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.
A brief story appeared on a local news station. It went something like this: Giant 11-ton wind turbine blade sheared off and flew hundreds of feet to land (luckily on no living creature) in the desert of Ocotillo, California.
The actual incident is under investigation, revealing a dark history of serious safety hazards including the wind company’s — Siemens — guilty pleas to corruption on a global scale including accusations of bribery and other serious charges in at least 20 countries.
A press conference was called and the following facts emerged:
- Wind turbines kill more than 573,000 birds (and bats) every year. Many are endangered birds like eagles and condors. http://landing.newsinc.com/shared/video.html?freewheel=90121&sitesection=ap&VID=24819212
- Wind turbines are not efficient sources of energy. They can only operate within a very narrow window of wind speed (not too much, not too little) and when they are outside this window they must shut down. However, when they are down they still need electricity to power them, thus “peaker” plants run by electric companies actually generate the power. Very inefficient as an energy source.
- The wind turbines themselves are making life difficult for those living nearby. The noise is creating health concerns for people and animals. Chickens are not laying eggs, dogs are cowering in the corners, children are developing headaches.
- The company (that purchased and installed the turbines) cares nothing for the environment. In the case of Ocotillo, they have bulldozed the desert and not replaced the plants, including Ocotillos, a rare and protected desert cactus.
- This same company has shown complete disrespect for Indian culture. They have desecrated ancient Indian sacred sites with barely an apology.
So what the heck am I going on about? Think about the possibilities for your next mystery or thriller. Small, desert town (with, would you believe, a Lazy Lizard Saloon) is besieged by corporate giant. Lives ruined, litigation ensues, people are murdered to keep the corporate secrets. And what about the environmental effects? Animal rights? Indian sacred site desecration? Local people going mad from the noise and vibration? Not to mention the danger of a blade shearing off and cutting them in half (like it did to some poor fellow in Oregon. It’s true. Hell of a story.)
Now if that’s not enough, here’s the clincher. The company in question here, Siemens, a German company, has a lurid past. The BBC reported that they have past collaborations with Nazis. They used slave labor from concentration camps including Ravensbruck and Auschwitz. These slaves reportedly built electric switches for the Siemens-manufactured V-2 rockets used to bomb the allies during WWII. More recently Siemens sought to register the trademark “Zyklon,” the poison gas insecticide used in Nazi gas chambers.
Is this a thriller or what?
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.
I thought I would share a brief “behind-the-scenes” tour of my most popular book to date, Deadly Provenance.
Originally titled Provenance (until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island,) Deadly Provenance is about the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it’s hard to know where to begin; thus, my plan is to write several blogs. First, there’s the Nazi confiscation of art, how it happened, who was involved, and why? Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed as the heroine she truly was. In the film, Monuments Men, Cate Blanchette played her character, but looked nothing like her as you can see from the photo here.
Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
On another front, the book brings up a hypothetical situation where the protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply, I promise.
Confiscated degenerate art stored at Jeu de Paume. Photo: Archives des Musees Nationaux
I often visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries
Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
Deadly Provenance gave me a glimpse into the art world and I enjoyed creating a mystery against this backdrop. The book made it to the front page of San Diego Union-Tribune and also to NPR radio.
Unfortunately, Vase With Oleanders is still missing today, as are many precious pieces of art stolen during WWII.
Perhaps you might check in your attic . . . just in case.
Forgive the repeat of this blog but I wanted to announce that my new mystery, Hart of Madness, is now available in paperback and e-book. Please check this website.
Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and . . .
a woman’s lunatic asylum.
1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered. She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.
The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s. Over a million lost souls are buried there.
Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed. Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.
Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating. If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.
2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable. It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.
Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task. Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants. Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.