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.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.