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How to Write Historical Crime Fiction

William Shaw, author of the historical mystery series Breen and Tozer, which is set in London in the late 1960s. We asked him for his advice about how to write a historical crime novel.

 

1. Research.

Obviously. It wouldn’t be a historical novel if you didn’t. Inevitably, though, you will find you do two chunks of research. You can’t begin to write a word without immersing yourself in your era. But be prepared to start the research over once you’ve finished. After 100,000 words or so, you’ll have more questions than you started with.

However, unlike at the start, when you’re just wallowing in piles of history books, now your questions will be ultra-specific. Like, how long would it take to drive across London in 1968? What coins did London phone boxes take? Once you have specific questions, you can call up real experts, and you know what? They won’t mind at all; in fact, that’s where the real fun starts.

For A Song for the Brokenhearted, I had found a naturalist who could tell me about British wildlife in 1964. And when I found my expert, it was like they had waited for years for someone to come up with that topic.

 

2. Embrace the known unknowns.

The juiciest bits are the bits between the facts. History leaves holes; this is where you play. There’s not much in the way of a record of Thomas Cromwell’s childhood, so Hilary Mantel was free to make it up in Wolf Hall. Whatever your era, the language of the common person is probably only sketchily recorded, so you’ll have to imagine what they said and how they said it.

 

3. … but beware the unknown unknowns.

Some of the assumptions you thoughtlessly make will turn out to be plain wrong. When I wrote my first draft of She’s Leaving Home, I had Constable Helen Tozer driving a police car all the way through the book. Luckily, my recent historical past features people who are still alive. I met a couple of women who had served in Tozer’s police division in London in 1968; when I ran the plot back to them they were fine, until I reached the bit about the driving. They looked at me like I was insane. “Oh no. Policewomen didn’t drive cars, then.” Really? Ok. Major redraft.

You might have your characters in a 12th-century European novel sitting down to breakfast before going to work in the fields, as Ken Follett does in Pillars of the Earth. Most people won’t notice, but all it takes is one person who knows that wouldn’t have happened… (Confession: I only know this is wrong because a disappointed historian pointed it out in a review).

 

4. Wear your knowledge lightly.

Just because you have spent days researching the Victorian sewer system doesn’t mean you have to inflict everything you know on your reader. It is enough for them to get a sense of what Victorian London smelled like. As in any fiction, the only detail that is relevant is the stuff that enhances theme, characterization and plot. Everything else is showing off.

George MacDonald Fraser, writer of the brilliant Flashman books, tucked his knowledge into footnotes that were so well-written, they were as entertaining as the text itself. And then there’s the language. Yes, it’s good to use words and phrases that remind you of a period, but verily, don’t over-egg ye pudding.

 

5. You must have a time traveler in your cast list.

Finally, the single most important thing is… you must have a time traveler in your cast list. Let me explain. If crime fiction is a type of morality play—as I think it always is—then historical crime exists in a really, really weird moral universe. How do you begin to reconcile the wacky beliefs of the age you are writing about with our liberal modern present? How are you going to cope with a world in which your even your best characters must presumably think that, say, slavery is perfectly normal, that women should have no rights of their own, and that homosexuality is utter depravity?

The trick is that somebody in your book—usually a narrator figure—is not really from that time at all. This is a hell of a thing to pull off. C.J. Sansom manages it brilliantly with his narrator Shardlake. Shardlake shares our revulsion with the cruelty and religious zealotry of his time, because he is like us. Shardlake is disabled and his outsider status has, over the years, forced him to see the world differently.

In my Breen and Tozer series, it’s not the narrator, but the sidekick who is out of her own time. Breen is more or less of his age. It’s his loud, rock music-loving Tozer who represents our point of view, challenging his post-war preconceptions of how the world ought to be. The trick is to find that character, and if you can, you’re halfway there.

 


William Shaw is the author of Salt Lane, The Birdwatcher, and the Breen and Tozer series.

You Call That A Crime Novel?


 

Why isn’t every novel that hinges on a crime or criminality considered a crime novel? When books come along and we throw them into their chosen pigeonhole, it feels like our aim is often a little off. Here are five famous books that could, with just a little argument, be considered crime novels.

 

The Literary Novel:

The Spy Novel:

The Classic:

 

The Classical:

The Fantasy Novel:

 

 


About Malcolm Mackay

Malcolm Mackay is the author of For Those Who Know the Ending which is definitely a crime novel, and the Glasgow Trilogy, which has been nominated for several international prizes.

 

 

Year End Review: Don’t Tell Me

Dial M

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Will the hero still have a pulse at the story’s end? Will the young woman have the wit to pick the man who really cares for her? Will the professor get tenure?

These are urgent questions and as a reader I’ve never wanted to know the answers before the author was ready to tell me. As a writer, I’ve assumed other readers were similarly inclined.

But maybe not.

For example:

(1) A woman I know reads widely and ardently, but will never begin a book until she’s read its last several pages. Something compels her to read the ending first. Doesn’t this spoil it for her? Evidently not. It’s spoiled for her if she doesn’t approach it in this fashion. (This only applies, I should add, to fiction. When she sits down with a book about the War of 1812, she doesn’t have to begin by reading about the Battle of New Orleans. Unless it’s a novel about the War of 1812, in which case she does.) Continue reading “Year End Review: Don’t Tell Me”

My Digital Confession

CobbleA recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Oz isn’t real because Dorothy was dreaming the whole time.

Norman Bates’ mom is actually dead – he just wears her clothes. 

Harrison Ford’s wife was the killer in PRESUMED INNOCENT.

If we were in the time of the height of the popularity of these films, and you were on the way into the theatre to see one of them and I stopped you in the lobby and told you these spoilers, you’d serve me up a well-deserved knuckle sandwich. Why? Because I would’ve ruined the movie for you. A child would understand that. And it takes a child-like mentality to believe otherwise.

The New York Times piece wins a gold medal in the Rationalization Olympics as it tries to support the notion that being pre-told the surprise/shocking/unforeseen conclusion to a story doesn’t necessarily take away from the movie-watching or TV show-viewing or book-reading experience.

As humans we’re wired to hope for “The Surprise Ending” because we innately know that life itself is full of surprise endings.  Your life can end as soon as you step off a curb … or, as it did in my case … it can change forever as soon as you swing your fist at another. Continue reading “My Digital Confession”

Start Reading Fifteen Digits by Nick Santora

Prologue

The problem with all you lawyers,” Mauro lectured Spade, “is you think the support staff ’s nothing but replaceable parts—just warm bodies in blue blazers running your files up and down the floors whenever you snap your fingers. You guys treat us like we’re invisible.”

Rich Mauro sat back in the booth and took a pull on his beer. Spade studied him for a moment, then smiled a disconcerting grin— a Cheshire Cat That Ate the Canary kind of thing.

“And that’s why you’re where you are and I’m where I am,” Spade pointed out smugly. “Where you see problems, I see opportunities.”

Jason Spade leaned across the table, over the half-finished Harp’s and the untouched onion rings. In the crowded bar, between the blare of the Smithereens on the jukebox and the howl of drunk Irish electricians toasting some dead union brother, there was no need to whisper, but Jason Spade’s was the kind of idea that demanded secretive tones. Even if whispers weren’t required by the environment, they were called for by the very nature of what he was about to propose.

“The benefit of being invisible,” Jason whispered, looking straight into Mauro’s eyes, “is that people don’t see you when you’re robbing them blind…now, how ’bout you and I get rich, Rich?”

And with that simple question, a chain of events began that changed, destroyed, and ended lives. People would be maimed, tortured, and killed. Millions of dollars would be stolen, then stolen away from the thieves themselves.

It was a question that would eventually make Rich Mauro, Jason Spade, Vicellous “Vice” Green, Dylan Rodriguez, and Eddie Pisorchek suffer beyond measure. Some of them would die because of it.

After it all went down, to the ill informed, it appeared that it happened because of money. But to those who were involved in it, to the guys who were so deep in the mess that it covered their mouths and pushed up into their nostrils, they understood that it all happened for love—love that was pure and real or love that had never been there to begin with, but love nonetheless.

And all of it—every cry of agony, every drop of blood—it all began with that conversation between Rich Mauro and Jason Spade, a conversation that lasted less than fifteen minutes, on a summer night, over a couple of beers in a graffiti-stricken booth in the back of McMahon’s Pub.

Nick Santora was a lawyer before his first screenplay won Best Screenplay of the Competition at the 2001 New York International Independent Film Festival. A co-creator, executive producer, and writer for the hit A&E show Breakout Kings and former writer and co-executive producer of Prison Break, Nick Santora lives in Los Angeles, California.

FIFTEEN DIGITS is available in bookstores everywhere.

The Story In My Head Has a Soundtrack

wireI can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I love music. Music is a constant companion—at work, at the gym, relaxing around the house, and especially when writing. Maybe it’s from all of the soundtracks at the movies setting the moods in a film, but for me music is an integral part of my writing. In fact, when writing, I even create playlists for characters. While working on “Moonshiner’s Lament” which appears in the MWA VENGEANCE anthology, music played a role in shaping the story.

When I sat down to write this tale, all I knew was that the story would be set in Appalachia in the early ‘70’s, and I knew the hero would be a Vietnam Vet who has returned to his old ways of hauling illegal whiskey. When I began, I had was this framework and an opening line (Goat McKnight’s hands ached for a gun). That was all. Then, it struck me where Goat would be. I wrote the first page at a blistering pace. I re-read what I had written, and immediately pulled up my Window’s Media player and started creating what became “Goat’s Playlist.” This list became what played through my earbuds while writing and re-writing “Moonshiner’s Lament.”

The first songs were no-brainers. Who can write about moonshine without Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road,” or George Jones’ “White Lightning.” For me, the Cat-Daddy Appalachia moonshiner songs has got to be Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and yes there is an homage to Earle’s song in my story.

To get into the mood of the 1970’s era, I leaned heavily on classic rock—The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, CCR as well as others. Rock and roll was part of the soldiers serving in Vietnam. The Doors and Stones songs all seemed to be what would be playing when soldiers thought about being back home having a good time. And when you hear Jimi’s blistering guitar or listen to CCR’s “Running Through The Jungle” you can feel the humid jungle weighting you down, and hear the staccato insanity of a firefight with tracers racing around.

Goat McKnight wound up going into the military to avoid prison for running moonshine, so Goat seemed to share the rebel spirit of the original country outlaw artists. As a result Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings were in heavy rotation on Goat’s playlist.

A few albums helped set the tone of the story as well. Dierks Bentley’s UP ON THE RIDGE ALBUM is a bluegrass influenced country CD. The title track played while I was working out the first scenes up on the mountain. Since all of the songs on Kathy Mattea’s album COAL are about miners and the mining life, every track went on the playlist. Her song “Coal Tattoo” has a cadence of a moving car and that song played in my head while I had Goat driving the night away.

There were many other artists and songs, too many to list, though some were definite standouts, songs that seemed to speak directly about some part of Goat’s tale while I was writing. These were—Bruce Springsteen (Born In the USA), Brantley Gilbert (“Hell on Wheels”), The Cumberland River Band (“Let the Moonshine Flow” and “Rock Island Express”) as well as Old Crow Medicine Show (“Big Time In The Jungle”).

Most writers have some rituals. Some writers have to write at specific times or locations. Others have to outline or not outline. For me, whenever I open up to start a story, as I’m looking at the blinking cursor on the blank page, I click on my music library and hit play.

Check out “Moonshiner’s Lament” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, in bookstore now.

Rick McMahan is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2012 marks his twentieth in law enforcement. Rick’s work wakes him to counties across central and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell County, the area featured in “Moonshiner’s Lament.” His myster stories have appeared in various publications, including the Mystery Writers of America anthology Death Do Us Part. He also has a story in the International Association of Crime Writers’ forthcoming collection of crime fiction from around the world.

Hope You Guessed My Name

Key Scratched CarWhen the folks at Mulholland Books asked me to write an article to introduce their anthology of mysteries titled VENGEANCE, I passed. It’s a subject I’m uniquely qualified to discuss, but I didn’t want to attract attention to myself. I cherish my anonymity, my ability to listen to the conversation beside me, or blend in among the crowd at a sporting event. I value my invisibility because you know me. You’ve seen me in countless films: the Boston crime saga, the British spy flick, the one about the lawyer who developed a conscience. I’m the finest character actor in the world, known for immersing myself in my roles such that no one ever recognizes me on the street.

Ultimately I changed my mind because I have a story to tell. I once met an actor before an audition. Back then he was starting out, but today he’s one of Hollywood’s leading men. We worked together on one of his action movies. Here’s a hint: the assignment he’s given? It’s not an easy one. Let’s call him Ted. From the moment Ted arrived in Hollywood, he was cocky and ruthless. At the audition, he told me a friend of his – we’ll call him Jimmy – had beaten him out for a part last year. It turned out to be a great role. Jimmy was coming to the audition today, too. When Ted told me he was dying to avenge his loss, I suggested he dent the casting director’s Audi and tell her assistant Jimmy did it.

It worked. The casting director wouldn’t even let Jimmy read for the part. But after the audition, Ted discovered a gash on his Porsche. Ted knew Jimmy had done it. He also knew where Jimmy lived. I reminded Ted that if he didn’t respond, he’d be a punk for the rest of his life. I urged him to drive to Jimmy’s house and show him who was boss.

When we got there, Ted knocked on the door and Jimmy let him in. They argued. When they got to the living room, four guys were waiting for Ted. They beat him to a pulp. You think Ted’s nose job was driven by vanity? Think again.

“I knew you cost me this audition,” Jimmy said, “and I knew you’d come running if I scratched your baby. Looks like we both got even.”

Shock registered on Ted’s face when I stepped out from behind Jimmy and put my arm around him. I’d helped Ted square things with Jimmy, but I’d also helped Jimmy settle the ensuing score with Ted. I can do that. I can be in an infinite number of places at the same time. And that’s why it was so important for you to read this story.

You know me. You speak to me when a driver cuts you off. You cry for me when a classmate bullies your child. You yearn for my help when your spouse cheats on you.

I’m here for you. My name is Vengeance. Give me a chance and I’ll set things right.

All it’ll cost is your soul.

Check out Orest Stelmach’s story “In Persona Christi” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Orest Stelmach is the author of the thriller The Boy from Reactor 4, the first in a series featuring Nadia Tesla, and the historical mystery Lady in the Dunes, the first in  aseries set in 1950 Provincetown featuring Father Sean Kale. A Connecticut native, he went to kindergarten speaking only Ukranian. He still tries to use as few words as possible. Orest and his wife divide their times between Connecticut and Cape Cod. Visit him at www.oreststelmach.com.

The Lineup: Weekly Links

Contrasted ConfinementThe Boston Globe ran what is quite possibly the best review of Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER we’ve ever read. Reviewer Hallie Ephron, noting the novel’s “unforgettable characters” proclaims that this “terrific read” brings to mind “memories of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, and even As I Lay Dying with its journey to lay a soul to rest.” Ephron ends her amazing rave with this zinger: “When I reached the final page, something happened that I can’t remember ever happening with a book I’ve read for a review. I wanted to read it again.” Many congratulations, Joe!

Kirkus also has weighed in with high praise for Lansdale’s newest, calling the novel “a highly entertaining tour de force.”

Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review also had high praise for DARK WATER, calling the novel: “A charming Gothic tale….as funny and frightening as anything that could have been dreamed up by the Brothers Grimm–or Mark Twain.” And don’t miss the New York Times‘ amazing spotlight on Joe’s illustrious career as well.

Excited for Marcia Clark upcoming second Rachel Knight thriller GUILT BY DEGREES? Don’t miss the $0.99 digital short IF I’M DEAD, featuring the feisty LA prosecutor and the characters you’ve grown to love from Clark’s nationally bestselling debut GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

We happen to be pretty big Josh Whedon fans at Mulholland Books, caught the critically acclaimed horror-thriller-with-a-twist CABIN IN THE WOODS this weekend and loved it. Did you catch it? What did you think?

Did we missing something sweet? Share it in the comments! We’re always open to suggestions for next week’s post! Get in touch at mulhollandbooks@hbgusa.com or DM us on Twitter.

Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles

Los Angeles at nightTThe paperback edition of Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association is in stores now! Now’s the perfect time to check out the debut thriller about which People call a “gritty and intriguing thriller that sings.”

Marcia’s main character LA District Attorney Rachel Knight describes many favorite places in Los Angeles in Guilt by Association. Check out Rachel Knight’s LA:

Historic Biltmore Hotel, Gallery Bar, Downtown Los AngelesThe Biltmore Hotel: Rachel Knight’s glamorous home. “The sheer beauty of the hotel lobby struck me afresh: the stained glass set into the soaring dome ceiling, the ornately cut Lalique chandelier, the plushness of the huge oriental rugs spread over dark henna-colored marble floors. Walking into the lobby always felt like I’d been enfolded in the embrace of a Rubenesque duchess. “

Engine Company Number 28: Location for Rachel’s illicit lunch with the coroner’s investigator. “An LA staple for over twenty years, the restaurant in a restored firehouse is still a popular spot. The original firehouse that had stood on the same spot in 1912 was now restored with mahogany booths, brick floors and pressed tin ceilings – and the original fireman’s pole. “

Continue reading “Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles”

Austin Grossman Interviews Daniel O’Malley

Austin Grossman had three pressing questions for THE ROOK author Daniel O’Malley. Here they are, in no particular order.

a)  What would you say the greatest super-secret organization in SF and F?  What were some models used for THE ROOK?

I don’t know that anything was actually a model.  But some fictional secret security organizations really made an impact with me.

I remember that the White Witch’s secret police in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe made me feel deeply uneasy at the time. “Some of the trees are on her side.” And it’s led by a wolf. So, I’ve always held a soft spot for them. Although, in retrospect, what kind of secret police leave notes signed ‘Captain of the Secret Police’?

And I don’t know if they count as super-secret, since everyone knows they exist, but the Militia in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station really struck me when I read about them. Police that walked around in disguise all the time, only to emerge out of nowhere when there was crime. They pull hidden masks out of their collars, and sometimes they are riding flying jellyfish. They’re scary police, I don’t want them in my town, but they’re pretty damn cool.

 With The Rook I wanted to give the sense of a regular office where bizarre things were happening in the background, or incredible occurrences were being discussed in a perfectly serious and deadpan way. I think the Men in Black movies did a good job with that sort of thing. I also wanted a place where many of the staff, from the elite commandos through to the phone receptionists, might have supernatural powers. Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Zander Cannon and Todd Klein did a terrific comic called Top 10, and it was about the police in a city where everyone had super powers. So, the guy cooking your hotdog might be doing it with heat vision, or the boy band on the radio might all be former sidekicks. My organization is not quite so saturated with powers, but I remembered that, and thought it was fun.

b) If you knew you were going to have total amnesia, what’s the first note you would write to your future self?

Continue reading “Austin Grossman Interviews Daniel O’Malley”