As a writer of historical mysteries, I try to remain loyal to the details of the historical period I’m portraying. I use real settings with real characters, then insert fictitious characters with fictitious events to create the mystery.
Staying true to the facts of the historical period is fairly straightforward . . . until those facts change. You may wonder how historical facts can change. After all, they happened in the past and they’ve been documented. But historical facts can be altered based on new research and evidence.
So, what’s a writer to do? Case in point. My novel, Pure Lies, begins with a prologue in 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, where several witches are about to be hung. It was initially believed that they were hung from a tree atop Gallows Hill. In the last few weeks, we’ve come to learn that the hangings took place, not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom, on something called Proctor’s Ledge. Oh well, you think. Top, bottom, so what? Proctor’s Ledge is now the site of a Walgreens pharmacy. (Methinks there’s marketing opportunity here at Halloween!)
Interestingly enough, this actual site was pinpointed nearly a century ago, but research was lost to time and replaced by legends and misconceptions. Eventually the top of Gallows Hill became the “factual place of the hangings.” If I had known, might I have written the hangings onto the Ledge? Maybe. The location is not nearly as literarily romantic as the hanging tree at the top of Gallows Hill.
There have been other examples of history changing over time. For centuries we believed Pluto to be our outermost planet. Now it’s been downgraded to a dwarf planet and is one of 40 other dwarf planets. A bit of a disappointment for Planet 9.
One transformation that particularly bothered me was the reclassification of the most iconic of dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.” Since 1903, the scientific community has believed that the genus Brontosaurus was really the Apatosaurus. Now, after serious research, paleontologists provide conclusive evidence that the Brontosaurus is distinct from the Apatosaurus and has been reinstated as its own unique genus. Yippee!
And then there’s the case of the 15th century king, Richard III, whose portrayal in both English history and English literature has created ongoing debate. It was long thought that he died in ignominy and was buried in a crude grave in an unknown location. However, in 2012, archaeologists discovered his remains under a parking lot (not a Walgreens) and through forensic analysis learned that he suffered 11 injuries at or near the time of his death, indicating he died in battle. More to come, no doubt, as further analysis is done.
History is a dynamic and ever-changing discipline. As a novelist, fortunately, I can invoke artistic license and save myself the trouble of re-writing my books to conform to changing history. Whew.
When history evolves . . . what’s a writer to do?
158 years ago in 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. All ideas welcome.
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!