Author Q&A: R.J. Koreto
If you love historical fiction (or are an anglophile like us) you must get to know Koreto, author of the Lady Frances Ffolkes series, set in the Edwardian era. Koreto talks to us about the series, what he’s working on next, and how, as a man, he seamlessly writes from a woman’s perspective.
This is the second book in your series featuring Edwardian-era suffragette Lady Frances Ffolkes. What are readers in for who haven’t yet experienced your world?
A piece of a vanished world! Lady Frances is both part of this world, living with wealth and privilege, and yet a rebel against it, fighting for women’s rights and attempting to help London’s many impoverished residents.
This is a world where even in an industrialized country like Great Britain, the largest employment sector was agriculture, and the second largest was domestic service.
Along those lines, the key relationship in the series is the one between Lady Frances and her personal maid, June Mallow—a relationship that has no equivalent today: so intimate and yet separated by the rigid class differences on which the Edwardian world was based. Writing about the development of their partnership, which leads to a special friendship, was a challenge, but ultimately, very satisfying. It’s what gives the series its special historical flavor.
You’re a husband and father to two daughters. How does that contribute to your writing from a women’s perspective?
It made it possible! My wife and I raised our daughters to be strong and independent—and forward looking. Even today, women face sexism, and it was so much worse back then. I can imagine my daughters, with the feelings and ambitions they have today, but living in a world where women couldn’t vote and were restricted from many occupations. That’s what helped me create Lady Frances.
As I see my daughters going through school and entering the workforce, that lets me imagine Lady Frances wanting the same things my daughters do, and facing even greater odds. I don’t know if I could’ve imagined how Lady Frances grew up into the woman she became without seeing my daughters go through the same passages.
As for my wife—Lady Frances at one point contemplates what a truly equal marriage looks like and resolves that if she is to marry, that would be the only kind of marriage she could have. Without a quarter century of marriage, how could I have written about that! It’s why the first book is dedicated to my daughters, and the second to my wife.
Can you tell us a little about your research process and anything specific you watch out for when writing historical fiction?
The easy part is looking up what people wore, how they traveled, what the laws were like. It’s a little harder getting language right, in another time and another place: Do Englishmen visit with “chaps” or “lads”? (There’s a difference.) There’s a lot of consulting of online idiom dictionaries and the OED.
But hardest of all is figuring out how attitudes differed, how people thought about the issues they faced at the time. You can’t look that up easily—we’re always looking back through our own modern lens. You have to see what people wrote at the actual time. For those attitudes, I found Arthur Conan Doyle helped—beyond mysteries, the Sherlock Holmes stories are full of characters in all walks of life in late Victorian/Edwardian England. Conan Doyle was a keen observer.
Also, it’s no accident that I have Lady Frances read the newly published Man of Property, by John Galsworthy, the first book of what would become the Forsyte Saga. It’s an incisive look at social attitudes of the time.
Another popular writer of the period was H.G. Wells, who had very definite political thoughts, which we can see in the Time Machine, only a decade old when my novel takes place.
Finally, we can read George Bernard Shaw—plays such as “Major Barbara” and “Pygmalion” allow us to see how people behaved. Or at least how Shaw thought they should.
Short of building a time machine ourselves, nothing is better for social research than the fiction of the time period.
What is the last book you read that you can’t stop thinking about?
Being a writer changed the way I read books. Trying to create a comprehensive plot over some 90,000 words, populated by engaging characters appearing in believable scenes, filled me with fresh admiration for writers I had read purely for pleasure over the years. So with this new “writer” view, these are old books I can’t get out of my head:
- Agatha Christie at her best. Every mystery needs to end with a major surprise that in retrospect seems inevitable. I am stunned every time I contemplate the plot and pacing in Death on the Nile.
- Vintage Rex Stout. No mystery writer created more memorable characters. Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe are utterly believable every step of the way across dozens of books and even minor characters are completely fleshed out. That Stout did this over and over again, maintaining a balance between the familiar characters we loved and the new “guest” characters, is a miracle. When I get stuck, I re-read Rex Stout to get going again.
- Georges Simenon. Although Inspector Maigret is a wonderful character, Simenon’s great contribution is the setting of a scene. I tend to rush through setting my own scenes. Then I reflect on how beautifully Simenon set a Parisian street and I stop—and get back on track.
What can readers expect next from you?
I’m switching gears for a moment. With the second Lady Frances book out, I’m visiting the same time period in America. In Alice and the Assassin, I’m imagining the young Alice Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, as an amateur detective in turn-of-the-century New York. She was a colorful and wildly unconventional woman over her long life, and I had a lot of fun sending her on adventures accompanied by an invented character, her Secret Service bodyguard. He’s a former cowboy and veteran of the Rough Riders, and their different backgrounds provide a lot of the tension on their travels: New York City was a rapidly growing city, full of immigrants, and I have Alice go from Chinatown and Little Italy to the townhouses of the city’s old Dutch and English “aristocracy.”
But Lady Frances will be back. I’m nearly halfway through the third in the series, Death at the Emerald. Lady Frances and her maid Mallow try to locate a beautiful actress who disappeared 30 years ago, and find themselves immersed in the lively Edwardian theater scene. There’s a visit to an early film studio (Ben Hur was first filmed in 1907!); a midnight exhumation, courtesy of the long-suffering Inspector Eastley; and Frances’ continuing romance with her suitor, Hal Wheaton.
I also have a Regency-era mystery sitting in my drawer, so I should be busy for some time.
Like his heroine, Frances Ffolkes, R. J. Koreto is a graduate of Vassar College. He has spent most of his career as a financial journalist, holding senior editorial positions at the Journal of Accountancy and Financial Planning magazine, among others. Richard has also been a freelance writer and PR consultant. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America and his work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He lives in New York. Death On The Sapphire (June 9, 2016) and Death Among Rubies (October 11, 2016) are his first two novels with Crooked Lane Books.
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