Writing historical Mysteries
By: C.A. Asbrey
I was asked recently how to write a historical mystery, and even though I’m brand new at it I would imagine my approach is very much like everyone else’s.
Firstly, there are all the usual issues people encounter when setting a story in the past. Linguistic anachronisms can beam out of the page to those who know their period like a neon sign in a dark alley. People have to behave as they would have in the social stratifications of the time, and you absolutely must know the tiny details of how people lived and dealt with the minutiae of life. There’s no point in pricing something like bread at more than an average man would earn in a month. Nor does it help your story if you don’t know the basics on how your characters work, live, or play in whatever century you select.
I was once jolted out of a book because an eighteenth century aristocratic woman had been named ‘Holly’. That simply wouldn’t happen in England in that time period. Some of the non-conformist churches had a habit of calling their children non-traditional names, but the upper classes never did. The maid could have been called ‘Holly’ but her mistress? Never.
Anachronisms are easy to spot
History throws up many problems you won’t encounter writing any other kind of mystery. There are numerous pitfalls for the unwary. Not only do you have to build a believable universe, you have to put credible characters right in the middle of it and make them reveal the world you have carefully built by showing the readers their experiences. The reader needs to feel what they feel; the smell of the horseflesh, the clatter of the hooves, the sizzle of the cooking, and the creeping of the leeches.
Then there’s the speech patterns to think about. Local accents were stronger, with less exposure to strangers or the media to even them out. Slang and commonly used expressions can be quite impenetrable to modern ears. You can call someone a “dentiloquent bletcherous zounderkite” but you can make it clear what it means by the way people react to it. Use slang and dialect lightly enough to create local colour, and leave the rest of the dialogue plain enough to be clearly understood. And bear in mind that what you think you hear may not be accurate at all. To this day there are thousands of Scots protesting that none us say ‘verra’ and never have; yet millions of people think it’s an accurate interpretation of the Scottish accent because it appeared in a well-known series of books. If you come from a different culture check with a local. It’s far too easy to get it wrong. I certainly have and depend on good friends and editors to get it right.
The answer is a simple as it is hard to achieve. Know as much as you possibly can about your subject, period, and characters. How did they do simple things like go to the toilet? Eat? Cook? WorK? What did they earn? What did the care about? Who did they defer to? How did they react to people who were different to them, or who failed to live by their social code? How did they wash and how often? Show this by having your characters do them in the story instead of writing descriptions about it. Also be careful that you don’t disappear down the rabbit hole when researching. It can be fascinating and engrossing and I’ve often looked up at the clock to find a whole day has gone by before I’ve realized.
Once you get over the problem of putting realistic characters in place and in period the mystery writer has another hill to climb. What is your mystery and how do you solve it? Of course we need to leave our path strewn with red herrings but they need to be historically possible too. What are the symptoms of poisoning and how did doctors test for them in your chosen period? How long would someone realistically take to die from a stab wound or a blow to the head? What weapons were available at that time and what evidence would they leave behind?
When you do your research make sure you know the source is absolutely credible and backed up by more than one source. The internet is full of inaccurate information and it’s vital to ensure the veracity of any facts you come across.
Just like any traditional mystery you need to assemble a cast of characters who include more than one credible perpetrator, more than one possible motive, and ensure that your detective in your chosen time period has the knowledge and the wherewithal to expose the murderer and prove the crime.
This whole post seems to throw up more questions than it answers, but there is an easy answer. Spend a lot of time getting under the skin of the people you write about and really know your subject. They say you should write what you know for good reason. When you have a good broad understanding of the period, do lots of research on each murder method, the evidence it would leave, and how that evidence would be interpreted in that era. There no point in choosing a poison which wasn’t detectable at the time and bringing in forensics which didn’t come in until later will definitely result in comments from readers.
At the end of the day you have to look at whether you are creating a historical treatise or telling a good story. To me the story is the most important thing and weaving all the historical detail through the tale until it’s no more than background to the main action. Don’t beat yourself up too much about a slight inaccuracy. Even history books contain errors, so historical fiction can hold its head up high if it evokes a sense of period and place which serves the story. The story is fiction. The people (and sometimes even the place) are inventions.
One of the best examples of the story mattering more than detail in historical fictions comes from a famous anecdote. After his success with “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, Tennessee Williams had occasion to return to New Orleans where he was accosted by an uptown dilettante who chided him for his description of the streetcar lines. She told him if Blanche DuBois took the streetcars as described in his play, she wouldn’t end up on Elysian Fields Avenue. “They simply don’t run that way,” she said.
Williams replied, “Well, they should.”
The Innocents (The Innocents Mystery Series Book 1) by C.A. Asbrey @prairierosepubs #historicalmystery #theinnocentsmysteries
”The Innocents“, by C.A. Asbrey published by Prairie Rose Press is now available to buy.
Pinkerton Detective Abigail MacKay is a master of disguises—and of new crime-solving technology! But she’ll have to move fast to stay a step ahead of Nat Quinn and Jake Conroy.
Nat and Jake are the ringleaders of The Innocents, a western gang that specializes in holding up trains carrying payrolls—and Nat is pretty savvy when it comes to using the new sciences of 1868 in committing his crimes.
Charismatic Nat and handsome Jake are on the run, and they’ve always gotten away before—before Abi. But when Abi is caught by another band of outlaws during the chase, there’s no other choice for Nat and Jake but to save her life. Abi owes them, and she agrees to help them bring in the murderer of a family friend.
The web of criminal activity grows more entangled with each passing day, but Nat, Jake, and Abi are united in their efforts to find the murderer. Once that happens, all bets are off, and Abi will be turning Nat and Jake over to the law. But can she do it? She finds herself falling for Nat, but is that growing attraction real? Or is he just using her to learn more about the Pinkertons’ methods? Abi always gets her man—but she may have met her match in her “best enemies”—THE INNOCENTS.
“So, you want to pretend you’re a Pinkerton? As a female?” His eyes darkened. “I’ve questioned one before, although he didn’t know who I was. They’re trained real well on being both sides of interrogations. You don’t want to do this. Not as a woman. He had a real hard time. You’ll have it even harder.”
She sat staring ahead once more, her face impassive and stony.
“You’ve nothing to say?”
Her eyes flashed. “Beating the hell out of me won’t change anything but my view of you.”
Nat reached out and entwined a hard fist in her hair and dragged her backward until the chair balanced on the back legs. He brought his face close to hers, his hot breath burning into her cheek. “Think harder, lady. This isn’t a game. Who are you?”
Abigail felt the dragging pain at the back of her head as shards of pain lanced across her scalp. He held her, balanced between his painful grip and a clattering fall to the floor but her stubborn nature wouldn’t let her acquiesce.
“Others will come after you, no matter what you do to me.” She darted her eyes to meet his, unable to move her pinioned head. “I won’t be the last.”
Blog – C.A Asbrey – all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period
The Innocents Mystery Series group
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/mysteryscrivener/
Blog – C.A Asbrey – all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period http://caasbrey.com/
The Innocents Mystery Series Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/937572179738970/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/mysteryscrivener/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/CAASBREY
Link to book Link to book https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BMHFXSJ/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_wTSSAb8J40Q9H