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“Making Choices and Bridging Gaps: Writing Historical Fiction” by Anna Castle

 

Anna Castle writes two historical series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mysteries. She has a BA in Classics, MS in Computer Science, and PhD in Linguistics, and has worked a variety of careers (including in waitressing, in software engineering, as an assistant professor, and as an archivist). Here she talks about writing historical fiction and her story “For Want of a Book” from the current issue.

This post was prompted by Linda Landrigan’s question about the way I spelled the name of an historical figure in my short story, “For Want of a Book,” set in the late Elizabethan period. The character in question is the well-known Sir Walter Raleigh, who evidently spelled his name “Ralegh” more often than not. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days; a standard English orthography took centuries to achieve, not beginning in earnest until long after Raleigh’s death. Historians these days write “Ralegh,” so I did too, in my first Francis Bacon mystery novel. Linda’s question made me revisit that issue and decide to go the other way. Readers of fiction don’t care that much about trends in historiography. Next time someone asks that question, I’ll probably flip back again—which, come to think of it, is the most historically accurate response of all!

Writing historical fiction is full of such minor leaps. The historical record is rarely complete enough for the full quotidian texture of a short story, much less a novel. I’m a bona fide Elizabethan history nerd with an excellent university library at my disposal, but even so, I make something up with each new person or place. My goal is to make my inventions blend invisibly into the documented realities.

Walking through my story in this month’s issue supplies an array of examples. I invented Francis Bacon’s desire to re-read Lucretius’s De rerum natura. No list of Bacon’s books exists, alas. He must have had an extensive library, but it apparently disappeared onto the shelves of his friends upon his death. It’s impossible that he wasn’t fully familiar with Lucretius, however, like every other well-educated man in England.

I know how bookshops smelled, thanks to works like James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.) But I have to invent the layout of the shop, which nobody bothered to describe. I also assume they shipped books and paper in barrels; they used barrels for everything in those days. Plus I like the word—it sounds round.

Happily, titles and authors of books of all kinds are preserved for all time in many places. I snag the ones that catch my eye as I’m reading history books and keep them in a list. I like to know what my characters are reading. And once I have a title, I can often find the document itself, either at Google Books or Early Modern Books Online. Yes, it’s a distraction, but I’m curious, and sometimes it’s fun to deploy a quote to give readers a taste of the real McCoy.

I can look at the images from Pietro Aretino’s Sixteen Postures, still shockingly explicit, on my screen while Bacon and his bookseller turn the pages in the shop. I can snag images from the Grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes for my blog, thanks to the British Museum. But again, I don’t know what the interior of a mercer’s shop really looked like. I know they sold all sorts of luxury items, so I invent a few for show.

From “the grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes.” The British Museum.

I do know where to put an upscale shop—in Thomas Gresham’s beautiful new Royal Exchange. I can look at a drawing of that important building made in the mid-seventeenth century on Wikipedia. How cool is that! I can pick a place to put my shop, upstairs on the corner, away from the whores and above the dust. I adore location-hunting in the past.

The Royal Exchange. Wikipedia.

I can chart a course from Gray’s Inn on the western fringe of the metropolis to St. Paul’s and from there to Billingsgate and back with perfect factuality, thanks to Adrian Proctor and Robert Taylor’s indispensable A to Z of Elizabethan London (Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent, 1979.)

Edward de Vere, 1575. Wikipedia.

Thanks to that resource, I know where Edward de Vere lived, some of the time. I have to invent the interior, but not the earl’s atrocious character, thanks to Alan Nelson’s biography, Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( Liverpool University Press, 2003.) Many of the earl’s letters were preserved. They’ve been transcribed and annotated, thanks in some part to the Oxford Authorship Society, a group of people who believe Edward de Vere wrote many of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. And now we’ve arrived at an interpretation requiring far greater leaps over historical gaps than I would ever dare to make.

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“Plotting a Dark and Twisty” by Jane K. Cleland

AHMM readers will be familiar with Jane K. Cleland‘s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, both at novel and short-story length. Jane also writes about business communications, and her book Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot won the 2017 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Here she talks about suspenseful storytelling in a darker vein and her tale “Night Flight to Bali” from the September/October 2017 issue.

“Night Flight to Bali” is unlike anything I’ve written before. My long-running Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series falls firmly into the traditional mystery genre. Cozies are firmly within my bailiwick, yet I want to write darker.

Darkness in storytelling derives from longing. Who longs for what and what are they willing to do to get it? It’s all about a deeply felt yearning that can’t be denied: This is true about all crime fiction, of course, but in dark and twisty crime fiction, the longing is closer to the surface.

“Night Flight to Bali” tells the story of Sabrina and Sam, a couple in love, a couple determined to be free. Sabrina will do anything to marry her soulmate, Sam. Sam will do anything to get rich. Sabrina longs for love, to belong to a man; Sam longs for independence, for the freedom that only money can buy. Since Sam doesn’t want anything Sabrina has to offer except money, her efforts to satisfy her longing are doomed to fail.

In plotting “Night Flight to Bali,” I aimed to introduce a plot twist every few hundred words or so. I use the phrase “plot twist” as an umbrella term, by the way, summarizing three specific plotting techniques, which I refer to as TRDs. (I wrote about TRDs in my Agatha-Award winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot.) The three TRDs are:

  • plot Twists, something that takes your story sidewise
  • plot Reversals, something that takes your story in the opposite direction
  • moments of heightened Danger, something that adds urgency and dread to the story

I set out to use a variety of TRDs, the more the better, weaving them in every few hundred words or so. By showcasing Sabrina and Sam’s longings, my goal was to create a story that, because it was so twisty, got readers thinking about the unexpected and essentially fluid nature of authenticity—in art and in love.

One of the stand-out moments of my career was when Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, emailed me that she was going to publish “Night Flight to Bali,” She wrote: “Love it! So dark and twisty.” I shouted “Yes!” to my computer monitor, then did a happy dance around the room.

I hope you enjoy the story, my first effort at writing raw.

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Familial Faultlines (September/October 2017)

There are few better sources of drama than the family, as many of the stories in this issue illustrate. If one is well advised to keep friends close and enemies closer, then perhaps one must keep family members closest of all.

A death in the family often provides an occasion for changes—such as for the widow in Charles Todd’s “The Trophy” who seeks solace in the countryside of southern Wales, or the woman in Jane K. Cleland’s “Night Flight to Bali,” who is suddenly freed to cash in a forged painting upon the death of her domineering mother.

Or family ties may throw up walls that are difficult for outsiders to penetrate, such as in the investigation into possible insurance fraud involving a disabled teen and his mother in John Shepphird’s “Electric Boogaloo,” or the tangled relationships revealed by the court transcript of a case of a contested will in Eve Fisher’s “Happy Families.”

But sometimes such ties can be powerful motivators—such as for the Muslim woman who hires Beijing P.I. Il yong to find the Uighur son she’d given up for adoption in Martin Limón’s “The Smuggler of Samarkand”—or sources of support and encouragement, such as Jack Tait finds in his formidable aunts as he tries to prevent a rush to judgment against a black tenant farmer in the Depression-era South in “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered in an Open Field with no Footprints Around,” by Mike Culpepper.

Other stories in this issue feature a perfect storm of disasters for Deputy Hector Moody when his car breaks down in the Gallatin mountain range in David Edgerley Gates’s “Cabin Fever”; the outsized dreams of a mid-level accountant in Max Gersh’s “Self-Portrait”; a copyeditor using her wits to foil an e-mail scammer in Steve Hockensmith’s “i”; a volatile partnership between a writer and an actor in Janice Law’s “The Front Man”; an aging spy recalled to action in Michael Mallory’s “Aramis and the Worm”; Dr. John H. Watson encounters a gentleman with a strange health regimen in “The Vampire of Edinburgh” by James Tipton.

No matter the state of your relations with other relatives, our readers are valued members of the AHMM family.

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Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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Mysteristas Interviews B. K. Stevens

At Mysteristas, B.K. Stevens talks about her series character Leah Abrams, and much more.

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“Spinning Gold from Family Hay” by Nancy Pauline Simpson

Nancy Pauline Simpson is the author of B.O.Q. and Tunnel Vision (an updated edition of which is now available electronically from all e-book retailers). Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “Rough-Hewn Retribution” (from the March/April issue), and the development of the story’s characters, Miss Halzetine Polk and Deputy Sheriff Stickley.

All families come equipped with stories and a lot of those stories include a mystery. Whether those stories get passed on depends more on the number of raconteurs a family produces than the number of babies. In the case of my family, a particular spot in central Alabama and the time popularly known as “The Downton Abbey” era produced a glut of raconteurs. In England, that era represented the lull before the storm of World War I. In the Southern United States, it was the lull between storms, one of which was still rumbling in a lot of people’s living memory. Under seemingly still waters ran a class system based on race. The peculiar interdependency of Blacks and Whites generated family stories that can lead a writer in fictional directions that just wouldn’t be credible in another setting.

One of my family’s stories was the jumping-off point for “Rough-Hewn Retribution.” (Other stories served the same purpose for two earlier AHMM stories with the same setting.) I’d heard the basics—a hotel porter reporting his suspicions about a traveling salesman to his employer, leading to extreme consequences—multiple times. Three generations from the original version, I have no way of knowing what, if any, of it was true. But, since anybody who could verify any part of the story is long dead by now, I felt free to let my imagination fill in the plot details.

The characters of Deputy Sheriff Stickley and county nurse Hazeltine Polk evolved from family members, but their occupations did not. I chose those occupations in order to bring Stickley and Polk into contact with people and situations my real-life kin—especially the respectable female ones—might have been shielded from. Stickley may be uncomfortable allowing Miss Polk to examine a male corpse’s genitalia, but—because she has been trained as a nurse—he defers to her superior knowledge of human anatomy and stifles his squeamishness. He admires the county nurse’s level-headedness almost as much as he admires her auburn hair. And he has his own professional ambitions. Those ambitions naturally mesh with his personal goal of winning Miss Polk’s affection. He hopes she’ll appreciate that the doggedness, integrity and powers-of-observation that make for a good investigator also make for a good husband.

I wanted to make their compatibility—and chemistry—clear. I also wanted to show contrasts. Both are intelligent, but Stickley has had little formal education. His appreciation for art and literature is instinctive, not taught. Stickley’s fractured grammar is distinct from Polk’s more refined English. Miss Polk would never correct his grammar, of course, and not just because it would be ill-bred to do so. Women are assumed to be more particular about such niceties as grammar. In an attractive, sober man, character and good sense can compensate for a few rough edges. In any case, cleverness disguised as folksy simplicity has a long history of its own. When Stickley refers to “the Oracle of Delphinium,” is it a verbal blunder or is he just pulling his own leg? The reader understands from his context that he knows perfectly well what an oracle is.

For me, the most interesting element of a mystery plot is the motive. When the crime involves violence, that motive should be a doozy. The “why?” of crime is more compelling to me than the “how?” In the case of the criminal psychopath, there is no rational “why.” I am relieved when forensic science stops a serial killer in his bloody tracks, of course. But the criminal who responds to emotions everyone has experienced is more intriguing. When Stickley asks the retiring sheriff how he could have committed such a grisly act years earlier, the reader knows that the answer comes from a sane man.

The crime may be poorly-thought-out. It may cost the criminal as much as it costs the victim. But I like the reader to share the feelings that motivated the crime, if not the decision to follow-through. We may argue about which motive pushes Hamlet over the edge (and Hamlet is, after all, a mystery), but the audience empathizes with all of them. “Rough-Hewn Retribution” is no
Hamlet, but there are plenty of motives to pick from. And, maybe, a few of them will rouse a little empathy.

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“Multi-Tasking” by Dale Berry

 

Dale W. Berry is a commercial artist and designer, graphic novelist (see the Tales of the Moonlight Cutter series), and the founder of Myriad Publications. In December 2015, AHMM published his “Not A Creature Was Stirring,” the first graphic short story ever to appear in the magazine, and in the current issue (March/April), we published a second, his suspenseful “Dead Air.” Here he talks about that story, and how graphic storytelling and the mystery genre work together.

Sometimes I think the process of creating graphic short stories—of telling a tale visually on the page as well as in written words—is like having to do the same thing every writer does, but times two.

You imagine the plot and characters, maybe a certain sequence or relationship, and then conjure the words to describe them. You live and breathe and compose them into existence. Difficult enough, even in the best of situations. But then, somewhat ridiculously, you must do it all again, in sketches and thumbnails, in pencils and inks, and graphics and print production.

In the end, though, it’s worth it. Because that fusion of words and pictures, laid out in sequence like movies on paper, connects in the reader’s mind differently than words alone. And that’s always been the real magic of “comics.” They can float a global corporate film franchise, sure, but they’ll also take you into your most private space. There’s really no great, cosmic backstory necessary.

For me, that’s why creating them in the mystery genre makes sense, especially in short form. Graphic storytelling can capture a moment. Arranging and re-arranging that sequence of little pictures evokes mood, atmosphere and motivation. It allows you to examine an intimate human drama, building and dissecting conflict and suspense, beat by beat. You go deeper.

And the mystery genre does the same thing.

The two forms were made for each other. If I’m wrong, then Alfred Hitchcock never storyboarded the shower scene from Psycho.

For “Dead Air”, in the latest issue of AHMM, I drew (pardon the pun) on my 25+ years as a radio disc jockey to tell the kind of intimate story that mysteries and comics both do well: the isolated protagonist is confronted with a potential life-or-death puzzle, and must solve it while the clock is ticking.

It’s a classic set-up. It’s also classic live radio . . . you can ask any disc jockey. God forbid you let “dead air” happen, even as somewhere out there a listener is connecting with you in an immediate and intimate way.

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