Connecting to the past

Author Tasha Alexander flips through her newest novel, “Death in St. Petersburg,” Thursday afternoon at her home on Fish Creek Ranch Preserve.

SHANNON BRODERICK/Boomerang photographer

When novelist Tasha Alexander thinks about her first stint as a Laramie resident many years ago, she remembers feeling wistful about leaving even before she was gone.

“I just fell in love with the land,” she said. “Wyoming is one of those places — it just grabs your soul.”

After leaving Laramie, Alexander lived in Vermont, Connecticut, Tennessee and Chicago while building a career as a best-selling writer of historical fiction.

When her son moved on to college last spring, Alexander and husband, Andrew Grant, knew where they wanted to live next.

They relocated to a ranch near Tie Siding a few months later.

“I had always wanted to come back,” she said.

Both Alexander and Grant are novelists who write from home, so life in a log house bordering national forest land suits them, even if the roads are impassable following fall snowstorms.

“You can play forever without leaving,” she said.

Despite moving across the country and into new surroundings, Alexander hasn’t missed a beat as she continues her Lady Emily series, set in Victorian England. The 14th installment, “Death in St. Petersburg,” was released earlier this month by Saint Martins Minotaur.

The novel begins as Lady Emily Hargreaves accepts an offer to visit St. Petersburg with a friend, where she explores the city’s culture and arts. As she’s pulled into investigating the murder of a ballerina, she discovers connections to people calling for reforms.

The book is set in the year 1900, 17 years before the Russian Revolution. During that year, 100 years ago, the tsarist regime was dismantled and the Soviet Union rose in its place.

Alexander said she’s always been passionate about history, from the time she was a little girl imagining herself in a covered wagon beneath the dining room table.

She set her main character, Lady Emily, in Victorian England because she saw it as a fascinating era.

The culture was on the verge of a great shift, though many had no inkling any sort of change was in the works.

“You’ve got the English upper class that think this is how life is going to be forever, and they have no idea that WWI is a hard wall they’re going to come to,” Alexander said. “They have no concept that it’s going to decimate their way of life.”

Alexander’s protagonist, Lady Emily, enjoys a comfortable, sheltered life as the series begins with “And Only to Deceive,” published in 2006. But as Lady Emily reads and travels, her thinking slowly changes.

“I have many books (set) in England, but in most, I send her to different places,” Alexander said. “Nothing broadens your horizons like travel does.”

Alexander takes great care to create historically accurate characters and settings. She’s amassed a collection of primary source writings from the era to get a sense of the way people thought and acted.

“The Victorians loved to write about themselves,” she joked.

She said the contemporary reputation of Victorians as being uptight and stodgy isn’t accurate. Among the upper class, the era was marked by complicated rules governing conduct among married people and their many affairs and mistresses.

“They were pretty wild, really,” she said.

Alexander supplements her primary source readings with academic research and travel. Often, she said, plot points for a book in progress come together when she has a chance to visit the setting and study historical maps.

“The place really matters,” she said.

Even as she’s careful not to give her characters attitudes that don’t match the time, Alexander said human nature also has a timeless quality that allows people to connect across eras.

“The fundamental human experience isn’t that different,” she said.

In that way, historical fiction uses the past as a way to examine the present.

“When you have the lens of the past, people are sometimes a little more willing to accept things about people,” she said.

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