Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Building the Time Machine: Writing Historicals (Part 1 of 2 Parts)
By Jeri Westerson
Originally posted August 10, 2010
Writing historical mysteries comes with its own set of problems.
To begin, there’s the problem of writing a mystery. On top of that is a layer of history, added on like frosting.
In addition, as with science fiction or fantasy, there is a certain amount of world-building that needs to happen. By that, I mean that the reader must be thoroughly placed in the time and the place. The smells, the sounds and the feel of it all must be part of the work without devolving the material into a travel log or documentary.
Everything must be real for the characters – and no one should seem out of place. And, because readers of historical fiction and mysteries are very particular and have purposely stepped into your world to time travel, the history must be authentic.
But how does that work when you are writing a work of fiction?
I consider the history to be the skeleton of my story and I consider the fiction—the fictional life of my ex-knight turned detective, Crispin Guest—to be the flesh and muscle I hang there.
If the skeleton isn’t sound, that is, if it’s made of fictional history, then it doesn’t give enough structure to the rest of the piece. It’s also more of a challenge to bend the fiction to suit the history, rather than the other way around.
Sometimes, the work can be frustrating.
I try to choose words authentic to the time period. I spend a lot of time with the Oxford English Dictionary to learn when certain words first came into use, or at least were written down for the first time.
This gives a little leeway. After all, a word was most likely already in use for some time before it was actually written down.
But the meanings of words may have changed. Some words we use today didn’t start out with quite the same meaning – and certain idiomatic phrases had a very early origin.
There were instances when I wanted to use a word or phrase that was legitimate to the 14th century, but ended up scrapping it because it sounded too modern!
To be continued...
Jeri Westerson is the author of the Crispin Guest medieval mysteries. The newest title in the series, The Demon's Parchment, is a nominee for the RT Book Review Reviewer's Choice Award for Historical Mystery.
Photo by Craig Westerson.