Historical Mysteries – Double Trouble

Writing mysteries is difficult. They are both plot and character driven. Writing historical mysteries, especially when you include real historical persons, is twice or three times as hard (in my humble opinion). Why? Because you still have to have a well-plotted mystery, but you have the added burden of portraying real people about whom your reader may already have formed an opinion. And that’s not to mention creating a world true to its history, that also fits your story. None of that is easy.

Let’s look at a well known figure, a mythic figure. Take Abraham Lincoln. You want to write a mystery, say about a Confederate spy, set in the Civil War White House (Executive Mansion) where Lincoln uses the Taft children, who play with Willie and Tad, as his Baker Street Irregulars to ferret out the mole. There have been, literally, millions of words written about our 16th president, and, as a result, your research has to be spot on. You’ll find yourself studying Civil War photographs of the White House and Washington. You’ll pore over his correspondence, just to get his speech patterns down for the dialogue. My second published mystery was set in 1922 Paris, among the American expatriate community. I studied the letters that Hemingway wrote during those years specifically so that I would know how he talked, what words he used. A book on Lincoln would need the same amount of care. Oh, and don’t get the mole on his face on the wrong side. Somebody will call you out on it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, someone like Lincoln is so well-documented that there are few questions left about how he looked and sounded, his moods and manners. But even when you have Lincoln right, you then have to get the White House and environs correct. And you have to get the plot nailed down tight. When you look at it in total, it seems like an impossible task. Wouldn’t it be fun though?

Fans of historical novels of any type read for two reasons. One, they want to be entertained. Second, they want to learn something about another time and place. But that just makes it more likely that they will already know something of that era. And the slightest mistake can, potentially, cost you readers. And it can happen in more modern settings as well. Not long ago, I read a contemporary thriller by a bestselling author. He has his hero jet into Kuwait, hop over to the Holiday Inn, and immediately order a vodka martini in one of the restaurants. Anyone with even a remote understanding of Kuwait knows that you haven’t been able to order alcohol in a restaurant there since the 1970s. The author didn’t do the necessary research. The general editor didn’t catch it. The copy editor didn’t catch it. But I know of at least one reader that very nearly stopped reading and put the book down over that one incident – me. I saw another such novel just a few months ago that had the CIA station chief and the regional security officer at the US Embassy in Qatar sharing office space and acting as partners. The author obviously knew nothing about how these things work. Such a situation would never happen.

You can move things around a bit; sometimes you have to for the sake of your story. In one famous example, Gore Vidal, in his book Burr, kept one historical figure alive for a year after his actual date of death. But Vidal did what all writers of historical novels must do. He explained why he had done that in an “Author’s Note” at the end. Readers are willing to allow you the occasional inaccuracy as long as you tell them why it was necessary. That way, they know that it wasn’t poor research that caused it. And, most of the time, they will accept it.

Along that same line, your characters’ thoughts and actions must fit your setting. Anachronisms, like the clock tolling midnight in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, will cause readers to take you to task. I hear a great deal these days about characters in mysteries set, say, during the Victorian period and elsewhere having very 21st century attitudes and beliefs. This will, without question, cause an author problems with a segment of the reading public. Of course, there is another block that doesn’t mind.

With historical mysteries, it isn’t just about getting the general time and place correct. You have to know how murders were handled. If it is in the Dark Ages, then you may have to create a plausible excuse for why your amateur sleuth is an amateur sleuth. In some places, like Britain, there was nothing even remotely like a police force. If it is after a formal police presence came into existence, you have to know how such things were handled by the police in that particular time and place. Which means that your book has become not only an historical mystery but a kind of procedural as well.

Historical mysteries are double, maybe even triple trouble. But when you get it right, it’s all the more satisfying.

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One Response

  1. My favorite anachronisms are in dialogue, as when characters in any period but our own say, “Let’s do this thing” or some variant thereof. It cracks me up.

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