I know several historical mystery writers personally, and I have so much respect for them. I seriously can't imagine writing a mystery. To me, it seems so hard. Creating a who-done-it that makes sense, keeps a reader guessing and engaged, and gives the whole book an UN-put-downable feeling.
Lately, I've read several novels that are either historical mysteries or books that have a mystery component in some way. Each of those authors possesses a magic in combining both history and mystery to create an incredible story-telling experience. Today in the Journal, I am pleased to introduce I. M. Foster, who is going to share how she "marries" both history and mystery to create a fabulous historical mystery--a popular sub-genre of historical fiction.
Welcome to Brook's Journal, I.M. and read ON, everybody!!!
The Marriage of Two Genres – To Death Do Us Part – The Historical Mystery
By I.M. Foster
When joining two genres, it truly is like a marriage. You have to compromise, blend both parties, but with a novel, it can’t really be an equal union. I’ve found that, out of necessity, one genre will always need to take the lead, simply to ensure that both don’t get lost in the narrative and leave the reader wondering what the story was actually about.
The main genre will supply the plot points and choose the direction the story will take, while the other adds flavoring and seasoning to the tale. In the case of historical mystery, the meat on the bones of this marital stew will be the crime that takes place, whether it be a murder, missing person, or theft. Whatever the case may be, in the historical mystery, it will always take place at some point in the distant – or even not-so-distant - past. But it is the mystery itself that will steer the main plot line. Easy enough, right? Or is it? Now comes the historical part.
Though it may only seem to play a secondary role, appearances can be deceiving. Just like in a stew, the seasoning can make or break the meal, so too can the addition of historical facts enhance or ruin a novel. Too little, and your story can be flat and tasteless. Too much, and the novel will be overwhelming and not at all enjoyable.
One fact, however, is undeniable. In a historical mystery, you can’t realistically do more than throw the meat and vegetables of the plot into the proverbial pot until you know what era your novel is to be set in. Oh, you can establish the main points perhaps – who died, who did it, a few red herrings, maybe even some clues – but to really inject the finer points and season it to perfection, you’ll need to do some deep research into the historical period you’ve chosen. After all, if you’re setting your novel during World War II, it wouldn’t do to have your hero discover a message on the main suspect’s laptop, now, would it?
In my opinion, nothing can throw a reader out of a story faster than an obvious anachronism. A good historical mystery, like any well-written novel, should draw the readers in, and make them feel as if they’re part of the story. So, unless your World War II mystery has a time travel element, it’s not likely your character will be nipping off to the twenty-first century to pick up a laptop. Your readers won’t appreciate being jarred out of the story and left trying to figure out how a laptop ended up in 1943.
In “Murder on Oak Street”, the year is 1904. Forensic science, as we know it today, is in its infancy. Fingerprinting is just in its infancy and not considered a reliable tool yet, so while Daniel mentions it, it’s not likely something he’s going to make use of, at least not in this book. Nor can he drag out his cell phone to call Dr. Tennyson. Though there was phone service, both in Pathchogue and in Brooklyn, he would have to find someone with a landline to make use of it.
Why do such seemingly insignificant details matter? Because it changes the plotline for one thing. In 2004, a fingerprint on the bedside table might have solved the case, but not in 1904. Nor will our hero be pulling out a cell phone to report the crime. Accommodations need to be made in the plot, the right seasonings added to your stew, to make sure it aligns with the period you’ve chosen. No fingerprints? He will need to discover other clues, and he’ll have to send someone to the nearest phone to call for Sergeant Owens. No, there were no telephone booths either.
Another reason these little details are so important is because readers of historical novels, whether mystery, romance, or any other sub-genre, expect as much. It sets the atmosphere and makes it a pleasant place for them to visit. They want to learn more about the period, be drawn into the past, and anachronisms keep them from doing that. Remember, the historical aspect is at least part of why they chose the book in the first place.
We also have to consider the behavior and worldview of our characters when writing a historical mystery as well. Things were much more formal in 1904, and a lady would never meet a man in private, at least, not before they were courting, and even then, a chaperone would not be far away. But we have to avoid falling too far into that pothole. Not everyone would adhere to such strict rules. In fact, it might be a bit of an adventure to break one now and then. At least, that’s what Lydia thinks in “Murder on Oak Street.”
When striving for accuracy, we need to remember that not everything written in a book on etiquette, for example, was followed to the tee, any more than it is today. Your job is to find a believable compromise.
This can be done by reading diaries, journals, and newspapers from the period. In addition to giving you a more accurate feel for whatever period you chose, it will also add some priceless spice to your narrative.
But why bother if it’s a mystery? Because it’s not just a mystery. It’s a historical mystery and flavoring historical tidbits throughout the novel gives it a sense of time and place, a personality of sorts. You can’t let the history overshadow the main plot, however. Instead, information should be sprinkled throughout the narrative naturally so it enhances the story. Mention your character throwing two bits on the table or visiting the newly opened Luna Park. The history lover in your reader will catch it all, and your mystery aficionado won’t be distracted from trying to figure out who the real killer is.
With the research done, you can proceed to lay out a riveting plot, using historical information to make the story more realistic. In “Murder on Oak Street” Kathleen finds a cufflink, not something used on an everyday basis today, but in 1904 they were all but a necessity, not to mention a prized possession.
Little by little, melding together history and mystery, you can help your readers experience what life was like in another time and place, maybe even a small Long Island town in 1904 or an elegant brownstone in Brooklyn. And in doing so, hopefully, make them want to assist your characters in solving the mystery.
All About I.M. Foster
I. M. Foster is the pen name author Inez Foster uses to write her South Shore Mystery series, set on Edwardian Long Island. Inez also writes historical romances under the pseudonym Andrea Matthews, and has so far published two series in that genre: the Thunder on the Moor series, a time-travel romance set on the 16th century Anglo-Scottish Borders, and the Cross of Ciaran series, which follows the adventures of a fifth century Celt who finds himself in love with a twentieth century archaeologist.
Inez is a historian and librarian, who love to read and write and search around for her roots, genealogically speaking. She has a BA in History and an MLS in Library Science and enjoys the research almost as much as she does writing the story. In fact, many of her ideas come to her while doing casual research or digging into her family history. Inez is a member of the Long Island Romance Writers, the Historical Novel Society, and Sisters in Crime.
All About the Book!
New York, 1904. After two years as a coroner’s physician for the city of New York, Daniel O'Halleran is more frustrated than ever. What’s the point when the authorities consistently brush aside his findings for the sake of expediency? So when his fiancée leaves him standing at the altar on their wedding day, he takes it as a sign that it's time to move on and eagerly accepts an offer to assist the local coroner in the small Long Island village of Patchogue. Though the coroner advises him that life on Long Island is far more subdued than that of the city, Daniel hasn’t been there a month when the pretty librarian, Kathleen Brissedon, asks him to look into a two-year-old murder case that took place in the city. Oddly enough, the case she’s referring to was the first one he ever worked on, and the verdict never sat right with him. Eager for the chance to investigate it anew, Daniel agrees to look into it in his spare time, but when a fresh murder occurs in his own backyard, he can’t shake his gut feeling that the two cases are connected. Can he discover the link before another life is taken, or will murder shake the peaceful South Shore village once again?
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