Mystery tropes

I watch quite a few British/Canadian/Australian mysteries on television, so much so that I’ve been keeping a list of tropes. A lot of mystery programs (Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise, Father Brown, Murder She Hoped, even the Kiwi series Brokenwood Mysteries) have similar settings for murder.

For example, there’s the one at the flying school, the one at the dance competition, the one with chefs in a restaurant, the one with the amateur theatre group. People get murdered when checking into health spas, joining hunting parties, and (gulp) attending author book signings. Sometimes there’s an unusual arrangement assumed to be a motive: the breakup of the band, the tontine (where whoever hasn’t died inherits everything), the dinner to which everyone was invited individually.

Back in the fourth grade, I gave up cursive writing and pens, only using either when it was required. I am trying now to revive both, with a fountain pen, a lovely journal given me by a friend, and mystery plots and ideas. Here’s the first page of tropes (please bear with my handwriting, obviously):

What this creates is a treasure trove of settings and/or a list of what to either imitate or avoid when writing a story. For me, it’s helpful to see the patterns. Many of these seem designed to limit the number of possible suspects. For example, if you have a murder at a music festival, there could be thousands of suspects. How does your detective narrow down? If one of the organizers is killed, they will tend to cast their gaze on the other organizers rather than attendees. This may or may not work, but it allows a lot of people to go home.

Since this is not how I write my mysteries, which sort of grow organically, it’s interesting to see how mysteries can be mass-produced through the recycling of settings.

Luckily, I don’t think that boarded-up operating theatre, the National Gallery, or pneumatic railway are likely to appear on the list any time soon. But about those 19th century health spas . . .

Interview with Paper Lantern Writers

So excited to have an interview with Paper Lantern Writers!


San Diego Book Festival

Just some pics from my stint at the Partners in Crime (San Diego chapter of Sisters in Crime) table yesterday at the San Diego Book Festival. The gentleman running things is Carl Vonderau, head of the chapter. A beautiful day for this event.

Editing hours

Editing ones own work is always difficult, but even more so whether there are decisions to be made and things to look up, rather than just errors to fix, in the final pass. For example, in one recent three-hour session, even though I’d already had two professional edits of the novel, I spent time:

  • finding out how I spelled “moustache” in the first book
  • looking up greetings appropriate for an afternoon tea party / art exhibit
  • learning how to force an em-dash to stay with a quotation mark on the same line in Word (you can’t)
  • deciding whether it should be M.P. or MP
  • removing the word “so” everywhere because I use it too much
  • looking up whether they would have called it a comforter in 1863 (yes)
  • changing colloquial phrases (“gone up” to “been increased”)
  • realizing the appalling necessity of a thesaurus

All of which make for a better book. It’s a little different than grabbing a red pen and making some marks, and really shouldn’t be done by someone else. And I admit to some frustration that I missed things, as in “how could I not have caught that on the first four reads?” But it’s all part of the journey.

The auto-narrated audio book

I recently learned that Google Play can create audio books with auto-narration. Always intrigued by new technology, I decided to post Murder at Old St. Thomas’s to see how it sounded.

Auto-narration has, like most text-to-speech technology, been either very bad or very expensive. In my opinion, this is pretty darned good. Take a listen:

Now available at Google Play for only $5.99 USD.

An interview

I’m happy to have been interviewed on the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog:

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s featured for May

My book Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is featured at Bookfunnel for May:

History and historical fiction

This post will be the first in a series examining the differences between history and historical fiction.

Surely that’s ridiculous, you say. History is what really happened. Historical fiction is just made-up stories. Alas, as I tell my students about historical events, “it’s more complicated than you think”.

First, history as an academic discipline is not what really happened. We have a limited historical record for a particular era, a mix of archaeology, material culture, and written work (diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). We have lists of events that most people agree actually occurred, because we can trace the lead-up to them and the impact afterward. What historians do is interpret the historical record, trying to create meaning that informs us about the past.

If we say something about that past (such as most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took an omnibus or cab) then we must possess the factual support for that. If we say that most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took a cab because they were too poor to pay for a cab, that’s a conclusion based on facts about wages and cab fares, but it’s an interpretation. Another historian could say that no, most workers walked because the streets were so jammed with traffic that if they hadn’t walked they would have been late for work. That historian could back up his/her thesis with facts.

London Bridge, 1890

History is a living discipline because for each historian who creates a thesis with meaning, another will come along and try to defeat or amend it by either using different sources or the same sources from a different perspective. The growth of historical knowledge through these arguments is called historiography.

So if history as a discipline isn’t what really happened, then is historical fiction just made up stories? Yes, it can be, but some writers of historical fiction prefer to create a more authentic atmosphere by engaging in research. In some cases this is the same kind of research historians do: finding 1860 guidebooks showing cab fares, articles in the Times about London traffic, Dickens novels where characters talk about their wages. But instead of participating in the academy of ideas, fiction writers are doing this research to make their plot or characters more real.

Some do deep research, on par with academic historians. Others do just enough to give their story some realistic elements, and they are happy to change things or people if the historical information doesn’t suit their purposes. The historical facts, in other words, are at the service of the story the author is trying to tell, not the quest for some sort of historical truth.

A really good non-fiction book

In non-fiction (books filed in the History section at the bookstore), the recent trend is to try to make it more exciting for readers, to read “like fiction”. Now anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction will tell you there are many talented non-fiction authors who do intensive research in their subjects even when they aren’t historians. They also try to have a lively writing style, and recently many non-fiction books contain more speculation than a historian would accept. Some even put dialogue in the mouths of historic figures, or say things like “Benjamin Franklin never had a dog, but it he had it would have been a retriever”. This approach comes so close to fiction that it blurs the borders between history and historical fiction.

So the division isn’t clear-cut. In the next post, I’ll talk about the use of the historical past as a setting for fiction.

Part II coming soon


Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing novels, there is no avoiding history. Even my first book, a novella, was split between the present and the 1880s, and the mysteries are set in 1860s. This makes them historical fiction, or historical mysteries.

One of the reasons I began writing mysteries is because I read some novels that I believe misused the historical past, stories that could have taken place in any time, including the present. For these authors, the past just seemed to be a setting, where you could use hansom cabs and hoop skirts for effect. In some of these novels, people spoke anachronistically, but even when they didn’t the possible sounds and smells of the place simply weren’t there.

To me that’s the difference between using the past as a setting and setting a story in the past. My books are set deeply within the past. The reader should have a sense of what things were like in 19th century London. It’s not enough to have the clop-clopping of horses and the misting of fog. I want the click of door latches, the smell of tanneries, the gray light on London Bridge. The street names and omnibus routes must be correct for 1863, not 1880 or 2020. I want to show the city being torn up for sewers, the distinctions in how people of different classes might behave, the way women in skirts dealt with toileting. And it all must be based on fact, on historical research.

I recently joined the Historical Novel Society, and in the first week on the Facebook group there was an argument about how accurate a writer of historical fiction needed to be, and another about whether the show Bridgerton was worth watching. It was distressingly easy for me to take sides.

I would say “no” on Bridgerton, but that has nothing to do with the color-blind casting. In my research I keep stumbling on evidence of both women and people with various differences having more agency and being more visible than is portrayed in the movies and television shows of the last century. So it’s possible that some of the things that don’t seem “real” (a black man hob-nobbing with other upper middle-class snobs) might actually be more accurate for the time.

A great deal of what we “know” about the past comes from prescriptive documents, works designed to convince people to correct their behavior. I try to teach my students that when they read a law code punishing adultery, theft, and trespassing, there must be a great deal of adultery, theft, and trespassing going on in the society. Otherwise there’d be no need for a law.
So if you find a lot of literature telling women that their role is to be very good at managing a household, you can be damn sure that a lot of women aren’t doing that but are doing other things. We are discovering that more and more artworks and literature were created by women using the names of men, for example.

No, my problem with Bridgerton, and many contemporary historical novels, is that the historical setting is ignored as an influence on the characters, and sometimes even on the plot.

I think I first noticed this trend in the movie Elizabeth, the 1998 film with Cate Blanchett. As I was watching her being attacked by her poisoned gown, I was thinking wait, what about the motives of the assassin? How can we tell this story without the religious or political context? It seemed to be all about the emotions and reactions of the characters. We could have been in 12th century France or early 20th century China. It could have been Macbeth. The Emotions of Elizabeth was not what I came to see.

Movies and books that use the past just as a setting for telling a story are not, to me, historical fiction. They’re just fiction. In the next post, I’ll talk about the recent revival in the popularity of historical fiction, and where it might come from.

Part III coming soon

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part III

Recently the New York Times published an article, “For Literary Novelists, the Past is Pressing“, about the revival of historical fiction. In examining its recent popularity, Jonathan Lee mentions novels that apply today’s culture wars and public moral codes to the past, such as novels showing the horrors of slavery, and puts forth the idea that our own time is so unsettling that putting a story in the past avoids difficult issues from the present. We might wish to encounter historical wrongs, but it’s easier to do it from a distance. He closes with: “A new generation of writers may find in the past better ways to capture the present.”

Using history to explain the present isn’t doing history, of course, not like academic historians do. Historians use history to explain the past. We want to know how the people of the 19th century, for example, explained themselves.

But the topics that may interest us do originate in the present. They must — historians live in the present, and it is impossible not to be interested in the issues of our own time. But the curiosity of historians is about how people lived then, what they believed, how they behaved, what they wanted from life. Right?

Not exactly. The discipline of history has trends and schools, and has changed over time. Historians often have axes to grind, and become historians precisely because they have a beef. When a historian creates one interpretation (such as the idea that the American Constitution represented intellectual enlightenment), another comes along with a different interpretation (that it represents the interests of wealthy landholders). There are conservative, Marxist, and classically liberal historians, and they work within these philosophical paradigms.

Does this mean, as Henry Ford was quoted as saying, that history is bunk? That it’s all fiction anyway, because historians are biased?

Not exactly. Bias is natural, and it is the conflict of various biases that moves knowledge forward. Historians are trained to consider the evidence, all the evidence, even if they don’t like it. They are trained to analyze each other’s arguments in order to counter them. Some do this better, or more thoroughly, than others. And most do it within the context of the bias they’ve been taught.

Unfortunately, right now historians are being trained in post-modernist approaches which counter the Enlightenment-based focus on reason and evidence. This undermines the entire idea of doing history, and leads to an emphasis on emotion, intuition, and zealotry. Wrongs must be corrected, evil must be exposed and uprooted. How people might have felt is more important than what they said or did. It’s a reflection of the current post-modern societal ideas, which question whether facts are real and wants to punish people who think the “wrong” way.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This is an unfortunate trend for history, but it’s a great trend for fiction. Historical fiction allows writers to emote all they want about the past (or about the present set in the past), and for readers to enjoy feeling empathetically horrified and morally superior. Combine this with the escapism of binge-reading series of books featuring fatally flawed emotional characters, and the ease of loading a zillion novels onto ones device, it’s no wonder historical fiction is becoming more popular.

Johnathan Lee is right: the carhartic effect of setting our polarized views in the past is selling books. It’s a shame it isn’t doing anything truly historical.