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Writing about the Black Death: Minette Walters on her new book, The Turn of Midnight

November 19, 2018

About the author:

Photo by Fabio De Paola

Minette Walters was one of the most successful crime fiction writers in the world. Published to critical acclaim in over 34 countries, each new novel reached the top of the Australian bestseller lists. Her last crime novel was The Chameleon’s Shadow in 2007. The Last Hours saw Minette moving in an exciting direction. She has written an extraordinary historical novel set in 1348, the year the Black Death came to England. The story is brought to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion in The Turn of Midnight. Minette lives in Dorset with her husband.

Purchase a copy of The Turn of Midnight here

Read our review here 

The Turn of Midnight is a fascinating historical novel about the plague years. What inspired the idea behind this book, and sparked your interest in the Black Death?

I’ve always been interested in the Black Death, simply because it was the worst pandemic man has ever known. The exact number of deaths was never recorded but it’s estimated that between 40-70% of Europe’s population was wiped out in under 4 years. The consequences of such a major loss of life were severe, and the lives of survivors were very different afterwards.  I began to conceive the plot for The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight when I learnt that the Black Death first entered England in 1348 some 4 miles from where I live. Being so close to the source, no one in our little village survived, although we know there’s a plague pit somewhere near the 12th century church. I defy any writer to live with history all around them and not be inspired to write a story about human endurance and courage in the face of disaster!

Being a historical novel about a very particular, long-ago period of history, how much research was required? What did the research process look like?

A great deal, all of which was absorbing and interesting. I began, as everyone does, with the internet and then read books, looked at pictures from the medieval period and took further questions to the Dorset History Centre. Sadly, Dorset has no records from the period, because our scribes (priests and monks) died early, but I was able to read and touch parchments from the 15th and 16th century, which gave me a wonderful sense of language, texture and smell from times past.

You’ve written both crime fiction and historical fiction. What do you enjoy most about each genre, and what do you find to be the most challenging?

The two genres are very similar, in that both require an analytical mind to understand why and when certain events happen. In crime fiction, the events (murders) are imaginary but the means of solving the crimes are real; in historical fiction, the events are real but the people who live those events are imaginary. I love writing both genres, but the research needed for historical fiction is more challenging.

The characters in your book are very interesting, particularly Lady Anne, who is incredibly strong, and fervently determined to survive the Black Death. Given the time period in which the book is set, what inspired you to write a female protagonist?

Given the hierarchical nature of medieval society, it was hard to imagine a lord being able to win the love and trust of his serfs in the way that Lady Anne does. A feudal lord controlled the lives of every man, woman and child on his estate and, while most would obey him out of fear of punishment, few would believe he had their welfare at heart.  It seemed to me that an educated wife, who was willing to work for 10 years in secret to improve the lot of her people before the pestilence ever arrived, would make a better choice of protagonist, particularly one such as Lady Anne who understands that communities are stronger when they pull together against adversity.

Your book deals with themes of money, power, and religion – themes that are still heavily debated today. What do you think historical fiction teaches us about the present day?

That very little changes!

What are you currently reading?

Dorset in the Civil War 1625 – 1665 by Tim Goodwin.


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