:
Book he wishes hecould read again for the first time: RIDDLEY WALKER by Russel Hoban. A dystopian novel written in a unique pidgin English.
Favorite sentence he's ever written: First line ofThe Revenant of Thraxton Hall: "Sherlock Holmes is dead . . . and I have killed him." One reviewer wrote of the opening: Best line . . . ever.
What he's reading now: Usually five or six books at once, but currently focusing on RUSTICATION by Charles Palliser
Book or eReader: E-readers are convenient and wonderful for travel, but great cover design, binding, typography and layout are just part of what elevates the printed book into an enduring work of art.
Cats or dogs: Both. My two cats “help” me write by sauntering across the keyboard and perching atop my Mac mini, blocking my view of the monitor. The dog rests his head on my lap and looks up at me with sad eyes so I will take him for walkies. Without the critters I would be so much more productive, but they are all vital to my mental health.
Period in history he'd most like to visit: When I get the keys to Dr Who’s Tardis I am setting the controls for Elizabethan England. I want to take in a Shakespeare play at the original Globe theater; hopefully, a production of HAMLET in which Shakespeare himself plays the role of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. (Don’t worry, I plan on taking antibiotics and lots of hand cleanser gel.)
Favorite online resource: The Cat’s Meat Shop (at VictorianLondon.org), a brilliant website run by Lee Jackson. Invaluable for anyone researching Victorian England.
If hecould have one superpower: The ability to vanquish Auto Correct.
Favorite big or small screen detective: No-brainer for me: Sherlock Holmes as played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the brilliant BBC version.
If he could invite four people to a dinner party: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare