One thing I love about historical mystery writing is research. I love, love (did I say love?) research. I was blessed once upon a time being paid (quite a lot, actually) as a professional researcher before I moved to California to go to graduate school at UCLA to get my MFA. The challenge for historical writers is balancing the need & joy of research and providing just enough to give a flavor. I don’t ever want to “show off” but to show a world — to give enough specific, unique detail to time and place, that I create an immersive world. I want my readers to be lost in the worlds I create.
No easy feat, I know. Sometimes I get beyond excited when I find a new word, new images, or I stumble across something so insanely fascinating. (This happenned recently when I discovered the 19th Century writing called “lifelets.” More on that in a future post!) Then I want to jump through my words and say, “isn’t this so cool!?” to my readers but I can’t do that. So instead I write about it here or tweet it! I want my readers to feel as if they were there.
Another challenge in writing historical mysteries is the abundance of … things. Think about it, historically it’s creating a world. I could get caught up in describing, in detail, what’s in a turn-of-the-century kitchen. For example, what did they do for refrigeration? I did tons of research and found lovely photos online replicating a 1900’s kitchen. They had an ice box. They basically looked like an antique upright chest with a compartment for ice. They had ice delivery men who came around to deliver — blocks of ice.
I’m reminded of my grandmother, who grew up in the 1900’s and was very 1940’s, very bookish, smart, warm, funny, athletic, and wannabe sophisticate (but in a good way), she called her freezer the “ice box.” I sometimes think of my grandma, and my family history, when doing research & I wonder if that’s why I like it so much? Perhaps but I was one of those kids, a bit geeky, who loved history when I was fifteen. I remember reading my dad’s encyclopedia over eighth grade summer break focusing on Ancient Greece and Egypt. I digress. After all my research on this, I ended up with just a few lines in my novel about a character, Sally (the Sheriff’s wife) who is emptying the water tray from her ice box as my protagonist (a female sleuth) “Miss Brosnan” is in the kitchen going over the merits of the case with “Sheriff Doyle.”
That’s just one detail. Refrigeration in an 1899 kitchen. Imagine all of it — how they cooked, depending on class as well. Obviously the upper class had servants but they also had deliveries. Greengrocers weighed and wrapped groceries. The meals, the ingredients, the list goes on. In historical writing, there’s architecture, art, class, societal mores, jobs, fashion, language, music, literature, news, events, locality and so on. A writer could get lost in a time quite easily. I try to balance research & writing. Fortunately, I’m adept and fast — at both! So I make it happen.
I love the language, however, and that’s important to me. Finding the right language of the time. I thought quite a bit about references, as well. In other words, my protagonist would reference classical and ancient texts and what’s on her mind at the time so my protagonist studied literature and thinks in terms of books she’s read. This is a help for me because I don’t know how many readers would want to read about references to the Punic War or Spartans defending the Thermopylae or various shibboleths or expressions like “Cyprian delights.” I do get in the mind-set of my protagonist but I also want to keep it interesting. There’s a fine line between just go and read historical fiction and writing historical fiction — for the modern reader.
Hmmmm… there is a difference.
Primarily, the former is laden with facts and odd references and the latter is full of details to evoke a world — so the reader can be immersed.
At least I think so. That’s how I’m choosing to do it anyway.
Today’s vocab word look for in a new post!
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