A group of mystery writers celebrated Elizabeth Peters by playing the major characters in her beloved Amelia Peabody series during a skit at the 2012 Malice Domestic Convention. Ms. Peters (Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, aka Barbara Michaels) played straight woman but occasionally demonstrated her distinctive wit.
Twenty years ago I interviewed her about how she created the strong-willed Victorian archaeologist and found her distinctive voice. A shortened version of the article follows. It appeared in the January 1992 issue of Writing Concepts.
Mastering the writing style of another era requires care, Mertz says. “When the heroine was speaking, I had to have a certain speech pattern, which was more formal and more melodramatic than the modern pattern.”
While remaining ever aware of being true to the period, she doesn’t check every word. “I was not pedantic enough to look up words in the OED to see if they were in use at that point. Every now and then I get caught, of course.”
She’s particularly conscious of idioms. “If I am in doubt about one, if it strikes oddly on my ear—and I think that comes from having read so much—I’ll either change it or try to verify it. There are an awful lot of slang words and expressions that were in use much earlier than we think.” Novels of the period proved more useful in researching speech and daily life than books on social history. Her research and leisure reading merged as she sought Amelia’s voice.
The writer set out to create a traditional Victorian lady traveler and speak with her voice. “I went through every travel book from that period, especially ones written by women, and novels.” She read, among other novelists, Charles Dickens, Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I love doing a very pompous Victorian voice. That is the way these people wrote,” Mertz says. “I love caricaturing it. I think it comes out as being amusing because it is caricature, but Amelia means it very seriously, and most of the things she says, I mean to.”
Mertz strives to be as historically accurate as possible but avoids extraneous historical details. “It’s tempting when you find something that’s awfully interesting to just dump it in to entertain the reader and show how smart you are, but unless it’s usable in the plot, you shouldn’t have it in there.”
She expresses great respect for writing as a craft. She says, “I will never learn everything there is to know about this business. I will never write the book I really want to write, but every time I’m a littler closer and know a little bit more about why I’m doing things.”
Between the standing ovations that greeted Elizabeth Peters and bid her farewell at Malice, she revealed that she is now on chapter five of a new manuscript.