Thursday, August 6, 2009

To Know Evil

Who doesn’t like a good mystery? We love the chance to solve little puzzles, to discover the truth to what hides beneath the surface. Since I read my first Sherlock Holmes’ story in grade seven, I have always appreciated a good mystery.
There is something special about mystery stories. I think it strikes something in our mind and imagination. There is a riddle that must be solved. It intrigues and challenges us.
And what good is a mystery unless there is someone to solve it? I think detective stories appeal to us because through the detective we experience a sense of justice that comes when the detective solves the crime and captures the wrong-doer. As a Canadian I have a national tenancy to feel a kind of peace and security when the perpetrator is apprehended. Justice is served and order is restored out of chaos. We are very much for justice here in Canada. Peace, order and good government is a profound expression found in our Constitution Act of 1867, so there is little wonder that Canadians appreciate these three items perhaps even more so than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I could not imagine my hero ever being a mirror image of the villain. The hero must want to serve good.
History is another subject that has interested me for a long time. I am one of those people who believe it is easier to know where we are going if we know where we come from. When I began to write, it only seemed natural that I would incorporate two of my favourite subjects, mystery and history.
When a writer decides to do a historical mystery, how does the writer choose a time period and a setting?
For my latest historical mystery, I did not choose a time and place that I was familiar with (I seldom do).
To Know Evil was inspired by another book my wife bought me (God bless her) which traced the history of the Bible through the ages, from oral tradition to the time it developed as written text. One night while reading the book I turned the page and was instantly struck by two illuminations from medieval manuscripts, each showing a group of black-robed monks with tonsures. One page not only proclaimed that these monks were guardians of the Scriptures, but went on to describe life in medieval monasteries. I remember saying out loud, “This would be a good setting for a mystery story.”
Medieval monks was something I knew nothing about. So with no idea what the mystery story would be about, I began to research monastic life in the middle-ages. Eventually I chose a time and place and the particular order I would integrate into the story.
With still no idea of what the story would entail, I began to write.
It always amazes me how a story will unfold to a writer. As I wrote my first pages, with characters not fully developed in my mind, I had not the slightest idea what would happen in the story. Only with continued research as I wrote did ideas and characters evolve.
My main character, Thomas of Worms, developed in a peculiar fashion. Needing a name I chose Thomas after one of my sons. The name I knew I could change later, but I never did. Originally Thomas was supposed to have come from the east, but I soon discovered this would not do. In my research I came across the German town of Worms and thought, ‘What a great name, Thomas of Worms!’ Being of German origin, Thomas’s character and nature naturally developed, or should I say developed naturally.


  1. Stephen,
    I'm fascinated by the process by which you wrote your story. Do you often write stories with no planning beforehand? In other words, do you write a story without knowledge of what will happen, and just write? (I'm not referring to the research, which I'm sure was substantial.) I hear this process works for some people, but I can't imagine it! It seems a bit terrifying, actually. Not surprisingly, I tend to overplan. ;-)

  2. Docmon,
    Thanks for the question. It is not unusual to begin a story with no clue of what might happen. It may be a bit frightening, but that is when the creative process is at its best. Writing a mystery there are some things that are simply a given; someone goes missing, something is stolen and the most obvious, someone is MURDERED. For me it is not unusual for the story to unfold as I write. I may have a character do something or say something quite unobtrusively, then when I reread it, I will ask myself, Why did they do or say that? It is almost as if the characters have their own agenda. Wow! Now that I think about it, it is a bit terrifying.