Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finding Their Place in History

by Sandra Parshall

Authors of historical novels have all of human history, and a world of settings, to choose from. Have you ever wondered why a mystery writer decides to place a series in an earlier era – and what draws him or her to a particular time and place? We asked four authors of historical crime series what led to their choices.

Stefanie Pintoff, author of Secret of the White Rose, latest in the Simon Ziele mysteries:

“I was drawn to setting my historical series in early 1900s New York City for two primary reasons.

“First, there was never a question but that New York City would be a central setting in my books. I’m one of those people who became a New Yorker the moment I set foot here – and I find the city and its history to be endlessly fascinating.

“And second, I was drawn to the forensic innovation so prevalent during the time period. By 1905, more forward-thinking criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of nature – a view popularized by Lombroso’s theory of the ‘born criminal.’ Scientists like my Alistair Sinclair sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from a variety of violent offenders. This practice was not uncommon, but it was highly controversial: people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.

“This led me to the challenge of creating an imperfect profiler. Someone who had many of the same questions we do today – but access to less sophisticated answers. Someone who would be brilliant and passionately devoted to his subject – but egocentric to the point of folly. Someone who would be just as enamored of New York City's high society as he was his academic passions. Through this scientist and my lead detective, Simon Ziele, I have introduced elements of ‘new’ science in each book – fingerprinting in the first, graphology in the second, and ballistics testing in the third (experts had just discovered that it was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet it had fired). I love the zeitgeist of this era, characterized by a tremendous faith in possibility – and the sense that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to change everything for the better.”

Kelli Stanley, author of City of Secrets, latest in the Miranda Corbie mysteries, and the Arcturus Roman noir mysteries:

“I grew up feeling like I secretly belonged in another era: the 1930s and 40s. I watched classic films, listened to radio shows (it helped that I was a kid in the nostalgia-crazed 70s) and devoured issues of a well-loved magazine called Nostalgia Illustrated, which covered popular culture of the 20s through the 50s.

“Call it Kismet, call it fate, but my fascination with the 30s and 40s – the period before my parent's actual memories, as they were both born in '39 – was always there, from the earliest age I can remember and, once I decided to become a writer, setting a series in the period between the wars seemed inevitable.

“As for San Francisco, though I didn't grow up here – and therefore don't share personal memories of Playland-at-the-Beach and other fondly-remembered landmarks – I did visit SF fairly regularly from the age of 10. I fell in love with it. I always sensed an electricity, a crispness, a clarity that other places and other cities lacked, a kind of devil-may-care danger and a celebratory sort of mad but innocent hedonism.

“Once I became an adult, it also seemed inevitable for me to live here (I have since 1985) and write about the City by the Bay... I may not be a native – indeed, I'm not a California native – but my heart is certainly in San Francisco, particularly in the rollicking, wide-open, cosmopolitan but small-town-generous city that she was in the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Jeri Westerson, author of Troubled Bones, latest in the Crispin Guest medieval noir mysteries:

“The ‘Middle Ages’ spans some 1500 years, so I had to narrow it down from that. I picked that particular time in the 14th century to write about because it came some 40 years after the Plague that took out a third of the population of Europe: a third of the merchants, farmers, nobility—no one was spared.

It is also the age when the 10-year-old Richard II took the throne and began his intrigue-embattled reign that concluded at the end of the century with his being deposed and murdered. It is the time of the Hundred Years War and chivalry in its prime, with jousts and armor-plated battles. And it is the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the first important literary works in English (and who also appears as a character in my latest book, Troubled Bones).

When William the Conqueror came to England three centuries before, he kicked out all the Saxon (English-speaking) nobles and placed his own in their place and, for centuries after, the nobility of England only spoke French. But, in the late 1300’s, even the king is speaking (Middle) English and this is the beginning formation of the sense of Englishness that culminates with Henry VIII two centuries later. It’s a fascinating time to write about.”

Carola Dunn, author of Anthem for Doomed Youth, latest in the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, and the Cornish mysteries:

“I chose the 1920s for the Daisy Dalrymple series because it was a time of change, when women were taking advantage of opportunities opened by the huge loss of men in WWI. I didn't want to deal with the horrors of the war directly, though the lingering shadows play a part in most of the books.

“My Cornish series is set about 1970. I didn't actually choose the date – after 30 years of writing historical fiction I thought I'd give myself a break and be vague. I said in a foreword to the first one that it's set "somewhere between my childhood memories of Cornwall and the present reality." But somehow it's got pinned down to the late '60s, early '70s.

“Almost all my books are set in England (Daisy does venture to America in one, and several of my Regencies are set elsewhere) because I'm a Brit in exile. After over four decades in the U.S., I still sound just about as English as when I landed on
these shores.”

Sandra Parshall is the award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mystery series. Her latest book is Under the Dog Star, published this month by Poisoned Pen Press.


Beth Kanell said...

I love the way this post shows the mingling of obsession and accident! I'd add that setting a mystery at a time other than "now" allows a little breathing room and thus permits more plot twists than a "current news" frame might. In other words, the scary and wonderful things that happen are easier to believe -- and the characters can thus be more effective in responding to them.

Supriya said...

Fascinating interviews -- I love reading about all the different ways these fabulous authors were inspired and motivated to write their books. Kudos!