Minette Walters turns to history: 'It's fascinating in a ghoulish way'

Talking points

  • An ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event with Minette Walters will be held on November 12, at 6pm, in the China in the World Auditorium, ANU. Free. anu.edu.au/events or 6125 4144.
  • The Turn of Midnight, by Minette Walters, is published by Allen & Unwin. $32.99.

You wouldn’t think a plague pit would be a real estate drawcard but author Minette Walters was terribly happy about it when she bought her home in the English village of Dorset about 20 years ago.

“When we arrived one of the first things we were told about the area was there was a plague pit somewhere around the church in the village,” she says.

Minette Walters at her home in Dorset.

Minette Walters at her home in Dorset. Credit:Fabio De Paola

“I was living in this place where there was so much history, it was fascinating in a ghoulish way.”

A plague pit is a very large grave, she says, where upwards of 40 people were buried as such, as the Black Death swept its way across England in the 1300s.

“Bodies were literally piled in because there simply wasn't room to build individual graves and people were dying too fast to be able to do that anyway," she says.

“In a small domain even if you had 15 die in one day, there was nobody to dig, the grave diggers were dying along with everyone else.”

The Black Death is estimated to have killed more than 100 million people worldwide when the global population was only about 450 million.

Dorset was “four miles as the crow flies” from Weymouth, which, she says, was the first point of entry for the plague into England – her little village didn’t stand a chance.

The Turn of Midnight, by Minette Walters. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.

The Turn of Midnight, by Minette Walters. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.

“The village was very small. In the Domesday Book there were only about 10 people living there at the time of William the Conqueror, in 1086, when it was written.

“They would have been among the first to die.”

It upset her that they died anonymously, she says.

“There is no record anywhere, we simply don't know who lived there, we'll never know.

“I kept thinking it would be so nice to write a story where you gave names to people.”

And that’s what prompted this award-winning crime writer to turn to historical fiction. Her last crime novel was 2007’s The Chameleon’s Shadow.

Her first five books, published between 1992 and 1997, were all hits that in turn became BBC television movies, starring the likes of Daniel Craig and Miranda Richardson. She won two Golden Daggers, the highest award of the Crime Writers Association, along the way and then stopped, in part to spend time with her sons, in part to relieve the pressure of turning out a novel every year.

In 2017 she published The Last Hours, which introduced us to the inhabitants of Develish, Lady Anne, Thaddeus Thurkell, Sir Richard, a band of feisty young serfs, and the nobility of the house.

MInette Walters at the church in Dorset.

MInette Walters at the church in Dorset.Credit:Fabio De Paola

And now The Turn of Midnight continues with their adventures, if you could call dodging the plague an adventure. But there’s every bit the trademark Walters suspense, gore, and riveting characters.

“I often get asked now what the difference is between writing crime and historical fiction,” she says.

“There isn't a huge amount to be honest because both require the author to bring an analytical mind to what they're doing. You have to first understand the event that has happened and then create a story out of it.”

The one thing she has had to do more of is research.

“I’m quite knowledgeable about crime – that sounds horrible – but I am," she says.

“I don't really have to research when I do a crime thriller quite as much as I had to do with these two books.”

She said she spent a lot of time reading Chaucer and looking at paintings.

“Paintings were wonderful resources because they tell you so much about the period, the clothes, the landscapes, everything, they reveal a lot about the social hierarchy that existed.”

She set herself the goal of not using any language, in prose or in dialogue, that wasn't in common usage in the 14th century.

“That was quite a challenge but I found a wonderful online etymology dictionary which was just fantastic, put in any word you want and it will give you its origins.”

She’s a little hooked on history now. She says her next book will be about the English Civil War, which ran from 1642 to 1651.

“That’s a period that people don’t know a lot about, our history in schools rarely covers the Civil War, it was a fascinating period. Dorset again was a microcosm of the whole war, it kept switching sides throughout.

“I thought how can I resist writing about a county that was Parliamentarian one year and Royalist the next and then back again.

"How lucky that I bought this home in Dorset.”

Walters likes to think she’s doing her part recording a history of sorts. She thinks it tragic that the scribes of the time of the Black Death, the monks, the priests, didn’t get to complete their records.

“There's a very poignant piece of writing by a Welsh monk and it literally ends mid sentence because he died,” she says.

“Someone recorded that underneath, that he died while he was writing the record. How tragic.

“I thought at least he died with his boots on, died writing.”

And she jokes that it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

The Turn of Midnight, by Minette Walters. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.

An ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event with Minette Walters will be held on November 12, at 6pm, in the China in the World Auditorium, ANU. Free. anu.edu.au/events or 6125 4144.

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