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.
Thank you to the readers and writers who responded to my query about a concept for my next book. Your input and my proclivity toward war(s) has helped me decide: I shall return to World War II. Instead of the Nazi confiscation of art and a missing Van Gogh painting as in my book, Deadly Provenance, I will focus on music and stolen music manuscripts. Working title: The Final Note.
Historical fact: Beginning in the early 1930s, edicts against the Jewish population began emerging in Germany. These edicts became increasingly distressing and disruptive, causing Jews to forfeit their businesses, their homes, their possessions. Slowly and inexorably they were impelled toward the Final Solution where they would forfeit their most precious commodity: their lives.
In 1933, a group of German Jews set up Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a cultural federation consisting of unemployed Jewish musicians, actors, artists, and singers. The Kulturbund, or Kubu, was created with the consent of the Nazis strictly for Jewish audiences. The Nazis cleverly permitted this association in order to hide its oppression of the Jews. The Kubu was illustrative of Jewish creativity in response to cultural exclusion.
The Kubu performed theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, operas, and lectures all over Germany, allowing Jewish performers to earn their livelihood, however scarce. Under the watchful eye of Sturmbannführer, Hans Hinkel, whose boss was Joseph Goebbels, Kubu survived for eight years performing for audiences that continued to diminish.
My research into the life of Jews at this time is only part of my work. Since the Kubu musicians were permitted to play only “Jewish” musical compositions, I will be researching music history during this period. In addition, my musician protagonist in the back story will be writing his own compositions. While I play the piano, I have little music theory background and have never written music.
Writers of historical fiction must become artists, teachers, police officers, lawyers, detectives, photographers, doctors . . . all manner of occupations in their novels. For this book I will become a musicologist. Well, I can only hope.
The stolen music manuscripts will lead to dire consequences when we fast forward to the modern storyline. Can the manuscripts be authenticated? Can we learn through modern science and technology, the attribution of these brilliant symphonies? My task is to find the answers.
Your ideas are welcome.
Writing mysteries is an exercise in pitting bad characters against good.
There are degrees of bad and good, of course, but in compelling stories, the bad character is often seriously, diabolically, dangerously bad. He (or she) will certainly have good points. He may be charming, clever, handsome, sympathetic, and have superior interpersonal skills–think Ted Bundy–but the reader learns soon that these are just a cover, enabling him to get close to people in order to do his dirty work.
I have used individuals in my books to play the villain. An art critic, a factory owner, a southern sympathizer, a rich landowner. In others, I have used a group (or blast, or den, or herd, or flock, or conflagration—see my last blog on word play) of baddies, ie: Nazis, where most folk will agree that it’s easier to count the good ones than the bad.
A “collective” villain makes for an interesting read. The Nazis, the hedge fund crooks, the greedy corporate thieves, the Republicans, the Democrats, the tax collectors, the CIA, the FBI, the police, lawyers, politicians, doctors . . . all can play the role of collective villains.
In the case of the Nazis, you expect evil. In the case of doctors, you may not. Anyone can be a villain. If your experience tells you Nazis are bad, a good Nazi will be an interesting character. Same is true in reverse for a doctor. Then you have the Nazi doctor and you won’t know what to believe. But I digress.
A good writer will build each character with good points and bad points that the reader will both admire and loathe. It’s a fine line to walk. If your reader loathes your character too much, he (or she) might put the book down.
In the case of the Nazis, there is, built-in, a sense of evil, danger, and villainy. And because Nazis were historically real, readers will have an innate sense of foreboding right from the first page.
Hence, my next book will return to the Nazis and World War II. The theme will be not be confiscated art . . . but stolen music.
Hurry . . . Turn the Page!
“Amanda stepped off the elevator on the lower level of the parking garage. At ten o’clock on a Saturday night, the level was empty except for her car . . . and one other she didn’t recognize. A sound of dripping water and the soft scurrying of animal feet – rats? – made her throat close.
She swiveled her head in search of anything or anyone nearby then took a tentative step toward her car. Then another step and faster, faster, until she was almost at a sprint. Her high heels clicked on the concrete floor and echoed in the cavernous space. Finally, she reached her car. Damn, why didn’t she have her keys ready?
Amanda fumbled through her bag, her heart now ratcheted up, pumping blood through her ears. All she could hear was the furious whooshing sound of her own fear.
There, her keys, at the bottom, now in her hand. She clicked the fob and the latches opened. She reached for the handle, but before her fingers closed around it, she detected a breathy squeak of rubber soled shoes behind her. She dropped her bag, swung around with a gasp, hands clenched into fists, ready to defend herself and . . .”
So, what do you think? Tension? I always love the late-at-night parking garage scene. Scares the heck out of me, even now.
What is tension, really, and why is it so important in writing? Even if you’re not writing a mystery. Even if you’re writing non-fiction.
The noun tension has its Latin roots in “tendere,” which means to stretch, and tension occurs when something is stretched either physically or emotionally to its limits. Strained relations between countries can cause political tensions to rise. Tension can be added to a rubber band by stretching it to its limits. By the way, you can release nervous tension by shooting that rubber band at the local bully.
Tension is the means to get your reader to turn the page, particularly if it’s used at the end of a chapter as a cliffhanger. People, for the most part, don’t like to leave things unresolved. They want to find the solution, even if it’s an unsatisfactory one (that’s another story.)
While you cannot (or should not) distort facts when writing non-fiction, tension around real events can ramp up the readers’ pulse just as thrillers can. Take “The Monuments Men,” for instance. How tense can a situation be when you have a group of men and women trying to save the art and monuments of a Europe at war? When, finally the fighting ends, and they discover, in a dark, damp mine in Austria, a cache of hidden loot that would make King Midas gasp? When, they manage to “derail” an art train bound for Germany with stolen paintings of Masters like Leonardo.
Now that’s tension. That’s real life. Whew.
I welcome your feedback and samples of tension in your writing.
A few months ago, I premiered my sixth book, Hart of Madness. With several book signings under my belt and a successful marketing program under way, I am ready to take on the next project. But, I can’t decide on the topic for my next book.
You might think that writers have a hundred ideas for stories waiting to jump onto the page. My books are rather specialized, however. I need a tragic event or time period to use as a backdrop. The place where a mystery unfolds. Such as the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, New York City, or the Salem Witch trials, in 1692, Massachusetts.
I also need a modern story line, where science or technology can resolve the historic mystery. Digital photography and facial recognition as in the Civil War photographs, document analysis, as in the witch trials, DNA, fiber, ballistics or fire forensics to name a few areas of specialty in crime investigations.
And, most important, I need a mystery to get me jazzed about doing the research required to make a fictional account as authentic as possible. The further back in time I go, the more difficult it is to make the modern story work.
Here are a few ideas I’ve bandied about:
- 1492 The Spanish Inquisition and a lost pendant of Queen Isabella, which turns up mysteriously today in a box of jewelry discovered by a Jewish descendant of the Inquisition.
- 1587 The lost colony of Roanoke, an island off North Carolina. What happened to the missing English men, women and children that settled this colony before Jamestown?
- 1917 The disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, one loaded with munitions. The tragedy killed more than 2,000 people, many school children.
- 1942 World War II A Jewish musician is condemned to a concentration camp and his music is stolen by German musician. In modern times, can the music be attributed to the real composer?
I’d love to get your feedback on these ideas or any others you think might fit my book concept of historical mysteries solved by modern technology. Many thanks.
A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”
Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.