Episode 53: Jeri Westerson

I didn’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural…but that weird noise in the wall was testing my convictions.

The unpleasant scratching sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention had been going on for days. Look, I’m not some scaredy-cat to jump at every sound…But this? Ever since I moved into my shop-slash-house two weeks ago, this noise had been coming from inside the walls.

— Jeri Westerson, Booke of the Hidden

I am so excited to let you all know about Jeri Westerson’s latest series. It’s a departure from her Crispin Guest novels in that it’s urban fantasy and modern day, but it has the same terrific writing, intricate plotting, and spellbinding characters as her Medieval Noir series. Plus humor! A snarky heroine! A deliciously handsome demon! A Scooby Gang of misfit friends!

My friends, this series is candy.

Booke of the Hidden has its own website, and you can preorder your copy right here. It comes out on Halloween. I don’t know what spell was cast to make that happen, but it’s perfect.

Multi-talented as she is, Jeri put together her own Scooby gang and the team created a book trailer for Booke of the Hidden. We chat about the trailer, this new series and also about her Crispin Guest historical mystery series, her standalone historicals, and her lighthearted LGBT modern mysteries, the Skyler Foxe series, which she writes under the name Haley Walsh.

When does this woman sleep? Oh, never mind. Jeri actually comes up with plots for new books in her sleep, as she mentions in the interview. I am officially jealous.

Jeri gives a shout out to the historical fiction writers who sparked her passion for the genre, including Anya Seton and Thomas B. Costain. Of course, the noir feel to the Crispin Guest series was influenced by Chandler and Hammett, masters of the genre. Booke of the Hidden, meanwhile, has a definite Buffy flavor (although with grown-ups; this is not YA) and reminds me in the best possible way of Charlaine Harris‘ wonderful Sookie Stackhouse mysteries.

You can check out Jeri and keep tabs on all her releases (a new Crispin Guest is out January 1st! Happy New Year to us!) on her website. You can also find her on Facebook.

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura


Transcript of Interview with Jeri Westerson

Laura Brennan: When Jeri Westerson combined her love of historical fiction with complex characters and tantalizing mysteries, her Medieval Noir Crispin Guest series was born. Not content to murder people in the middle ages, Jeri also writes a lighthearted LGBT mystery series, historical fiction and short stories, and is about to launch a new paranormal series with her latest novel, Booke of the Hidden.

Jeri, thank you for joining me.

Jeri Westerson: Well, thanks for having me.

LB: I want to talk about all your series and especially Booke of the Hidden, which I enjoyed so much. But first I want to talk about how you got started as a writer. I understand your family was very into history?

JW: Oh, my, yes. My parents were rabid Anglophiles. They just had all these great books on the bookshelves at home: histories and historical fiction, just anything you could want. In those olden days of yore, TV wasn’t on 24/7 and so you had to read if you wanted to be entertained. So we would pull down the books from the shelves and there were all sorts of marvelous things, and I got into reading historical fiction quite early and read all kinds of things.

Anybody who likes historical fiction probably knows the name Anya Seton, Thomas B. Costain, so many other authors out there who became favorites of mine. So it was easy. We also had conversation at the dinner table about the monarchy of England, medieval history, so I probably know far more kings and queens of England than I know American presidents.

LB: Well, you certainly put that to good use in the Crispin Guest series.

JW: Well, yes, I had a lot of that information in my pocket before I started writing, so it was easy to get going. Of course there is always research to do while you’re writing. It’s fun. You know, when you do write historicals, you do, you have to like history and you have to like researching. So you have to be careful because there’s something we call “Research Rapture,” where you get so involved in research you go, “Oh, wait a minute! I’ve got to write this darn book, don’t I? So stop researching!”

But it is fun. It’s fun the places that I get to go, and the places online where I get to hunt things down. Like a detective.

LB: Well, speaking of detectives, it’s also influenced by Philip Marlowe.

JW: Oh, yes. Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett, all those guys. Noir and hard-boiled writers of long ago. Because I wanted something slightly different from your run-of-the-mill monk and nun, who were the detective in most medieval mysteries. I wanted a man of action.

I also wanted this different sort of sense of a hard-boiled detective set in the Middle Ages and I felt that it could really work. That the streets were dark and mysterious and we could transfer this idea of a hard-boiled detective, a lone wolf who was hard drinking, hard talking, hard fighting, a sucker for dame in trouble and someone who was true to his time period and still get that noir sensibility going. So, yes, those guys are big influences on me. Besides, they are just really great prose to read.

LB: Yes, and I think that Chandler’s “mean streets of LA” have nothing on London’s mean streets.

JW: Yes, you have the dark alleys, you have the buildings where they are building upwards because they can’t really expand too much outwards. You have these dark, shadowed alleys and it’s cloudy and rainy. Instead of people flashing a gun, they’re flashing their daggers. So it does work, it’s fun that way.

LB: Oh, it does. It does. Everyone is armed, that’s always a plus.

JW: Yeah, that works!

LB: And I love how, “Down these mean streets,” we are referring to Chandler’s famous line, “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Crispin, I get that sense — he is actually a somewhat tarnished knight.

JW: Yes, well, Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, he talked about him as a white knight.

LB: Yes.

JW: He had his own code of honor that he lived by and that is Crispin. I stole it whole cloth. Because he really was a knight, his whole code of honor is still there. Everything else about him is gone. He’s lost his title, his wealth, his status, everything that defined him. But he still thinks of himself as a knight and lord and so it works in that sense, because many of these hard-boiled detectives came from after the war, and a lot of them were in the war and they were definitely changed by it. So you see a lot of, maybe a little PTSD in a lot of these characters. We didn’t call it that then but they were definitely affected by the things they saw. And they were hardened. That is the hard-boiledness.

LB: Right. And Crispin — I mean, it’s really masterfully done. His honor and his sense of duty, his sense of duty to his country, those are also his biggest flaws. He doesn’t know where to stop.

JW: Right. He’s very loyal to the crown itself. Not necessarily to King Richard, King Richard II, in fact that’s how he lost everything. He was committing treason! He wanted his mentor, the Duke of Lancaster, to be king and so he got caught up in this plot to put the Duke of Lancaster on the throne. Because Richard was coming to the throne at 10 years old. So he should of been executed for that, all of the other conspirators were, but the Duke of Lancaster stepped up for him and spoke for him and Richard spared his life but nothing else.

So he does approve of the whole monarchy and hierarchy, he just doesn’t approve of Richard.

LB: Now, you’ve also written some historical stand-alones.

JW: I have. It’s interesting because for the first 10 years of trying to get published, I was trying to publish historical novels. And the historical novels I like to write weren’t necessarily the kind that editors wanted to publish. So I was not getting published. I like to write these historical novels about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. So they weren’t about the Kings and the Queens and the court, those people were maybe all in the background, but it was just about these individual people, fictional people.

But a former agent talked to me and she said, “Why don’t you write a medieval mystery?” Because that translates a lot better. It’s a bigger market, it’s a better market. Because of the kinds of things I like to write, it works out easier to have a fictional detective detecting fictional murders in the background of the real history. So that worked out far better once I figured out who my detective was.

So I have these historical novels. After I’d been published several years, I decided to go to my “vault,” take out a couple of the books that I thought were still viable, rewrite them, get them edited, and then self publish them. And that’s what I did.

LB: And now your other series, you have another mystery series that’s many, many books strong that is completely different. You write the Skyler Foxe series under a pseudonym.

JW: Right. Those are LGBT mysteries. My detective, amateur sleuth, he’s a high school English teacher and it’s contemporary setting. He’s also gay, it’s all fun and romantic and humorous. It was my way of relaxing from all of the heavy-duty research I had to do for Crispin, all the dense prose that’s in the books and just let loose little bit. People are always saying, you have such a good sense of humor, how come you don’t write comedy? Well, okay, now I do! So I got to do that, and it’s just a lot of fun. People really enjoy it.

LB: Oh, they are incredibly fun. I love that you call them “rom-coms,” but with dead bodies. Which is totally my idea of a perfect rom-com.

JW: Yes. They’re sort of cozies, although there’s sex. So…

LB: They’re cozy-adjacent, yes.

JW: Cozy-adjacent, exactly. So that’s under a pseudonym simply because it’s a branding thing. If you’re going to go to Jeri Westerson, she writes medieval mysteries and now paranormals; and Haley Walsh writes the Skyler Foxe mysteries.

LB: That takes us to your new series. The series and the first book in the series are Booke of the Hidden.

JW: Correct.

LB: One of the things I really like about it is that it takes all my favorite bits from your Crispin Guest — the depth, you bring in history. I mean, the Booke of the Hidden has been around a long time so there’s references to stuff that happened historically. And then, they are very funny as well as being quite scary.

JW: Yes, it does do that. I am very derivative of myself, that’s for sure.

LB: Well, no, it’s not that —

JW: It’s true, though. I was doing that. I wanted a lot of snarky humor in there with Kylie Strange, she’s the hero of the piece. And, like Skyler, she’s got her Scooby gang. They’re a group of Wiccans, local Wiccans, kind of a ragtag group of them. And then we’ve got Erasmus Dark, who’s the guardian of the Booke, he’s a demon. And he’s dark and brooding, I seem to like those kinds of characters. Like Crispin is. And he’s got an English accent, so there you go. So, yes, it’s got elements, I kind of gather this stuff as I go along. I can see, also, in my Crispin books the things that I picked up from previous books, historicals that I wrote. So I always keep these files of things in your mind and you kind of recycle them just a little bit.

And there is research involved, even in contemporary books there’s always research because it’s an urban fantasy and in them there are creatures that appear. They are all from, most of them are from Celtic lore and some from American lore. But I do reach back, always back to the British Isles, that’s where I always end up somehow.

LB: It’s great fun, there are demons to slay, and there’s also an ongoing mystery, layers of ongoing mystery of who are all of these forces at work? What is really going on? And who can Kylie actually trust?

JW: Right. And it’s a fun thing because it’s set in a small town in Maine, and we all know that small towns have this surface of everything’s fine, it’s cute and quaint. But we all know that there is this dark underbelly and all sorts of things going on underneath that. So I get to take that trope as well, but this time with demons and supernatural creatures.

LB: It’s, I would almost say lighthearted, urban fantasy…

JW: You know, it’s really hard to define. I call them urban fantasy, and that sort of has its — the explanation for an urban fantasy is that it features supernatural characters or elements in an urban setting. Now, this small town is not really an urban setting. But I’ve sort of taken that and I’ve stretched the idea of that.

LB: And it’s an urban fantasy that you’ve basically plunked into Cabot Cove.

JW: Kind of, yeah. They call it urban fantasy because they want this sort of grittiness of a city, so kind of like a hard-boiled detective only with supernatural stuff going on. But I think it’s really got a wider definition than that. It’s blending an urban fantasy and a paranormal romance where, in a paranormal romance, the primary goal is for the characters to fall in love, like if you think about Twilight. It’s really about that love relationship and it’s got to have a happily ever after. But in the urban fantasy, you also have action and supernatural characters and it has to have the supernatural elements as part of the plot of one of the main characters and all that. So I’m sort of blending those. There is that romantic element as well as a little bit of grit in the background.

So it’s a little gritty, a little edgy, but also funny. It’s like Buffy, you know, how there’s humor but serious stuff happens, too.

LB: Oh, yeah. Fans of Buffy are going to eat this up. This is such a great book for fans of Buffy. And I was also thinking Charlaine Harris and the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries.

JW: Right, exactly. I’ve loved all of those, I love the Sookie books, I loved what she did with that. It does have the romantic elements, but it’s also pretty edgy and bloody.

LB: I was just going to say, it’s not that you switch genres, it’s that you keep creating your own genre.

JW: Yes. (Laughter.) I think my agent really hates that. Well, they say you’re supposed to write the book that you’re not finding out there to read. So I guess I’m not finding the genre out there that I like, so I’m reinventing it.

LB: Well, you have a great story about how you came up with this idea.

JW: I literally dreamed it. I wish that happened more often. But I honestly dreamed it.

Now, in my dream, I had Kylie, her name, her first name Kylie. I had the demon Erasmus, I had his name, and I had Doc, one of the Wiccans. And the idea of this book. And the book in my dream was called The Big Book of the Occult, which is like “The Big Golden Book of my First Occult Book,” you know. So, it was this book, this mysterious book, that when she opened it, it released all of these creatures into the world like the Pandora’s Box. And it was her job to put them all back. So all the pages were blank in the book, and in order to trap them in the book she had to write down her capture of them and what they are and all that stuff. That put them back in the book. I basically had that.

And I woke up and I just lay there for a while thinking, wow, that was really cool. That was a really neat story rolling around my head. And I told my husband the story and he said, “Write it down. Now!” So, all right, all right. I went into my office, I started writing a synopsis, filling in the gaps to make it make more sense because it was all disappearing really quickly. And then I read that to him before he went off to work, and he looked me in the eye and he said, “Write the book!” So I started writing the book. I wrote the first three chapters and then I pitched it to my agent and he said, “Oh, okay, yeah. You should write this. I think I can sell this.” So that’s how that began.

LB: I really enjoyed this so much. I love how you weave all the supernatural problems in with human obstacles. Her life doesn’t stop just because there’s a demon she’s got to go find and slay.

JW: Right! I mean, you know, she still has to pay bills, right? She’s got to pay the mortgage. So she’ll take care of this stuff, but she’s also got have this tea shop open, too. I was think, if this happened to me, if I were this person, what I do? And the answer is, you still have to keep on keeping on.

So, yes, you’ve got your crossbow, your chthonic crossbow you got there, but you still have to keep the lights on.

LB: And people are so, human beings are so infinitely complicated and messy, as we all are. And I love how not only does that play into her life, but Erasmus, your demon character, is fascinated by this.

JW: Yes, I mean, he only gets to wake up when somebody opens this book. The last time I think was 300 years before, so he gets to explore humanity. It is interesting to him. So you get to do that fish out of water thing as well. Yes, he’s a fun character to write because he does get to explore these things and still be an arrogant so-and-so.

LB: Oh, yes. Well, the British accent helps there.

JW: Yes, it does.

LB: You were an actress, too, as one of your many talents.

JW: Well, a would-be actress. I never actually made it that way, but I tried. And I think that really helps when you write books, especially books full of action because you are writing scenes that you wish you were acting out. The dialogue that you were saying and all of that. I always have a lot of juicy dialogue going on and a lot of action, and I think cinematically so I’m always thinking, how would this look on the screen? Small or large.

LB: I would love to see this on a screen.

JW: Oh, wouldn’t we all? I would too.

LB: So this book is coming out on Halloween.

JW: On Halloween, yes.

LB: Booke of the Hidden, it’ll be out on Halloween. You can preorder it now, and I’ll have the link to that in the show notes. What is next for Kylie?

JW: Well, the story continues. It’s called Deadly Rising, and so more creatures coming out of the book, more complications in her love life and on and on. As I said in some of the interviews that I’ve done, it starts as a love triangle and as the books go on, it becomes a love parallelogram. There are more complications in the mix.

We reveal more of the secrets in Moody Bog, that’s the little town in Maine, and it seems like the more things that are revealed, the more complicated it actually gets.

LB: I was interested because you’ve already said that it’s a six book series. Have you actually figured out the entire arc of the six books?

JW: Oh, yes! Oh, yes, I always know what’s going to happen at the very end.

LB: That’s fantastic.

JW: Well, I think you really do have to plan these sorts of things. Especially if it’s a fantasy series like that, you have to know where you’re going. Yes, you can add new things along the way, make it up along the way but it’s good to have an ending, number one. I think that book series should have a definite ending. The Crispin series does, and I know how that is ending too. It’s really good to have that, especially when you are setting up all these different mysteries, you have to eventually solve them all or your readers will kill you.

The romance also has a conclusion as well. And I’m willing to let fans — and I hope I get a bunch of them, because I’m all about the fan service — let them kind of decide how they want her to end up. Who she is going to be ending up with. Because we have this handsome but mundane Sheriff in town that she’s got the hots for, but also Erasmus, and there are other people coming in, too. So who is she going to end up with? I’m going to see what the majority wants.

LB: That is so much fun. And thank you so much for taking us all along for the ride.

JW: I appreciate you reading it and enjoying it, and I hope that everybody else will as well.

LB: So if people want to know more about you and all of your many, many wonderful books, where can they find you online?

JW: The big umbrella website is JeriWesterson.com but Booke of the Hidden has its own website, strangely enough called BookeOfTheHidden.com, and that booke with an E at the end, so Booke of the Hidden dot com. And that has some stuff specifically about the book and the series, and, boy, all about the blog tour and also the book tour, where you can find me.

LB: And you did something really neat, too. You also did a book trailer.

JW: I did, yes! I think a book trailer that looks as close to a movie trailer is a really great sales tool to bring people to you.

LB: How in the world… I’m a word girl. So I can totally see putting words on a page and how that might happen. How did you go from being word girl to creating such a visual, a mini movie?

JW: As I said, I write cinematically, so I already see things framed in scenes and angles, camera angles and such. But I also started off life as a graphic designer, so it was easy for me to put together a storyboard, what the scenes are supposed to look like. And of course write the script for it. It couldn’t be more than a minute long because people don’t have that attention span anymore, so a minute is really the limit. And I knew a guy who knew a guy. My husband is a commercial photographer and he works with a fellow who’s a videographer, and he does a lot of corporate videos and promos. And he really wanted something more story-like. So I was doing him a favor by coming to him, he was doing me a favor, so we worked together on that. He looked at what I had and he figured out how to do it. My husband scouted a location, my daughter-in-law stars as Kylie in the book trailer and she does the voiceover as well. And we just went on from there. Stock music, he shot and edited all the footage that he shot, and it’s pretty fantastic.

LB: Oh, it is. It’s really fantastic. I know they can find it at BookeOfTheHidden.com, but I will also link directly to it in the show notes.

JW: That’s great.

LB: Well, thank you for joining me today.

JW: Thank you for having me.

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