By Guest Blogger Jeri Westerson
And that’s what it’s about when you write mysteries in an historical setting. You have to make the human story matter.
But the history is not just window dressing. Readers who like their mystery with history are pretty discriminating. It must be integral to the story, else why put it in that setting? You might as well dress the characters in colorful costumes and paint some cardboard backgrounds. No, the history is also the story.
I write a series of “medieval noir” novels, set in fourteenth century London. And though I call it “hardboiled detective fiction in a medieval setting” that’s not window dressing. It’s taking the tropes of hardboiled fiction and finding those similarities in the Middle Ages and, surprisingly, there were a lot of comparisons. In the Middle Ages, the sense of community was of great importance and anyone who set themselves outside of the norm was bound to be shunned, so having my protagonist, Crispin Guest, an ex-knight turned detective, set apart from his peers because of treason and made a pariah not only follows the dictates of the history but sets him up as the hard drinking, chip on his shoulder, lone wolf detective found so often in hardboiled tales.
In an historical, there is a special set of challenges. It involves a lot of world-building to allow the reader a soft landing into the time and place you are writing about. You can’t just dump all the info about the period in their laps. It requires a more subtle progression. The reader needs to be made aware of the mores of the time, the clothing, the food, what the culture was like and how the detective does or does not fit into it. What is his struggle along with the other characters who inhabit the plot?
Is he a man of his time or can you substitute any timeframe? That’s always a danger, making the character too modern. But your hero should definitely be a man of his time, that his circumstances couldn’t have happened in any other time period (except for those very human emotions that we can all relate to: love, hate, humiliation, loss) and that his socialization is firmly entrenched in his era. That might mean imbuing your character with certain prejudices that rub you the wrong way but it could also mean creating the circumstances by which he can change his mind by story’s end without compromising the time period.
Yeah, did I say challenges?
And then there is the research. In this internet age we live in, there is no time or place we can’t research. But the internet is no substitute for good old-fashioned book reading. I still find myself in libraries, usually university libraries and archives, reading big textbooks for the information I need. But the internet does offer almost instantaneous access to places and people you wouldn’t have had before. I can reach people in specific archives across the pond and have received generous help that way, even articles and Xeroxed copies of floorplans and such snail mailed to me from afar. I can talk to a whole group of medieval scholars, professors, and historians around the world on one email list I belong to, gleaning research recommendations, translations of phrases into Latin and medieval French, and posing seemingly innocuous questions that turn into treatises (you can’t take the least bit of everyday life for granted. You’ll stumble where you least expect it).
If you start with the internet, there are a few caveats. Never use information from a website that doesn’t offer a bibliography for further research. While researching my third novel that’s coming out in October, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, I had to look into the blood libels against medieval Jews. The blood libels concerned the Christian belief that Jews killed children by crucifying them and drinking their blood for the Passover in retribution for all that the Jews suffered. Many innocent Jews and whole neighborhoods were wiped out because of these false accusations. But while scanning the net for more reading material, I came across what seem to be a very literate site about the blood libels, intimating that some of them might be true. I found this curious as I had not come across this sort of information before and I read the site and their list of citations. Finally, it gave a few links to other sites for more information and when I clicked on to the next link all sorts of swastikas and Arian Nation stuff popped up and I thought “Oh. That’s why I never heard of these before.” So, always check your sources.
Why write stories in an historical setting? I think that the distant past seems a bit exotic and even romantic to us. I think that readers, including me, like to get lost in another place and time when people acted and thought differently, where the clothes they wore and even the food they ate informed their every move and philosophy.
As for me, chivalry is not dead but it is also not polite Dutch-boy coifed knights and velvet gowned ladies in sunlight groves. It’s a gritty time of hardship, of love and loss, of just trying to get by. And let’s not forget, it’s also about murder and solving it the best way my detective can without benefit of a bevy of scientists and police. He’s a man alone in more ways than one.
Jeri is president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles.
And, compliments of Jeri ... free chocolate cake (with raspberries). Yum!