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 storyline 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 plotline 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.
When I penned the final touches on my fifth novel, I realized I was bending history to fit the story. That’s the advantage of fiction. And its strength.
March 25, 2021, will commemorate the 110th 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 several years 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.
Mystery writers and readers have long been beguiled by Jack the Ripper. Numerous serial killers have upstaged the Ripper since his murders in 1888.
From Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who began murdering in 1913 and killed at least nine before surrendering . . . to Belle Gunness, who slayed more than 40 men by luring them to her farm through lovelorn notices . . . to Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 men from 1978-1991 . . . to H. H. Holmes, one of the first American serial killers, featured in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The Devil in the White City, to Albert DeSalvo, who was, in 2013, finally proven by DNA to be the Boston Strangler. Thank you, forensic science!
Still today Jack the Ripper holds us captivated and if one asks us to name infamous serial killers, his name will often be at the top of the list.
When I started researching Jack I told myself the reason was timing. The characters in an earlier book would land nicely in the Victorian era some twenty years later. But that was only one reason for my interest in Jack.
In truth, there were several motivations for pursuing him as an interesting subject.
First, the ambience of the time and place in which he killed. There’s nothing like a foggy, damp, dreary night in Whitechapel, London, to set the stage for murder.
Second, his Modus Operandi. He did not just kill his victims, all prostitutes apparently. He butchered them with ritualistic precision, leaving body parts exposed to the night.
Third, Jack did his work so quickly and efficiently, no one chanced upon him during his grisly task, nor bump into him following the murders. No witnesses.
Fourth, if the letters that the police received were authentic, Jack taunted them with his deeds. He made a mockery of their ineptitude, which gave the press a field day.
Fifth, Jack the Ripper was never caught. There were a number of suspects, including the grandson of Queen Victoria.
My other personal fascination with Jack and the time period centered around Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I always wondered why Sherlock never solved the case.
Hence, I did solve the case, with the help of Conan Doyle, and, jumping forward 120 years, the assistance of modern DNA technology, which zeroes in on Jack’s true identity.
Add a little imagination. I mean, really, could there have been evidence remaining from one of the Ripper murders?
In my award-winning mystery, Time Lapse, I resolve those questions. Are my solutions believable? Read it and let me know.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog, mainly because I’m deep in the heart of writing my seventh novel.
This book has been challenging. My first six mysteries take you back in time to a particular time and place. For instance Deadly Provenance brings you to Paris and World War II; Pure Lies to the Salem Witch Trials; and Time Exposure to the American Civil War.
My current book, whose working title is The Tree of Lost Secrets takes place in my hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. Readers travel back to four different time periods, hence, four sets of new characters. Plus, in keeping with my tradition, a modern story which threads through all.
The four time periods and locations:
Italy, World War II, 1943
Halifax, Nova Scotia, World War I, and the great Halifax explosion, 1911
The Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, 1856
The American Revolution, 1776
In my research I have come across some interesting and amusing material worth a mention here. For example, one of my characters in the section on the American Revolution is a real character named John André, a British spy who was also an actor, artist, and poet. I learned that André had Sometimes history astounds! a statue erected to him in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, along with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Tennyson, among others.
I was impressed. Out of curiosity, I wanted to read one of his poems. Here are a few verses from a poem he wrote called “Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island:”
From Lewis, Monsieur Gerard came,
To Congress in this town, sir,
They bowed to him, and he to them,
And then they all sat down, sir,
If that didn’t compel you, here’s one more snappy verse:
So Yankee Doodle did forget,
The sound of British drum, sir,
How oft it made him quake and sweat,
In spite of Yankee rum, sir.
Believe it or not, it can be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was written in 1755. Not to be confused with the Hollywood version sung by James Cagney.
In the end, André was hung for spying. Frankly, I think he should have swung from the gibbet for his poetry. Sometimes history astounds!
Vincent van Gogh – Suicide, Homicide, or Misadventure?
I recently read an article about researchers discovering the location that artist Vincent van Gogh painted his last work. I decided to re-post an earlier blog I wrote on just that topic.
The research for my book, Deadly Provenance, took me places I never expected to go. To the dark recesses of the brain, its power over the body, and all that could possibly go wrong with that relationship. How did I get there?
For my premise, I needed a painting that was plundered by the Nazis during World War II and never recovered. There were many. I chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Oleanders” because he’s one of my favorite artists and one whose life touched my heart as much as his art.
I’ve had one of those giant coffee-table books of his artwork for years. I wanted to know more and the most comprehensive, well-written and beautifully poignant account I highly recommend is a book by two Pulitzer prize-winning authors: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, called Van Gogh The Life:
The book is astonishing in its breadth of research from Vincent’s history, family ties, relationships, such as they were. But their conclusions about how Vincent died simply blew me away. Only this is certain. On July 27, 1890, Vincent sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He stumbled back from his painting foray to the Ravoux Inn, his residence, in a town twenty miles north of Paris – Auvers, France. Thirty hours later he was dead.
No forensics was available, no gun was ever found. The bullet was never removed from his body. His painting supplies were never recovered. The location of the shooting was never verified. There were, supposedly, no eye-witnesses. When Vincent was asked by the police if he wanted to commit suicide, his answer was a vague. “Yes, I believe so.” When they reminded him suicide was a crime, he said, “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”
Why do the authors make a case against suicide? They believe Vincent wanted to die and actually welcomed death. Here are the points they make:
The bullet trajectory was oblique and from further away than Vincent’s arm could reach.
If he were indeed painting in the wheat field, as suggested, it would have been too far and difficult to return to the Inn with a bullet to his gut.
The gun and art equipment were never located.
He left no suicide note and he was a prolific writer.
Rather than go into details here, and there are many convincing ones, I urge you to read the book, at the very least the Appendix, where the authors make their case against suicide.
So who might have shot Vincent, either accidentally or on purpose? There were, apparently, in this little town two or more teenagers who enjoyed tormenting the artist, who, unlike, the fiery and handsome Kirk Douglas, was a rail-thin, emaciated and dirty wretch with a bad temper.
A bit more is known now about Vincent’s personality “disorder” and it is suspected that, with family history and symptoms that prompted bizarre, dramatic behavior, the diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy is a viable possibility.
An interesting side note: As I was writing this (rather long, sorry) blog I realized there were stunning similarities between Vincent’s symptoms and a young woman in a book I’ve since read entitled “Brain on Fire – My Month of Madness:” https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Fire-My-Month-Madness/dp/1451621388/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1XIWTN2WM6DHG&dchild=1&keywords=brain+on+fire+paperback&qid=1597014725&sprefix=brain+on+fire%2Caps%2C167&sr=8-2
A mystery to ponder.
In my role as Science Center director some years ago, my staff and I were tasked with developing a high-tech exhibition on smoking. Rather, a powerful way to demonstrate the dangers of smoking on the human body. In my research, I came across myriad forms of propaganda about smoking through advertising, first in magazines and newspapers, later on radio and television. One of the more prevalent means of marketing “smoking,” however, began in the thirties and forties (and continues today) in the movies.
Hollywood has always glamorized smoking (think Humphrey Bogart or James Dean) and, no doubt, perpetuated the myth that smoking was cool. As I dug deeper into this phenomenon, I found that Hollywood was very reluctant to cut smoking out of their movies, long after they knew the dangers. For one thing, cigarette companies paid the studios to “show” their product. (You’d see a pack of Marlboro on a side table.) For another, they felt it added to the glamor of the characters. Note: On-screen smoking in PG-13 films has doubled since 2010.
Hollywood has done us a disservice by minimizing or ignoring the dangers of smoking by displaying it in the movies. Making the practice “all right.” But what about history? As I watch the stories in the news about the tearing down of monuments, statues, and flags, I wondered about this very thing. What role does Hollywood play?
I wrote a novel about the Civil War. (Aha! Fiction writers may share the blame with Hollywood in perpetuating historical inaccuracies. A blog for another time.) In my research, I read fiction, non-fiction and, of course, indulged in movies about the subject. The Ken Burns series and book, The Civil War, epitomizes to me the true story, with accurate narrative and real photographs.
Armed with my research, I could watch Gone With the Wind and recognize the many inaccuracies of the film. But then there was the movie, Gettysburg. Reasonably accurate, I did notice one thing that stood out. The southern characters like Generals James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee were made very sympathetic and likeable. (Although I had my misgivings about General George Pickett. I didn’t like the actor!)
The point here is that when Hollywood displays characters as sympathetic, eloquent gentlemen, it is hard for the viewer to make the connection to historical treachery. Let’s not forget, these generals were committing treason. They fought against the union to preserve their way of life, a life that defended and preserved the practice of slavery.
Perhaps it would do writers well to think about the consequences of their portrayals of characters and events in their books and scripts. Are we doing a disservice to future generations by changing history for dramatic effect?