How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, by Kathy Lynn Emerson, is the book to read if you are writing historical mysteries. At the time she penned this book, Emerson had written 14 historical mysteries in two series, three contemporary mysteries, and other novels. Although the book was published in 2008, it remains relevant, with great advice and examples of what to do, as well as what not to do.
Emerson teaches writers how to create historical characters, including what to take into account when setting characters in the past and whether using real-life people as characters is viable. Using real historical figures in fiction could backfire, as mystery fans may not be able to suspend disbelief—would a real-life person really be traipsing around and investigating? Also, while your character has already been created for you, you will be bound to play fair with the real person’s timeline—you can’t have them in France during the years they were in England, for example. Emerson gives us much to think about when creating historical characters.
She also touches on “information dumps,” which can easily overwhelm a historical if the author isn’t careful to balance dialogue, plot, and pacing with the historical tidbits. The best piece of advice here is that not everything needs to be included. Emerson writes: “Historical mystery readers enjoy vivid settings and are prepared to read a great number of historical details, but they don’t want them all at once. Furthermore, there must be a good reason to include these details. Do you really need to describe everything your character sees while walking from one place to another in eighteenth-century New York? Unless one of those things will turn out to be important later, or you are using the trip to give the character a chance to mull something over, then simply take him to his destination.”
Language is an important part of a historical, and Emerson devotes an entire chapter to this, covering slang, proverbs, dialects and speech patterns, expletives, anachronisms, distinctive speech, and just how accurate an author needs to be—language that is accurate to the period might be unreadable to today’s readers, after all.
A chapter on anachronisms is a must-read for any historical writer. Anachronisms, writes Emerson, “are things used in the wrong time period” and it is very easy to have these slip through the cracks when you are writing. Unfortunately, there is always one reader (or more) who will spot even the most minor of anachronisms. Emerson gives tips on word usage, the deliberate use of anachronistic language, dealing with inconvenient historical facts, and how to deal with bloopers. There’s a great passage on changing attitudes—how do you present a character with modern-day attitudes in a historical.
Emerson also writes about research, plotting, and even selling your mystery. If you have your sights set on writing a historical mystery, this book should be part of your personal library. I can guarantee you’ll come back to it often.
When I first began reading books and attending lectures on writing, I consistently heard, “write what you know.” In theory, the concept is simple. Stories incorporating personal experiences will be more believable, interesting, and engaging for readers. My problem is that “writing what you know” doesn’t always work for me.
For example, I was my mother’s miracle baby–her first successful pregnancy, her brilliant, beautiful bubbly daughter (she saw what she wanted to see). She taught me to read, was my Girl Scout leader, cheered me on in whatever activity I chose to try, and beamed with pride when I graduated from college and law school. Even if something didn’t quite go the way I hoped, my mother was there for me.
In three sentences, I’ve summarized enough of our relationship for you to realize our story lacks conflict. Although this scenario may result in a plot that is believable, I doubt that any reader except my mother would find it interesting or engaging. But, what if our interaction had been different? What if she hadn’t been loving and supportive? If she’d walked out of my life when I was a child without telling me why? What if I was raised by my father? Or, if his position in the community brought a number of surrogate mother types into my life? How would such a family dynamic impact the woman I became?
Once these questions crossed my mind, endless story possibilities intrigued me. The result of modifying “write what you know” to “write what you don’t know” became my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. In Poker, Carrie’s mother returns to her life twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of appearing in Carrie’s office and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge that she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and to unravel why she abandoned her, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.
Blending what I know and what I don’t raised the stakes for Poker’s plotline beyond the sentimental tale of my mother loving me. It also convinced me that the boundaries of reality often need to be challenged by writers. At least for me, failure to take the challenge means there could never be a Goldstein book or story about vampires, werewolves, the inner thoughts of animals, or a mother who doesn’t have twins.
What about you? Do you stick to reading or writing only what you know?
Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: A Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing, April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY award-winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and nonfiction. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter, and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Joel, whose blood runs crimson.
This week’s post is by Susan Van Kirk, who usually writes full-length novels, but decided to try her hand at novellas. Here she explains why.
Over the past three years, I’ve been writing a series called the Endurance mysteries. Three May Keep a Secret came out in 2014 from Five Star/Cengage Publishing. It led to a second Endurance novel, Marry in Haste, which will launch November 16, 2016. That book will be followed in the late spring of 2017 by Death Takes No Bribes. All three are full length novels.
This past January, I decided to try my hand at a novella. This would afford me three excellent advantages: (1) I could expand the character of my detective, TJ Sweeney, by writing a story around her instead of Grace Kimball, the protagonist of my Endurance series; and (2) I could give my readers a story to keep them in the small town of Endurance since my first and second novels are being published two years apart; and (3) I could mix up the tone a bit from cozy mystery novels to a slightly darker police procedural. My fictional town of Endurance would be in all of the books, but my main character, Grace, would only put in a brief appearance in the novella. I found that writing a novella is quite different from writing novels, but I really enjoyed the change.
Length is a prime consideration. My cozy mysteries run anywhere from 71,000 to 82,000 words. I discovered a novella should weigh in between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, my novella, ended at 25,000 words. It may be read in one or two sittings, the perfect length for a spring afternoon reading break.
The second consideration is plot structure. A novel has multiple subplots that need to connect to the main plot and possibly be tied up at the end. But The Locket is a straight shot. Detective TJ Sweeney is called to the scene of a burial. A construction crew digging a new foundation on the outskirts of Endurance finds a pile of buried bones and a skull. The bones are decades old and raise a lot of questions. They turn out to be human, and the condition of the skull indicates a possible murder. Male or female? When did this happen? What happened? How can Sweeney identify a person long before DNA results were registered in databases? Who did this? Why? Sweeney must answer a series of questions to try to solve this case. During her investigation, the reader learns about the detective’s past, her family history, and why this case becomes so personal.
The point of view is also different compared to writing a novel. In my Endurance mysteries, I followed the main character, Grace Kimball. Much like me, she is Caucasian, a retired teacher, and a disaster in the kitchen. It’s easy to write a character who is similar to me. But The Locket delves into TJ Sweeney’s life, and she is thirty-nine, biracial, single, and a police detective. While Grace is a widow and single mother who is just starting to date an equally senior man, the single Sweeney goes through men like a high-speed commuter train. Uh, not like me. This is a stretch.
A novel may have several conflicts, although one in particular usually stands out. In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball is battling a terrifying ordeal from her past and also investigating a murder in the present. She only recently retired, so she is dealing with a huge change in her life. In the novella, TJ Sweeney is coping with some very deep feelings tied directly to solving a decades-old murder. One complicated conflict.
A novella is obviously shorter than a novel, but it is also more straightforward and leaves less room for description and details. If you’re looking for a mystery that can be read in a few hours, a novella is perfect. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a good example of how a novella can fit between two novels in a series, but can also stand on its own for new readers. It is now available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.
About the Author
Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. After college, she taught high school English for thirty-four years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (population 10,000).
She taught an additional ten years at Monmouth College. Her short story, “War and Remembrance,” was published by Teacher Magazine and became one of the chapters in her creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).
Her first mystery novel about the town of Endurance, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. Marry in Haste is her second Endurance mystery, coming out November, 2016, also from Five Star Publishing/Cengage.
I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit, by William G. Tapply, is a must-read for any new crime fiction writer. It covers the basics, beginning with finding your story and defining your sleuth, “the character readers care most about,” Tapply writes.
While mystery story lines are driven by the “whodunit” question, a mystery is also a quest story, Tapply writes, with the sleuth having “purity of purpose, courage, conviction, and single-minded commitment to ideals.” These sleuths need to have a sense of mission. Create a great sleuth and keep their future in doubt—and you’ll hook the reader, Tapply advises.
He doesn’t leave the bad guys out either. He writes about the number of suspects there should be and how long they should be under suspicion. The answer: the more suspects you have the better, and the longer you keep them under suspicion, the better your puzzle. Tapply also addresses victims. After all, part of the sleuth’s job, he writes, “becomes the painstaking piecing together of the victim’s backstory, which comes in bits and pieces of information, often seemingly contradictory, filtered through the memories and motives and lives of other characters.”
Other topics include point of view, setting, narrative hooks, building tension, conflict, dialogue, and revising. The book is rounded out by several chapters from other mystery writers, who discuss such topics as working with a collaborator (Hallie Ephron) to whether you should write a series or standalone (Bill Eidson).
This is a book you’ll want to buy, and return to often. There’s always a gem there upon rereading.
The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!
Mystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her book on writing ("Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel") that even the best-laid plans go awry. She collaborates on the Peter Zak mysteries with Donald Davidoff; the first book, she writes, had been carefully outlined, with the villain carefully chosen. But, in writing a piece of dialogue in a critical scene, she realized that another “character had just confessed to the murder. The solution made perfect sense and had the great virtue of being totally unexpected.”
Ephron adds: “No one follows a plan to the letter. Major changes may be needed when a character you thought was going to be minor starts doing pirouettes, or when a plot point critical to your solution stretches credibility to the breaking point. But by getting down the basics early on and really thinking through your story and your characters, you give yourself a solid starting point.”
Then there are pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants. I hold these writers in awe, too, because I can’t imagine not starting without an outline. These are the writers who boot up their computers and are off, writing the story as it comes to them. They may later go back and revise it. But, for the most part, they work without an outline.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the prolific Stephen King counts himself among the non-outliners. He describes writing as excavating fossils.
In his book, “On Writing,” King says: “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety … but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
Robert Campbell in “Writing Mysteries,” takes a middle approach, outlining as he goes along in his writing, making notes on characters, settings, or an element he might have introduced in an earlier chapter (a hidden gun, for instance) that he might use later. For him, it blends structure and serendipity.
“Obviously, this process of outlining might be done in the conventional way, thinking everything through and setting the scenes and characters down before the actual finished work is begun. But I find that by walking alongside my characters before they are fully formed I’m often pleasantly, even dramatically, surprised by conversations, actions and philosophies that I could not have imagined. When deep into a scene, writing on overdrive as it were, something magical very often takes place, some hidden well of imagination tapped, and I find myself a passenger floating on the raft of what is sometimes called inspiration along a river of words in full flood.”
So where do you fall: pantser, plotter, or in between?
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.