What I learned writing historical mystery…

How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?


Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting

First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.

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Historical Research is Fun

Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.

Anachronisms are Tricky

Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.

Facts versus Truth

It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.

How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?



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Author: Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, JACKAL, and VIPER. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. JACKAL was a finalist for a Silver Falchion and a Mystery and Mayhem Award. The first novel in her new middle grade mystery series, Kassy O'Roarke, Cub Reporter, is out soon. And she has an Agatha Christie inspired historical mystery, MISS LEMON'S MYSTERIOUS ASSIGNMENT AT STYLES out in March, 2020. When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs. Learn more about Kelly and her books.

10 thoughts on “What I learned writing historical mystery…”

  1. Rhys does a great job with her fiction, Lady Georgie and Molly Murphy. So does Edith Maxwell, with her Quaker midwife series. I want a historical to be true to the period without overwhelming me with facts and details.

    And as always, being true to a character of the times is key for me. I’m revising my WWII novel now for submission and tightening all the points I can to make a tight story with believable characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sigh, I love research! My current reading has been contemporary and my passion for history limited to biography in recent years.

    I do love those little tidbits. Problem is, sometimes they can be off putting too. I’ll walk out of a movie or flip the channel at the sight of a zipper on clothing before the 1920s. It was buttons back then, people! I remember there being a debate about the film Ragtime, too. It was a wonderful period piece but in one scene someone spotted Venetian blinds hanging in an apartment. It caused quite a ruckus. These days it would be easily remedied by a little editing. When the movie was initially released, not so much.

    Enjoy the research, Kelly. I’ll be on the lookout for the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not read many historical mysteries, which surprises me because I *love* history and am a huge classic film buff. (I also adore mysteries–natch!) Now I’m going to make it a point to seek out more. Like, Kait, I’ll be on the lookout for yours! 🙂 Congrats on the completing the draft!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats on finishing that draft! I look forward to reading it, and Liz’s WWII novel, too. I’ve written a couple novels that could be considered historical. They’re set in the 1950’s, and there’s been a lot of debate about what defines a historical. One camp says that it needs to be at least 50 years old, and another says that it has to be set before WWII. The research is daunting for anything much older. I’m lucky to have access to first-hand accounts for mine, so for now, I’ll stick with the ’50’s, which was an interesting period.

    Liked by 1 person

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