Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Historical Mysteries

Why do we love historical mysteries? What draws us to this subject? We read them for the same reason we write them; they are of interest to us, we enjoy them. For some of us, they are our passion. After all, who doesn’t love a mystery? Mysteries challenge and entertain us. We enjoy trying to solve the conundrums, and even when we cannot, we are fascinated by the solutions.
But why do historical mysteries appeal to us? Obviously we love history. We, more than some, realize we are tied to our past and wish to make that connection (whether by reading and/or writing) by learning something about our past.
Writing historical mysteries certainly presents some obstacles. We cannot simply make up history to suit the story. The history must be true. To preserve authenticity it is important to do research to get the facts correct.
Facts? Facts! We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!
Yes, we do.
F A C T is a 4-letter word that starts with F, but it is not a dirty word.
For those of us who love historical mysteries, facts do not need to be the main focus of the story, but facts create the background and (God forbid) we may actually learn something after spending hours with a book.
For some authors, preserving historic accuracy is right up there with a good story. If I am reading a historical novel (of any type) and the author has their research wrong (I mean very wrong) it would not matter to me how good the story was if the author chose to change history for the sake of the story.
I shudder to think of anyone learning their WWII history from Quentin Tarintino’s Inglorious Bastards.
I totally understand that some authors feel the need to use artistic licence to improve the story (I’ve done it myself ). I suppose it is just a matter of how much artistic licence they wish to use.
I’m not certain about other historical mystery writers, but for me the facts often help shape the story. I generally start a story knowing very little and my research is carried out as I write. Often my research helps me develop the story.
In my latest historical mystery, To Know Evil, my detective, Brother Thomas of Worms is a Benedictine monk (as are all the other characters). I knew nothing about the Benedictine order, but what I did learn help develop my characters. The time period in which the story takes place, 999 AD (something else I knew little about) also was intrinsic the story.
A good historical mystery is simply not a mystery story transplanted in another time period. good historical mystery is rooted in another time and place, and is enveloped by those parameters.
When I wrote The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I wrote a mystery for every stop Holmes and Watson made on their way across Canada. It was very common to develop my mysteries from the research of both the time and the place.
Since Holmes’ first stop in Canada was to be Halifax, I needed to research the city, having never been there personally. In my research I came across the military base, the Citadel, and I decided a murder would take place there.
I learned a lot about Canadian history when I wrote that book, and anyone who reads it could not help but learn something too. I think a good historical mystery is when the reader learns something, but does so without realizing it.