Meg Keneally on murder mysteries and working with a famous father

The second instalment in Meg and Tom Keneally’s colonial murder mystery series, The Unmourned, takes convict detective Monsarrat and his companion Mrs Mulrooney to Parramatta. Meg reveals how the books come together...

Given this is your second book, has the writing relationship changed?
Not significantly. It did at the very start because initially we were going to write alternating chapters. But we tried that and it didn’t quite work out because I was very tentative, given, you know, Dad’s vastly superior experience – he’s written one or two books!

Our editor suggested that I write the first couple of drafts and then Dad come in on the subsequent drafts, so I did that with Book 1, constantly phoning him every day for advice. That worked quite well, so we did that with Book 2 as well and now Book 3.

And you have 12 instalments planned?
Yes, that’s right. He’s been contractually obliged not to drop off the perch! Some are more detailed than others, and may change somewhat in the writing. The third one is set on Maria Island off the coast of Tasmania.

Keneally -Meg -Tom -300x 450
Meg Keneally teamed up with her dad, Booker Prize-winning author Tom, to write a series of crime novels

One of the things that we were very keen to do was to go to the lesser-known convict sites, which perhaps haven’t received the attention they deserve, such as Port Macquarie and Perth. It’s funny how many people came up to us after The Soldier’s Curse and said, “I’ve been to Port Macquarie dozens of times and I never knew it was a convict settlement.”

Have you sown any overarching threads through the books?
They can be read as self-contained mysteries, but there are also some story arcs that run through them – there are a couple which have begun in book two. There’s a particular one that involves Mrs Mulrooney, to whom there’s more than meets the eye. Some skeletons fall out of her closet and that’s going to take a few books to resolve. Also, Monsarrat’s romantic life is going to evolve through the books.

How does the research process work?
If anyone is thinking about writing historical fiction I can highly recommend being born to someone who’s a walking encyclopaedia in history! Generally the books take about six months to write, but in the few months leading up to that I’ll be reading everything I can lay my hands on, to get the broad picture. And just before writing it, I’ll visit the place we’re writing about because there’s nothing like actually being there.

We went to the Parramatta Female Factory many, many times while we were researching The Unmourned. You walk around and think about what the smells and sounds and sights would have been like for your characters and what would have happened where. We came across a lady, Gay Hendriksen, who used to be president of the Parramatta Female Factory Friends. She got us access to the factory several times and was kind enough to step through with me exactly where the murder would have occurred, what would have happened, who would have seen it from each vantage point and that sort of thing.

Finally, now the TV rights have been sold, who do you see playing the main characters?
Oh gosh, I’ve always seen Monsarrat as looking like the love child of Daniel-Day Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch in terms of physical appearance. A lot of people have said to me they’d love to see Hugh Jackman play Monsarrat.

And one of the reasons Mrs Mulrooney is my favourite character to write is her age – it’s never explicitly stated in the book, but she’s 55 at the beginning of The Soldier’s Curse. I really wanted to write a strong, older female character who’s not there to be the love interest of anybody. A few people have suggested I should get Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney together, and I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” I was really keen to have a strong, intelligent, older female character who was right at the heart of the action.

In terms of who plays her, I don’t have anyone in particular in mind, but I would love it if they kept her an older character rather than lopping 15 years off her age.

What novel are you currently reading?

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

Read more: