If there’s one question writers get asked constantly, it’s “Where do you get your ideas?” Sometimes we go looking for them, and sometimes, ideas drop in our laps so neatly it feels like they came looking for us. The story behind Lori Rader-Day’s new historical mystery Death at Greenway (which the New York Times calls “irresistible” and “elegantly constructed”) is the latter. I connected with the author recently to talk about writing communities, the satisfaction of historical research, taking a book “down to the studs,” and why the book includes one specific section from the perspective of Agatha Christie.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve got a well-established career with five contemporary novels so far, and your mysteries and thrillers have won some of the industry’s highest awards, like the Anthony Award and Mary Higgins Clark Award. So I’ll ask the obvious question—why the shift to historical fiction? I’m guessing maybe that real-life inspiration, the fact that child evacuees from London during WWII were sent to Agatha Christie’s holiday estate—was too juicy to resist.
It was juicy! I was reading a nonfiction book about how Agatha Christie worked when I found this very casual, throwaway half-sentence in the introduction about how Greenway had housed child evacuees during the war and—record scratch. I had an immediate picture in my head of Bedknobs and Broomsticks at Agatha Christie’s house and I knew I needed to read that novel. To read it. The problem was, no one had written it. It took me several years before I even toed at the topic to see if I was the one who might do it. As an American, as a non-historian, as someone who really doesn’t even like to research how my cell phone works, I was probably not an obvious choice to take this project on. But I love Agatha Christie’s work, and I loved the idea of writing a story that hadn’t been fully told. Even if I was very nervous to try!
You’re used to doing research to make your books so compelling and believable—characters in your previous books have held jobs ranging from motel cleaner to handwriting expert—but gathering the right details for a historical setting, and deciding how to use them can feel like such an uphill climb. How much of a challenge was the research for this book?
The challenge of this book was… everything, but the first challenge was that I had to learn everything. World War II, local history and lore, Agatha Christie’s life, information about the house, as much as I could learn about the actual people of Greenway, and the estate, and nearby town. My goal was to write as many facts of the story as I could find, and then when I ran out of facts, I would turn to fiction. But I kept finding more and more fascinating pieces and people to include. For instance, I learned how integral this area of England had been to Operation Overlord, which resulted in D-Day and the eventual Allied victory in Europe. The River Dart below Greenway was one of the staging areas for the vessels readying to land in France. The children had been forced from the house when it was requisitioned to place military personnel there, and the entire region would have been overrun. I hadn’t expected to learn this, but it had to go into the book once I did.
An early challenge was exactly who was in the house. Through original research (with some help from a friendly amateur genealogist named Connie), I was able to confirm the identities of the chaperones who arranged the war nursery at Greenway and also the butler and cook/housekeeper who Christie says in her autobiography she left at the house to help care for the nursery. By triangulating facts from multiple sources, that information is definitive for the first time since the war.
All this to say that the research was a real challenge for me, but also part of the joy and satisfaction of writing this story. I found that butler myself, using clues found in books about Christie and online research, and that moment of connection was pretty sweet. Now I know why historical writers go back again and again.
I was also able to visit Greenway twice for research, once staying at Greenway—possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. My husband and I lived at the house three nights like Agatha and Max—just enjoying the grounds and getting a feel for the place.
I love that! Going in person just has its own magic.
You’ve held leadership positions in national associations like Sisters in Crime, chaired conferences, taught writing in university MFA programs, and all that on top of the usual non-writing things we authors all need to make time for, like events, social media, and other book promotion tasks. How do you balance those non-writing tasks with the writing of your novels themselves? Do you have a daily schedule or other strategy?
I’ve really enjoyed being part of the mystery community. I’ve given it a lot of time but it’s given me a great deal, too. One of my first volunteer roles was as a newsletter editor, which meant that I could email any member of the organization and ask nosy questions. What a great job for someone who was still writing her first book, who still had all of that ahead of her. A lot of writers miss out because they think they have to enter the sphere of writers as a professional, someone already fully formed. But truthfully if you enter into a writing community still in the process, you can get help and guidance when you really need it most.
Now how do you spend ten years volunteering for writing organizations and still write books? You have to get the writing done, somehow. You can’t give away so much time that it’s procrastination for the progress on your own work.
I don’t live and die by a daily schedule. When I worked full time, I had one hour that could be counted on (most days)—my lunch hour—so that’s when I wrote. And I was disciplined about it because it was my only hour. Now I have more hours and yet…
I have discipline when I need it. I rewrote Death at Greenway entirely in the early days of the pandemic. Not on anyone’s request or suggestion, only because I felt in my gut that it wasn’t yet the book I had wanted it to be. I took the book down to the studs, scrapping fully half of the story and rebuilding it from there. I have the discipline to build discipline, I suppose, but I keep forcing myself to strengthen that muscle over and over again. I would never suggest anyone else work as I do. I would never teach this method. But I do think my haphazard ways have worked for me, and the process, while frustrating, keeps me interested. It’s like a puzzle. I made the puzzle, but it’s a mess until it’s solved, and that’s on me, too.
Death at Greenway rotates through multiple points of view to keep readers guessing as the mystery unfolds. Did you have a favorite POV character to write? Were there any that didn’t make it into the final draft?
There is a point-of-view character that readers only meet once, a Women’s Royal Naval Service recruit (a “Wren”), who almost didn’t make it. When I reworked the book, I made that character much more essential to the story so she couldn’t be cut. I loved the visual elements of her big scene too much to let it go.
There’s one section from the perspective of Agatha herself, which was something I hadn’t wanted to attempt. I’d hoped she’d have gone to London already so I wouldn’t have to fictionalize her. But then I learned from her autobiography that she was in the Greenway kitchen listening to the wireless when war was announced. Max wrote about that moment in his memoirs, too, so I felt I had a good sense of that scene and, from all my research on Agatha, a good sense of how she might have felt. If she hadn’t been at Greenway for that moment, if she hadn’t written about it, I never would have attempted to speak from her perspective.
My favorite point of view to write isn’t a single one, though I did love writing from the perspective of one of the evacuated children, and letting her voice age over time. What I like is writing from different perspectives and letting the characters contradict and illuminate each other. Mr. Scaldwell, the butler, and Mr. Arbuthnot, the chaperone’s husband, each get a chance to tell part of the story. They appear in each other’s scenes, and the reader has access to the narrative irony of what each man thinks of the other.
So, having dipped your toes in the waters of historical fiction, what’s next for you? Do you see yourself writing in both contemporary and historical settings in the future?
I haven’t decided on my next project yet—or it hasn’t decided on me. I’m having a little trouble leaving Greenway, to be honest. I might like to try historical [fiction] again. As much as I complained and whined about the research, in the end I learned so much, and fell in love with Greenway, too.
Death at Greenway
by Lori Rader-Day
Published October 12th, 2021
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).