The Mystery of the Past

It’s all about tourism, really.

My protagonist for my current mystery series, Martine LeDuc, is the PR director for the city of Montréal, and so obviously tourism is one of her concerns. And honestly, I’d never have created her in the first place if it hadn’t been for my own odd approach to tourism.

I’ve done some academic work in history that tends to be—well, not to put too fine a point on it--academic, in the sense that I don’t use it as a career. I’m not a history professor (though I do write another series about one!), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still a passion. When I was five years old I announced my intention of becoming an archaeologist, and so, in a way, I have ended up.

When I travel, I want to know the stories of the places I visit; and to understand the current stories, you have to first hear the past ones. For me, new places aren’t necessarily all about what’s there now, but what was there once upon a time. I’m a story archaeologist. So, like most travelers, I spend time before I leave researching my destination; but my research has to do with the city, country, or area’s history. Who lived there? What happened there? What are their stories?

Because, and trust me on this, the stories lead inevitably and invariably to the mysteries.

Dig deeply into any history and you’ll find mysteries. This is true for people, for families, for communities, for countries. That’s how I discovered the background for Asylum, the first in the Martine LeDuc series from St. Martin’s/Minotaur. A mental hospital in mid-century Montréal didn’t just house the mentally ill—perfectly healthy orphans were sent there as well, and both vulnerable populations were used without consent for medical experimentation. So not only did I find history here—I found some secrets worth keeping (which helped with my plot) and some information worth sharing (because if we’re ever to do better, we need to know the places where as a society we’ve messed up).

So when I travel, I go to museums (though possibly not the same ones that everybody else does, mine tend to be more obscure). I read books. I walk through neighborhoods. I track down references. I take obscure tours. And as I walk around, as I look around me, I feel an old map superimposed on the modern one, and I ask it questions.

What all this means, of course, is that I’m not necessarily much of a fun traveling-companion, a fact that’s been noted by several friends who’ve tried the role on for size, people like my friend Michael, who bemoans my lack of interest in clubbing and shopping and working out when we’ve traveled together. And it’s not to say that I don’t occasionally do those things—but they’re not what keep me interested, keep me wanting to explore, to discover, to learn. And to transform the stories that I hear and learn into my stories.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that romantic thriller writer Phyllis Whitney decided where she wanted to travel next—and then made it the setting for her next novel. Whether it’s true or not, it sounds like a pretty good idea to me!

As I said, it’s all about tourism. Everyone travels differently. Everyone has their own priorities, desires, and interests.

What are yours?

Jeannette de BeauvoirComment