Martin Cruz Smith doesn't believe in the adage, "Write what you know."
His motto might better be: "Decide what interests you, learn about it, then explain it to others."In a tele-conference with reporters recently, Smith said: "People who have no interest in Victorian society, no interest in Russia, will follow you if you give them something to chase."
That's precisely what the best-selling author of "Gorky Park" and "Red Square" does in his latest book, "Rose," published by Random House.
Smith traces the idea for the story back 15 years. He was in a dress shop with his daughters and started flipping through magazines. But instead of finding a Sports Illustrated, he found a book about Victorian dress.
The back of the book had pictures of the pit girls of Wiggin, "the social scandal of their time" because they refused to wear dresses as they sorted coal.
Smith didn't know about pit girls, but he did remember that Wiggin was the "winner" of George Orwell's search, in 1937, for the most blighted town in post-industrial England.
Over time other book ideas surfaced in the author's mind, which were written and published. But the pit girls kept coming to mind. Finally, Smith headed for northern England. He found Wiggin in a "fairly bleak" area between Manchester and Liverpool.
He met and interviewed the last living pit girls (who were eventually forced into dresses, long after the 1870s setting of the book). And he visited the mines, "an interesting experience for someone with a tinge of claustrophobia. You get to the coal face and you are climbing in and around these hydraulic jacks which are holding up a mile of earth above you. Suddenly these hydraulic jacks seem very insubstantial."
He read the newspapers of that time, gathered fabrics from the period and walked around the town that was in many ways unchanged. "Ignorance" allowed him to paint a vivid picture for his readers.
"The fact that I'm willing to parade my ignorance into situations like that is my strongest virtue by far," he said.
It certainly helped him when he visited the mines and later described them for readers.
"I go into a situation like that and I don't know anything. So for me to understand it means that by the time I understand it I can describe it to somebody else who is as bad mechanically as I am. I never could have described it without having gone down that cage and having gone through those tunnels."
If the success of the story is in the plotting, Smith says he gets help with his: His characters, if he's lucky, take over part way through.
"I have a plot that is like a very, very inaccurate map of the world and my route. My character looks over my shoulder. `That's an interesting map and that's an interesting route, but I don't want to go there.' If things work out, my characters kind of mutiny. That's what I'm looking for. Because if you're dragging 25 characters behind you, that's heavy work."
Pleasing readers pleases him enormously. But it's a happy coincidence. "I have to write for myself. If I write for others, I won't know who they are. But I know what interests me," he said.
"Rose" is the story of a man who disappears and the two women who loved him in Victorian England: his fiance, Charlotte, who is the wealthy daughter of the mine's owner, and Rose, a Wiggins pit girl. It is also the story of Jonathan Blair, who sets out to find the missing man or at least unravel the story of what happened.