Writing historical mysteries is a juggling act. Writers must create a fictional plot with fictional characters around a historical time period with real people. . . and somehow suspend the readers’ disbelief.
Many writers of historical fiction choose a particular time period and stay with it. I’m thinking Anne Perry, Phillipa Gregory, Charles Todd. I, on the other hand, am intrigued by so many time periods, I skip around. Each of my mysteries takes place in a different place and time, which enables me to do the thing I love most: research. The risk, of course, is that I will know only a little about each time period as opposed to Anne Perry who knows a great deal about Victorian England.
Once I settle on a time period, I read and read and read about it. I visit the places in question, interview experts, historians, and read and read and read some more. By this time, I usually have a kernel of an idea for the plot and maybe even a character sketch or two.
Building fictional characters around authentic ones is key. Unless your character is transported from modern times to the past, he/she must act, speak, dress like the time period. In using real people from the time period, they must be as genuine to history as I can make them.
As the story develops and takes twists and turns on its own, I find I am bending the truth a bit–creating an “alternate history.” This is fiction, after all. For instance, my fifth book, Time Lapse, is a totally new take on the Jack the Ripper murders. Some think it’s an outlandish scenario, completely out of the realm of possibility, but since there have been hundreds of theories and books written on this serial killer, why not one more? The backdrop and many characters are authentic, but the story line meanders considerably from what we know to be historically accurate. Still, Jack has never been caught. What if my resolution is. . . never mind.
In fact, the questions I ask take the form of “what if” and I let my imagination run free. It’s a rare writer that can devise a plot line that hasn’t already been done. But even a clichéd plot can be made new and fresh with unusual twists, powerful characters and exceptional prose.
As I put the final touches on this fifth novel, I realize I am bending history to fit the story. That’s the advantage of fiction. And its strength.
As a history buff, I find myself investigating the origins of many things. Holiday celebrations are one, so here you go. Enjoy.
The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in.) 2,000 years ago, the Celts, living primarily in the area now called Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated New Year on November 1.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest. It also signified the beginning of the dark, cold winter, which was traditionally associated with death. It was a Celt belief that the night before the New Year, the borders between the world of the living and that of the dead became hazy. On October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when the ghosts of the dead returned to this world to stir up a bit of havoc.
Otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Celtic priest, or Druids, to predict the future. These prophesies were important and gave the Celts comfort and direction for the long, dark winter.
In commemoration of these events, the priests constructed large sacred bonfires, where citizens gathered to burn crops and animals (in Hollywood, sometimes people!) as sacrifices to Celtic deities. During the celebration, they wore costumes of animal skins and heads and conducted fortune-telling sessions.
By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and within the 400 years in which they ruled, two festivals of Roman origin were joined with the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a festival day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruit. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and may explain why the tradition of bobbing for apples is popular on Halloween today.
The “holiday” was not widely celebrated in the New England colonies of America because of the rigid Protestant beliefs. It was practiced more in the southern colonies and common in Maryland.
The beliefs and customs of the European practices eventually blended with the American Indians and American colonists and a distinct version of Halloween emerged. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance and sing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivals were common, but Halloween festivities per se were not. By the second half of the century, however, new immigrants, especially the Irish, made the celebration popular nationally.
Fun Fact: Did you know that one quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween?
A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript. My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.
I have had all six of my novels edited by pros. Here are my thoughts.
There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon. In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.
In my Triangle Murders book, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book. It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology. She had her own vision for the book. But who was writing this?
The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful. He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered. It totally changed the story for the better.
Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else. Some suggestions:
Edit in small sections at a time. If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.
Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.) I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote. Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate. Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?
Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:
- Do you want to turn the page?
- Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
- Were you confused by your own plot twists?
- Did punctuation mess up your reading?
- Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
- Were thAere plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
- Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
- Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.
You can be your own best editor. But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud. And again x 3.
Now hire a professional for the final read.
Your thoughts welcome.
This is a re-post of a blog from earlier days. There never seems to be a wane in the interest of missing WWII art and even today, art and artifacts are being returned to their rightful owners. The blog:
The most amazing thing just happened. My latest book, Deadly Provenance, recently went online. It’s a fictional story of the Nazi looting of art during WWII, set against the backdrop of an authentic historical drama that is still unfolding today. That’s not the amazing part.
Alfred Rosenberg in Berlin
A central “character” in the book is the ERR or Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Third Reich’s bureau, if you will, tasked with confiscating the precious art of Europe from “undesirables.” It was led by Alfred Rosenberg, fanatical henchman and confidante of Hitler, who also played a major role in the extermination of millions of Jews. So why is this amazing?
The long lost diary of Rosenberg has just been recovered. 400 pages that are now at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The diary is hand-written (that in itself is amazing!) and spans events from spring 1936 to winter 1944. It could offer insight into many occurrences that remain unclear today. For instance, there might be details about the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union, or such incidences as the flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain in 1941.
My personal hope is that the pages shed light on the missing art pieces. Is it possible that in addition to formal ERR records of confiscated works, that perhaps Rosenberg mentioned some of these in the diary?
Still Life: Vase with Oleanders by Vincent van Gogh is one of those missing paintings and the one I focus on in my book. Did Rosenberg happen to make note of it in his diary? When he tried to steal it from a gallery in Paris but it had already been removed for safekeeping by the owners – the Bernheim Jeune family. Did he mention that it was found again, or not, when the place of safekeeping, the Château de Rastignac near Bordeaux, was burned to the ground?
Where is the missing van Gogh?
According to Haaretz, a Jewish world newspaper, Rosenberg “. . . elicits a rare consensus among many World War II historians: the man, they say, was a pretentious fool.” Besides being a monster of the highest order. But now his diary may shed light on history, assuming words of a pretentious fool are to be believed, and that he said anything worthwhile, and did not blather on about inconsequential personal events in his life.
Which brings me back to the original premise. Does history ever stop unfolding or are there always new discoveries and uncoveries that deny or confirm the facts as we know them? Think about how your writing can reflect all the many possibilities. Alternative histories or histories true to the last detail . . . until we find out otherwise.
For now, I’m hoping to read the text of Rosenberg’s diary when it becomes public. Maybe there are clues within it to help me hunt down that van Gogh. (See link: http://lynnekennedymysteries.com/the-hunt-for-the-missing-van-gogh/)
Oh. Did I mention I was going to do that?
As writers, we are all marketeers (without mouse ears.) Social media is an important venue for us and Facebook is perhaps the most significant of these venues. I’ve been watching closely to the posts that have come across FB in recent months. Many have been sketchy, others clearly false, and some downright scary.
Note: We’ve all received emails to take advantage of an offer from, as an example, Amazon@Susie.com, right?
FB recently posted the following tips on how to determine which posts are, indeed, false news. I thought this was a small step in the right direction. For my blog, I decided to list these in case you’ve missed them. So here, in Facebook’s own words are tips to spot false news:
- Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
- Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.
- Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.
- Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
- Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
- Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
- Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
- Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
- Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
- Some stories are intentionally false.Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.
Since this blog was written, a Netflix Documentary called The Great Hack premiered. Facebook plays a large part and comes off looking like a villain. Well, I suggest you watch it and make up your own mind.