A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: Historicals, at the New England Crime Bake, November 9, 2013

[This Crime Bake session report comes to you from author R. A. (Robbie) Harold, author of the Dade Wyatt mysteries (her photo at right, at a quiet moment). Thanks, Robbie!]Image

Leslie Wheeler moderated a panel consisting of debut authors Michael Nethercott  (The Séance Society), and Ben and Beth Oak (Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, writing as B.B. Oak) as well as veterans Charles O’Brien (Death of a Robber Baron, set in 1894), Lea Wait, and WIlliam Martin.

Their works range from taking place totally in the past to moving back and forth between past and present.

B&B Oak’s book , a series opener, came out of a fascination with Henry David Thoreau as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” a keen and precise observer of both nature and society which gave him ideal sleuth characteristics. Nethercott set his work in 1956 with flashbacks to the Victorian era in part because “I didn’t want to have to ask my kids to explain modern technology to me.”

Charles O’Brien’s Death of a Robber Baron is the first in new series set in the 1890s after a long series set in France and England in the 18th century.  “Series tend to suffer the law of diminishing returns,” he says, and it was time to make a change. His series character works at a settlement house and interests herself in the plight of missing and abandoned children.

O’Brien offered useful background on early female involvement in investigative work: the first NYPD female detective was hired about 1900, though there was no evidence of female private eyes. But in researching  the life of Alan Pinkerton he learned about Kate Ware, a young widow who saw an ad in Chicago newspaper for a filing clerk at Pinkerton’s, went to office and asked to apply to be an investigator. He liked her “guts,” hired and trained her. Nellie Bly is another one that fits the profile–she was a foster mother for troubled young women as is O’Brien’s heroine Pamela Thompson.

Lea Wait has written a number of historical mysteries for kids and young adults. But the antique print series is contemporary–dealer and series character Maggie Summer sees them as reflections of earlier lives–Shadows of a Downeast Summer is about the (fictional) journals of two young women who served as models for Winslow Homer in summer 1890, with long kept secrets that lead to murder in the present. An antique print dealer in her ‘day job,’ Wait is an expert in Winslow Homer’s wood engravings. There’s a lot about the history of art in Maine in the book, and all of that is true. Everything about Homer in the book is correct; the people connected to him are fictional.

Bill Martin’s 10th novel, The Lincoln Letter, involves a diary characters are willing to kill for–it’s Abraham Lincoln’s diary, treating of the evolution of his views on race and slavery. There are 2 stories–a thriller in the past involving real life characters, and the modern story with his recurring characters Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington.

How did he come up with this dual structure? “When I was hatching Back Bay, I said, if one story’s good, 2 will be better, and that’s what I’ve done in all the series–Peter and Evangeline are our guides through history–their modern day conflict mirrors what’s gone on in the past–the idea being the past is alive and important and relevant to the present. They’re always drawing parallels to something from the past.  They bring the past to life for us. I consider myself a historical novelist, and Peter and Evangeline are along for the ride.”

Why turn to history for stories? It always gives you a proscenium, a universe you can control and mentally bring yourself into, find characters you love and hate and love to hate. You’ll also find narrative structure in history–you can analyze something as sweeping as European migration to America and the 3 days of Gettysburg with the same tools–“History provides you with three-act structures.”

General advice:

Bill Martin: “I like explosions. The audience likes explosions. When in doubt, blow something up.” He also recalls Raymond Chandler’s advice: “When you run out of ideas, bring in a man with a gun.” i.e. create conflict. “There are always ‘men with guns’ in history, metaphorically speaking.

Leslie quizzed the group about combining real-life people and fictional ones:

B&B Oaks, why did you decide to create the journals of two fictional people as the vehicle for the Thoreau story?

We wanted to write it in first person journal format, but using Thoreau’s voice would  have been presumptuous, and we didn’t want to put our thoughts into his head. We did use a lot of the dialogue and philosophy he used. “We think of Henry as the intellect of the book, and Adam and Julia–star-crossed lovers–as the heart of the book as well as his Dr. Watson character.”

Lea Wait noted that she primarily combines fictional and historical characters in  her YA books. In her series set in Wiscassett, Maine, minor characters are real but major ones are fictional. Her most recent one, however, involves a real pair as the major characters). Characters are all ordinary people, however, which she gets info about from reading journals, letters, etc. She gets ideas and insights for plot from actual stuff that happened then. Villains are always fictional, though.

Leslie mentioned that all the panel’s protagonist characters are marginalized in some way, suffering from discrimination of some sort because of race, gender, orientation, or occupation. O’Brien has a major character who’s gay and a group of unemployed “tramps” who were a countrywide phenomenon in the depressed economy of 1894. Nethercott’s characters are ghost-hunters and he points out that we’re all going to end up as ghosts some day, so people are interested in them.

Audience Q&A

1. How do you do research?

Bill Martin: I start ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.’ And if I can, I walk the ground where the story will take place–there’s nothing like it. Then I find newspapers to read about the daily life of the place in the period, ‘as if I were reading the Globe and the Times.’ The details thus found often suggest plot elements, or at least add realistic detail. “You’ll be amazed at the surprises you’ll find.”

 Beth Oaks suggests reading what people actually wrote in that era, which helps get the voices and sensibilities right.

2. How do you classify a book which involves connecting a past life to the present–is it historical paranormal?

Lea: my books are mysteries if the protagonist is in the present.

Bill Martin: I’d call it history-mystery.

3. How would you characterize the market/readership for historicals vs. regular mystery?

Lea: historicals for young people are not selling at present. Historicals for adults, especially with contemporary elements, are doing well. People read historical mysteries to learn about something else. Same with some of the cozies, e.g. cooking mysteries.

Bill: adding the modern story element to the historical juices up the history in a way that makes publishers happy these days (with his Fallon series, for instance).


About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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