Annamaria Alfieri is the author of five historical mysteries, including The Idol of Mombasa, now available from Felony & Mayhem Press. The Idol of Mombasa is the second in a series set in British East Africa, a projected ten-novel series featuring an idealistic English colonial policeman and his wife, a Scottish missionary’s daughter, who was born and raised in Africa. We asked Alfieri a few questions about this novel, the series, and her writing in general.
Felony & Mayhem: Where did the “British East Africa” mystery series begin for you? Was it an image, an idea, a character?
Annamaria Alfieri: All my stories have started with the place and its history. In a sense, British East Africa embedded itself in my imagination when I read Out of Africa as a teenager. That book gave rise to my longing to see the African wilderness for myself and fed my already pre-existing wanderlust. Once I went to Africa twelve years ago, I was completely infatuated with the experience of being there. Setting a book in British East Africa seemed a natural. Then, while I was contemplating the series and beginning some preliminary research, in an unrelated task – I was going through some memorabilia of my father’s – I came upon a leather bookmark that he had had inscribed with the Ten Commandments. BAM! There was an idea fully formed, that the series would follow the Commandments. I had already learned that the Protectorate of British East Africa became the Colony of Kenya in 1920, and it seemed only natural to begin with 1911 and count the Commandments through to 1920. So the series will end when BEA becomes the colony of Kenya.
F&M: You have now written five historical mysteries, books set in different locales and different time periods. How do you go about researching a time and place so far removed from your personal experience?
Alfieri: I have the enormous privilege of being a writer in residence at the splendid New York Public Library. What I want most, in addition to a small smattering of historians’ opinions, is memoirs of people who had feet on the ground in the place and at the time I am writing about. People who are writing about what happened to them — AND what they wore and what they ate, what they did in their free time! They also reveal their own attitudes and opinions about what they saw and experienced. This gives me such insight into the life of ordinary (or extraordinary) people, what they were feeling and thinking about the historical events that were swirling around them. Fortunately, the NYPL has an extensive collection of such books. An embarrassment of riches. With early twentieth century characters, I can also look at photos of what they saw. Sometimes I have to remind myself that their world was not sepia tinted.
F&M: What is it like to recreate the way people speak in those different time periods?
Alfieri: This is a technique that all historical novelists develop on an individual basis. For me the most important thing is to sound neither too modern nor too arcane. With the South American novels, I dropped in a Spanish word once in while, to remind the reader that she is not in twenty-first century USA, but only in a way that made its meaning obvious. And, depending on the period, I might or might not use contractions. 1945: Contractions work very well. 1650: no contractions at all. With the Africa series, I have the added issue of writing dialogue for English and Scottish people. So my goal, without being too precious about it, is to throw in a typically English expression. One character, in a moment of exasperation, shouted “Poppycock!” It worked because he’s a blowhard. Or I might have a tony upper-level administrator say, “Whilst you were away…” On the other hand, even if an expression was in common use in 1912, if it sounds too modern, I can’t use it. “Got the drop on me,” for instance, shows up in the writing of a real 1909 BEA policeman. But I can’t let Justin Tolliver say or even think that expression, or the reader will think I have used an anachronism, which would pull the reader out of the story. Nothing I do in the way of technique should ever do that. The story is the most important thing.
F&M: What are your favorite things about your characters, and what do you see as their flaws? And how, if at all, is the plot of your mystery novels connected to either their best qualities or their flaws?
Alfieri: My favorite thing about them is that they all have a foot in two worlds. Vera is African-born, so she is not really Scottish, but she is not really African either. Not 100% grounded in either culture, she can be impetuous, a bit overly self-reliant. Tolliver is an English aristocrat, but he is too in love with Africa and Vera to adopt the line of thinking of the King’s loyal empire builders. He was brought up to follow the rules of his class but is too intelligent and good-hearted not to prickle at the flaws in British attitudes towards the Africans. He is treading a thin line, and can overcompensate when he strays what feels to him to be too far in either direction. Ah, and Kwai Libazo. I love Kwai. He isn’t exactly flawless, but nearly so. His loyalties are his problem: he’s neither Maasai, nor Kikuyu. He’s also not British, but he serves the ideal of justice that he is learning from Tolliver. He follows his heart and his intelligence, but sometimes the two are in conflict, and he can paint himself into a corner on such an occasion.
F&M: You have said in the past that, when it comes to plotting, you are a “pantser,” which is to say, instead of writing from a plot outline, you construct the story as you go along. In writing The Idol of Mombasa, were you at all surprised by where the events took you? What discoveries did you make along the way?
Alfieri: My stories aways surprise me as they unfold. I did not know the murderer in Idol of Mombasa would even be in the story until that person showed up unexpectedly. Just last month, at dinner with the organizer of a famous British Mystery/Thriller conference, I got into a friendly debate about this. (He is not a writer of fiction, by the way.) He insisted that the writer must always know what’s going to happen, otherwise he or she would never be able to write the story. I could not convince him. But there are many like me. My friend Charles Salzberg, a fine mystery/thriller writer and teacher of fiction writing described his and my attitude best: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d be bored with the story.” My sentiments exactly. And If I get bored, what chance would the reader have of staying intrigued? For pantsers like me, once the characters take on a life of their own, we know they are “alive” enough to seem real to the reader. Then I let the characters tell me the story. I will do here what I did at that dinner table. I refer any doubters to Chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. He describes the experience of writing a novel better than I ever could. The great E. L. Doctorow said, “It’s like driving a car at night in a heavy fog with the headlights on. You can’t see very far ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way.”