Mystery and History—The Perfect Blend
by Michelle Cox
People often ask me why I write mystery and why I set them in the past, particularly Chicago in the 1930s. What is it about this blend of genres that appeals? Good question.
Mystery, I have to admit, is not my go-to shelf at the bookstore. As a kid, I read every Trixie Belden, Happy Hollisters, and Encyclopedia Brown ever written, with an occasional Nancy Drew thrown in, but not so much as I grew older. This was especially true when I went away to college and discovered what “real” literature was supposed to be. Guiltily, then, I quickly tossed out all of my beloved mysteries— and romances, too, for that matter—and exchanged them for solid classics, which I threw myself into for roughly the next twenty years, gobbling up Dickens and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Tennyson at an alarming rate. But then, years later, after my third child was born, my brain inexplicitly turned to mush, and I found myself reverting back to more “entertaining” reads.
So it was that when I finally decided to try my own hand at writing a novel, I approached it from sort of a mixed background. What first resulted was a somewhat sappy coming-of-age story set in the 1940’s Chicago and which was the size of three contemporary novels. Tolstoy would have at least admired its length, if nothing else. After spending a year trying to sell this tome to an agent, I finally declared it to be dead and stuffed it away in a drawer.
Starting over, I determined that if I wanted to actually sell something, not impress a lit professor, I would need to write something much shorter . . . not to mention something more fast-paced and sexy. Something like . . . like a mystery, I thought triumphantly! Yes, that would sell, I naively thought. Not knowing the slightest thing about writing a mystery, however, I dug deep into my early reading experience as well as into all of the PBS or BBC period mysteries and dramas I had become addicted to over the years and was able to eventually produce A Girl Like You, which, mid-way through the writing of, I decided to turn into a series.
So, I publically admit here that I first chose mystery because I thought it would be more sellable. Period. But having thus delved into it, I found it to be a great fit for me, actually. First of all, I’m very much a character writer, so coming up with intriguing plotlines has always been a little more challenging. Writing mystery was a great fix for this. It forced me to concentrate on plot and give my characters something to do—solve the mystery.
And then there’s pacing. Mystery has no time for soggy middles. Each chapter of a mystery has to have a reason to be. The story has to clip along. I often tell new mystery writers to watch any mystery or drama show on television as a reference. Each scene is costing the filmmakers thousands of dollars to make, so each action or character in that scene absolutely has to have a reason to be there. Following this example has made me a more concise, focused writer.
So mystery works for me on several levels. And I think my books have been successful because, in a genre that is sometimes criticized for being tooslanted toward plot, I think it’s fair to say that I’m able to provide both elements that make up a good story—well-developed characters wrapped in fetching plots.
But now how to explain the historical connection? Why set a good mystery in the past?
Well, there are several reasons for that, the first being the fact that I really don’t know enough about the modern world to write about it. I can more easily explain how an antique telephone works more than I can a cell phone. How does a microwave work? Or the furnace? A car? It’s embarrassing, actually. Writing about the past lets me hide this pitiful truth about myself. For the life of me, I simply wouldn’t be able to come up with a modern, realistic crime, much less have the sleuths be able to solve it. Mining foreign social media data? Selling harvested body parts? Identity theft? You can see already that I’m reaching. And as for solving it . . . fancy phone apps? GPS systems? Satellite link-ups? Again, this is probably sounding very ‘90s, at best. Give me Colonel Mustard in the study with the candlestick any day.
Another disconcerting truth about me is that I’m actually not very good at coming up with a premise for a story. I need something to start with, some strands of yarn, and then I can pretty creatively weave something out of them. As it turns out, all my story prompts come from people who lived in the past. Just after college, I started working in a nursing home on Chicago’s northwest side and delighted to find myself in a perfect treasure trove of stories from people who had lived through so much, including two world wars and the Great Depression. Is it any wonder, then, when I began writing years later, that all of my novels would be set in the past? Those tales, many of them stranger than fiction, have provided me with a wealth of reference material!
So when I was looking for a premise for my first novel—a mystery, I had already decided, as explained above—I naturally dug into said treasure trove and, after looking about a bit, eventually chose the story of an eighty-year old woman who had had this amazing life as a young girl in the 1930s in Chicago. I didn’t take all of her story, of course, but I used various bits and pieces in the creation of A Girl Like You. All I needed to do then was to insert some sort of crime, something suitably old-fashioned—like a murder, say—and voila! A perfect mystery/history blend. But then I couldn’t help myself, and I had to add the handsome, aloof inspector for a dash of romance as well! But that’s a story . . . and yet another genre . . . for another time.
Michelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, as well as the weekly “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Cox lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children and is currently hard at work on the fifth book of the series. She also sits on the Board of the prestigious Society of Midland Authors and is a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books.