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.
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 part of the research for my next mystery, The Final Note, I visited Regensberg, Germany, a medieval town in the heart of Bavaria. Like my book, Deadly Provenance, about a Nazi-confiscated Van Gogh painting, the backdrop of this book is once again Nazi Germany, but instead of art theft, the theme is music. To set the stage, the following excerpt from The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, “Here Their Stories Will be Told . . .” gives you an overview of the Jewish situation beginning in 1933 in Regensberg. What is significant is the reference to The Cultural Federation of German Jews, musicians, in this case, who feature prominently in The Final Note.
The images I included were taken by me in Regensberg just last week. They depict the first new synagogue in 80 years, which just opened, a plaque placed in a wall stolen from the Jewish cemetery, and “stumbling” stones embedded in cobblestones – a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Here is the grim history.
“In 1933, there were 427 Jews in Regensburg, out of a total population of 81,106. Branches of many Jewish organizations were active in the community: the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Central Verein), Jewish Assistance (Jüdischen Hilfsverein), the Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten), the Jewish History and Literature Association and many Zionist organizations. The Cultural Federation of German Jews (Jüdischer Kulturbund), which had some 200 members, organized performances and concerts featuring Jewish artists invited to the city. The Jewish youth had the choice of the Ultra-orthodox Ezra movement, the Association of Jewish Youth (Jüdischer Jugendverein) and the Maccabi Zionist sports association.
The community maintained a synagogue, several other religious institutions, a school that was operative until 1937 and a public library. A number of charitable, welfare and cultural organizations were active in the community, including an organization supporting the school, an organization for the development of social and cultural life in the community and a loan fund that also maintained activity until 1937. There was a hevra kaddisha (burial society) – the first for the general public, the second for women only, the later was also responsible for arranging the hospitalization of poor children and assistance for impoverished Jews recovering from illness. A charitable fund helped provide heating for poor families, and another fund helped new brides. Some of the children were taught religious studies by the community rabbi Magnus Weinberg. He retired in 1935 and was succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Felix Salomon.
Antisemitic incitement against the city’s Jews began when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1934 a Jewish trader was arrested on suspicion of murdering a Christian boy; the Nazi press in Regensburg accused the Jews of murder, but the trader was released when the perpetrators were discovered to be Christian. An economic boycott was also imposed on the Jews. Jews in the marketplace – traders and suppliers – were attacked and their wares were destroyed. In 1934, the Jewish pupils were evicted from the city high schools. After the publication of the Nuremberg Laws, the Jews’ financial situation declined. The Nazis ordered hotel and restaurant owners not to serve Jews.In response to this antisemitic pressure, many Jews joined the local Zionist movement, and the community began to help traders who had been affected by the economic boycott as well as who wished to emigrate. This assistance included loans, foreign language courses and professional training courses. The local branch of the Histadrut Hatzionit ran Hebrew language classes. In 1936, with the consent of the Gestapo, a Beit Halutz (pioneer club) was opened in Regensburg to prepare the youth for immigration to Eretz Israel, but in December 1938, the Gestapo shut it down.
By 1938, 268 Jews had left Regensburg, more than half of them fleeing Germany entirely. As a result of this emigration, many senior citizens were left without support; the community initiated a “Winter Assistance” campaign (Winterhilfe) with the help of the Association of Jewish Women in Bavaria, and in the same year a senior citizens’ home was opened. In 1938, before Kristallnacht, a Jew was imprisoned on the charge of “racial desecration,” and the glass storefronts of Jewish shops were smashed. Thirteen Jews from Regensburg were deported in the Zbaszyn deportation of October 1938, but in January 1939 an agreement was reached between Poland and Germany, and the deportees from Regensburg were permitted to return home.
During the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, local Nazis destroyed the property in the Synagogue and the community center and burned them down. Jewish homes and stores were destroyed, as well as their belongings and wares. Some 220 Jews, including women and children, were arrested and held at the local police station. Dozens were publicly humiliated and some were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Members of the Nazi party broke into and looted their apartments. Rabbi Salomon and his wife were forced out of their apartment and ordered to stand outside in their nightwear while their home was being demolished by Nazi thugs. A 66-year-old Jewish trader was beaten to death on arrest.
The Jews being held were released after agreeing to leave Germany. Rabbi Salomon immigrated to England in July 1939 but was killed about a year later in the Blitz.By 1939, all the traders’ and businessmen’s property had been transferred to Christians as part of the “Aryanization” process. Persecution and imprisonment of Jews continued after Kristallnacht.”
Sadly, you know the rest.
One hundred and fifty six years ago this July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Also, please note, the gentleman with the camera above is Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, not Joseph Thornhill.
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past. The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time. For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
Writers, I welcome your thoughts.
March 25, 2019, will commemorate the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh some weeks ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect.
For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.