Laurie King’s Guest Post
The first book I wrote became The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. One September morning when my son was old enough to go to preschool three whole mornings a week, I sat down and wrote, I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.
My 1987 first encounter with Mary Russell, who speaks those words, was every bit as unexpected, and every bit as life-changing, as that of hers and Holmes in 1915. I had experimented with fiction a few years earlier, putting aside a half-written futuristic novel (eventually published as Califia’s Daughters) when I found I really had no idea how to write a book. So I went back to my unpaid job of home-making for three years until that day when my younger child was old enough to venture into the world of part-time preschool.
And now, in 2009, the ninth Mary Russell story will be out in April. It is set in 1924, after she and Holmes have returned from overseas adventures to that same Sussex landscape where she nearly stepped on him. In that time she has aged nine years, and gone from being a brash but uncertain girl to a self-assured woman.
This is more or less what I had in mind when I sat down and wrote those first words. The book—I called it The Segregation of the Queen, which later became the subtitle—was designed to follow this precocious and troubled young orphan girl on the road to maturity, under the none-too-nurturing guidance of the retired detective.
I wrote the core 280 pages of what would eventually become The Beekeeper’s Apprentice in 28 days, a speed that, unfortunately, I have never been able to duplicate. A few months later, I began to send it to publishers, a frustrating process that only seven years later bore fruit.
One of the problems of the original manuscript was that it described a series of episodes from Russell’s development as an amateur sleuth, as she begins to learn Holmes’ trade, growing in skill and confidence. But it was still a string of largely unrelated events, and a string of stories do not a novel make.
It wasn’t until I added an adventure in Wales, solving the kidnap of a child while the true perpetrator remains at loose, that I caught sight of the novel behind the stories. What, I thought, if that same slippery and invisible villain were to remain in the story…?
With that, the book found its narrative arc. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was still episodic—unavoidably so, since it follows the development of this girl as she meets a series of increasingly difficult demands—but it was now a novel.
And it was a novel that laid the groundwork for a series, with an interesting dynamic between the main characters and an excuse for involving them in future cases (avoiding the terrible problem of the amateur sleuth, also known as the Jessica Fletcher syndrome: Would you invite this woman to dinner, knowing that a corpse would appear before you’d finished your coffee?)
In fact, two future books are embedded firmly within the pages of Beekeeper. In the story, Russell and Holmes are forced to flee an invisible foe, and do so by undertaking a completely unrelated case for Holmes’ mysterious brother, Mycroft. They go off to Palestine (modern-day Israel, then under British control) where Mary explores her Jewish heritage while Mycroft in London is developing certain lines of the investigation. However, because this chapter in their life has little to do with the events of Beekeeper, it is presented as just that: a chapter, after which they sail back to England and dive once more into the fray.
The Palestine chapter is in Beekeeper because I knew I wanted to write about Israel during this key period of 1919, when decisions reverberated down to our day. However, doing so within the bounds of this one book would have made it a 900 page novel, and although that might have pleased some people, my publishers were not among them.
So I gave those Middle Eastern events a novel of their own: O Jerusalem.
And then, following a throw-away line in Beekeeper concerning the anomalous accents of the two Bedouin guides, the door was cracked open for a third related novel: those two Bedu show up in England under very different guise, in Justice Hall.
All of which makes me look like a terribly deliberate and organized writer, knowing the story-line of the series for years in advance. In fact, those links were forged with only the faintest idea of what I would do with them.
I’m not going to tell you how many links those books contain that have not, and will probably never, have other stories hung on to them.
Much better my readers think of me as all-knowing. Either that, or (as indeed the preface to Beekeeper admits) the stories are not my novels after all, but merely transcriptions of the true-life memoirs of one Mary Russell, living still in Sussex with her husband, the aged Beekeeper.
This latter would explain why Russell has taken to blogging on MySpace…
Laurie R. King’s ninth Mary Russell novel, The Language of Bees, will be published in April 2009, shortly after the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, turns fifteen. Her website is celebrating with contests, activities, and Russell and Holmes events during this spring’s Fifteen Weeks of Bees.