Resources for the Teacher - Strangers
Guide for the Incurably Curious:
A Personal Note to Teachers, Students and People Who Just Plain Like to Read
This readers’ guide is my chance to talk directly with the people who enjoy reading Faye’s adventures as much as I enjoy writing them. Composing the “Guide for the Incurably Curious” has become a rite of passage for me. It means that I’ve finished a book that has consumed a year of my life. And it’s my chance to put some thought into what that book means.
I always want to know what questions my books leave behind in the minds of the people who read them. Because no book can answer every question for every person. Certainly no novel can. Part of a novelist’s art is deciding what to reveal and what to withhold. It is part of my job to leave you with space for wonder.
I write fiction. I make a lot of this stuff up. But I write stories about a woman who loves history and archaeology, and it’s important to me that my made-up stories about Faye co-exist plausibly with the real world. As a novelist, I also put a high value on the facts that underpin my story. If my readers recognize that the laws of physics and the flow of history are not violated too terribly in my stories, then they can believe the more implausible twists that are inherent in fiction. In other words, if Faye behaves like a real-life archaeologist, my readers are much more likely to swallow the notion that she stumbles across a murder victim every now and then.
When I do speaking engagements, certain questions get asked over and over. “Are the Choctaw folk tales in Effigies real?” (Yes.) Or “Where, exactly, is Joyeuse?” (Reader, Joyeuse exists only in my imagination and yours.) In this guide, I’ll try to anticipate questions I’d expect to hear from readers of Strangers. I visit many classrooms and book groups over the course of a year, and these are the kinds of questions people like to toss around. If you or your class or your book group would like to chat further, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I answer all my e-mail, when humanly possible, and I’d love to hear your responses to some of these questions.
1. What did you think of Faye’s transition into a Ph.D.-holding business owner?
Faye’s struggle to find a way to finish her education was a central theme in Artifacts. Relics was probably the book that illustrated most clearly her struggles to be taken seriously as a student of archaeology. In the next three books, Effigies, Findings, and Floodgates, Faye was doing archaeological work that she hoped would help her finish her dissertation and her doctorate. Still, I didn’t want to leave her in school forever.
I’ve resisted settling comfortably into a predictable format for the books in this series. I loved the Florida island setting of Artifacts, but I purposely took Faye on the road to Alabama and Mississippi before setting another book on Joyeuse Island. I sent her back to school, so that I wouldn’t fall into the rut of writing book after book about a black-market archaeologist working on the edge of the law. (And sometimes falling off.) I took a big risk in resolving the romantic tension that sizzled between Faye and Joe for four books, but I didn’t want to take the mirror-image risk of letting their relationship grow stale.
So Faye’s professional life has now progressed through a six-book story arc, from an amateur archaeologist to a student to a Ph.D.-holding consultant. I really couldn’t see Faye as a professor, so I gave her a corporation to run. My editor liked this plan, because she said she thought it would be interesting to watch Faye juggle the demands of a business-owner. As the book progressed, I realized that Faye and Joe would make good partners, but that they probably would take different approaches to running a business.
The thing about Faye’s new enterprise that pleases me most as a storyteller is the fact that a consultant does what she’s hired to do, and those jobs can vary widely. If I want to send her to Rome for a job, I can do that, as long as there is a plausible reason for someone to hire her. Even better, she is now in a position to be hired by police departments for cases that require the expertise of an archaeologist. Imagine how happy I am to realize that her new career has eliminated the problem of explaining to you why my intrepid heroine has stumbled over a dead body…again.
2. Could you tell that Faye was sick and tired of being pregnant?
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book written from the point-of-view of a woman who is entering her ninth month of pregnancy. As a mother of three, it was an interesting exercise to imagine how advanced pregnancy would affect the things that Faye must do for her work and, in the end, to save her own life.
For a time, I intended for Faye to be in the earliest stages of pregnancy in Strangers. She might even be unaware of it until the final scene, when she realizes why she’s been feeling so weird and redoubles her efforts to save herself from the bad guy, because now she has to protect herself and her baby.
But it just didn’t work. I tried to write it that way, but realized that the reader would be in on the secret as soon as I mentioned that Faye was feeling queasy or tired. Then Faye would be looking like an idiot for about 300 pages, while my readers were yelling, “Take a home pregnancy test, dummy!” I was rather proud of myself for making one of those tests an important clue.
As I launched into a story about a woman on the verge of becoming a mother, I learned something very quickly. Being extremely pregnant is like having an elephant in the living room. You can’t ignore it, and neither can anybody else. It affects your ability to do your job. It affects your ability to even move through a crowded room or up a flight of stairs. And even when I wrote scenes from other characters’ points-of-view…well, they couldn’t ignore it, either, and it affected their behavior toward Faye.
I decided to just go with it. The key to writing realistic characters is having them behave like real people, and real people do notice when someone in her thirty-fifth week of pregnancy waddles by. When I was in that condition, a stranger once said within my earshot, “She looks like she’s about to pop.” Gee, thanks.
As a part of Faye’s character arc, this pregnancy is very important. She admits as early as Artifacts, six years before the events in Strangers, that she wants a baby very much. In the meantime, we’ve watched her suffer some significant romantic travails, and her age is much on her mind. After writing six books about Faye, I found that I wanted her to have this baby almost as much as I would if she were a flesh-and-blood, real human woman who was suffering from the demands of her biological clock.
Last but not least—I think Joe is going to make a really cool father.
3. How did the long history of St. Augustine work as a backdrop for this story? And did you enjoy Father Domingo’s journal?
I like to work with nooks and crannies of history that are interesting, but not very well-known. It’s hard for Americans to get our modern brains around how far away in time the 1565 founding of St. Augustine is from us. For example, I originally wanted Glynis to bring a bayonet to Faye. “Spanish bayonet” is such a common phrase in Florida that we have appropriated it to name a very sharp-pointed plant. But I learned that bayonets, which seem a bit primitive to us, are relatively modern weapons. The Spanish did not have them when they came to Florida in 1565.
Another way to get perspective on the age of St. Augustine is to realize that it was founded more than 200 years before the American Revolution. So its Spanish founders were as remote to our powdery-wigged, knee-pants-wearing Founding Fathers as those Founding Fathers are to us.
This antiquity presented me with a unique problem. There was just no way to shoehorn all of it into one book about a modern-day archaeologist. So I had to pick and choose. I loved the glamour of old Hollywood, so when I learned that silent movies had been filmed in St. Augustine, I knew I would use that fact, without a doubt. The story of Lilibeth Campbell, Raymond Dunkirk, Allyce Dunkirk, Victor, and the Hollywood moguls is completely fictional, but I hope it reflects the glamour brought to St. Augustine in the Gilded Age by railroad baron Henry Flagler.
When I stumbled across an English translation of the real-life journal of Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, telling of his adventures on the way to the founding of America’s oldest permanent European settlement, I knew that I wanted to use his story. But how?
It has been my personal policy not to muck about with the lives of real people in my books. It’s disrespectful and, in the case of historical figures, it clouds the facts. My solution to this problem was to create my own Spanish priest and put him at the real Father Francisco’s side, gathering experiences that he would record in his own fictional journal. I also created Father Esteban to serve as a foil for my sympathetic renegade priest, Father Domingo.
Father Domingo’s story of his tumultuous trip from Spain to Florida is modeled closely on the real journal of Father Francisco. (If you’re interested in reading his reminiscences, a quick web search for “Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales” will take you there.) When I depict Father Francisco’s actions during that trip, they are very near to the actions he described in his real-life journal. And Father Francisco really did save some men destined for massacre at Matanzas in the way I described. Still, the real Father Francisco was a man of his era in his views of people of different faiths from himself, and I wanted to tell the story from the point-of-view of a man ahead of his time. I wanted someone to bear witness to the tragedy of the Americas—the death and destruction of her native people.
In the end, I found that I couldn’t tell the story of St. Augustine without touching something old and painful, the unimaginable suffering of Native Americans due both to warfare and to disease. In a way, I think those diseases were the biggest tragedy. Even if armed conflict over territory and gold could have somehow been avoided…even if the people from Europe had come in utter peace…the diseases that they brought with them would have killed the native people in droves.
The last full-blooded Timucuan died in Cuba in 1767.