As an author of historical mysteries set in far-flung, atmospheric locations, Rhys Bowen takes research seriously. More often than not—and as circumstances allow—that means traveling to the places she writes about. In Bowen’s latest novel, The Venice Sketchbook, protagonist Caroline Grant follows clues left behind by her recently deceased great-aunt—clues that take her back to the Venice of the late 1930s. PW spoke with Bowen about her writing and research process and how her books have allowed her readers to travel—even at a time when they can’t seek passage themselves.
Tell me about the experiences that you feel have helped shape your voice as a writer.
I suppose the first of these is reading extensively. I grew up reading widely—golden age crime fiction, travel, history. My first job after college was with BBC Drama and my first professional writing was radio plays. I think this gave me a great feel of setting the scene, how to bring characters in and out, also the power of the spoken word. Dialogue is important in my books.
From Queen Victoria to World War II, your books are filled with rich history. How much do true historical events guide your storytelling? Do they serve more generally as points of embarkation, or do they directly inform the plot choices you make?
True history is important to me. If I’m going to choose a particular time and place, then real events that happened there have to happen in my books. Sometimes history is more background, but usually slivers of real events creep into my stories. The Tuscan Child was based on a real airman’s account of escaping through Italy. Farleigh Field was based on a plot by a group of aristocrats to aid Hitler. In writing Above the Bay of Angels, I discovered that Queen Victoria’s gentlemen were trying to bring down her Indian confidante.
Sometimes true history drives the plot. When I was researching The Edge of Dreams, a Molly Murphy book, I discovered there was a crash of the elevated railway in New York City at that time. I thought, Molly would have to know about that. Then I thought, What if she was on that train?, and the plot took a new direction.
How do you go about capturing the atmosphere and nuances of a particular era in your writing? What particular resources or documents do you immerse yourself in to accomplish this?
It’s very important to me to go to the place, to walk the streets, and get the feel. Obviously, when I am writing history, this isn’t always simple, but much of Tuscany, Venice, Nice, and New York City are unchanged. I sit in city squares, listen to sounds, observe smells, watch people’s interactions. I read biography and history. I look at old photographs and I use local libraries extensively. For The Venice Sketchbook, I wanted books on Venice in the 1930s and ‘40s and especially on how Jewish people were treated. I also worked at the Museo Correr Library in Saint Mark’s Square.
There’s no place anywhere quite like Venice. What’s your relationship with the city?
This could be a very long answer! It started when I was a young teenager and my parents (on my aunt’s advice) rented a small villa on the mainland outside Venice. Every day we’d drive onto the island. My parents would give my brother and me money and say, “See you at five o’clock,” and we’d be free to explore. We’d try food, knew the best gelato, swam at the Lido, and had a wonderful time. I’ve been back many times since. Each time it takes my breath away.
Would you say that you are a writer driven more by storyline or character? Or are these threads fully intertwined in your process?
I think the characters come first. Once they have walked into my life, they take over the story and I just follow them! When you try to force characters into a plot and they don’t want to do what you are making them do, that’s when writer’s block occurs.
What do you feel is the enduring power of the mystery genre and the historical mystery specifically?
Our world is often one of uncertainty and turmoil. We know that good does not always win. In the mystery genre, at least justice is served and good triumphs over evil. It is satisfying. During the most recent years of political upheaval and the pandemic, readers have been turning more and more to the past because it is comfortingly safe. We know the outcome. We know who won in WWII. And when we can’t travel, it is good to time travel and put ourselves in another time and place.
How have you been connecting with readers throughout the last year?
Strangely enough, I have been connecting even more with readers because of things like Zoom. When I do a bookstore event and 100 people show up, I am thrilled. I do a Zoom bookstore event, and there are 2,000 people from around the world. My Facebook presence has grown tremendously. I realized early on that people isolated because of the pandemic need to feel connected, so I started posting almost daily about small, mundane matters, like how I hated ironing. I’d get 20,000 people seeing the post and commenting how they hated ironing too!
Are there any particular historical events, places, or moments from the past that haunt you or that you are especially eager to write about next?
I suppose I am drawn toward WWII because I was born in the middle of it. I don’t remember much personally, but it affected my life for years to come: rationing until 1953, bomb sites everywhere, my father away in Africa and then Palestine until I was four.
Also, it was the last clear time when we had a definitive sense of good versus evil. Every war since has been mired in shades of gray. Back then, everyone knew that Hitler had to be stopped or he would swallow up the world. There was a communal sense of purpose.
I find I am drawn most to the first half of the 20th century because it seems so familiar in many ways and yet so remote in others. In my Molly Murphy books, there is the theme of women’s suffrage running through the stories. New York might look quite familiar to me, but half the population can’t vote!
Pretty soon my childhood will count as historical, and I can write about the Beatles and the ‘60s!