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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.

An Author’s Inspiration: On The Fate of Mercy Alban

doors1I’m lucky enough to spend my days writing novels of gothic suspense in which family secrets and scandals bubble to the surface in big, old, haunted mansions. Ever since my first book hit the shelves a few years back, I’ll oftentimes find myself on panels with other authors at various book festivals and conferences, and one question we’re always asked is: “What inspired you to write your story?” Believe me, when you’re asking mystery, crime, thriller or suspense novelists this question, you’re going to get some strange, eerie and, let’s be honest, borderline psychotic answers. Mine included.

Erin Hart’s imagination shifts into high gear when she reads news stories about ancient bodies being pulled out of the peat bogs in Ireland, perfectly preserved. In her four novels, the most recent of which is The Book of Killowen, her lead character investigates these archaeological sites and usually unearths a present-day murder in the bargain. David Housewright revealed that, while attending a crowded music festival, he looked around at the sea of faces and began to marvel at how easy it might be to kill someone and simply slip away unnoticed… and thus began his novel Highway 61, in which an unfortunate fellow wakes up next to a dead body after attending a similar music festival, and thinks he has made a clean getaway until the blackmail threats start arriving.

Now that I’ve got two novels on the shelves, one in the pipeline set for release in January 2014 and a fourth rattling around in my brain, I think it’s safe for me to say that I’m most inspired by place. I need to create the setting where my characters are going to do whatever it is that they do, and then the story flows from there.

My current novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), bubbled to the surface during a tour I took of Glensheen Mansion, a stately, old home on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Once a private home and now a museum, Glensheen has its own haunted history — matriarch Elizabeth Congdon and her maid were murdered in the house by Elizabeth’s daughter and her husband, no less, and reportedly both of the slain ladies remain — but I wasn’t interested in writing their story. I wasn’t looking for story inspiration at all. I was just taking the tour.

It was a gorgeous summer day on Lake Superior, and after wandering from room to glorious room inside, I walked out onto the patio that spans the whole length of the house. I stood there gazing at the meticulously-manicured lawn that flows out to the lake, which was glittering in the summer sun.

I thought: “What a great place to host a party!” And I started imagining it — men in their summer suits, women in long, cotton dresses, servers in black circulating with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I could almost see the ghostly images of the revelers there in the yard, talking, laughing, listening to music wafting through the air.

And then, being the type of writer I am, I thought: “Ooo. What if somebody wound up dead at that party?”

I could clearly imagine that, too. A gunshot, a scream piercing the night air, the confusion that would follow — stunned onlookers, too traumatized to move, others running for the door, a police siren, faint at first and then growing louder. The anguished cry of grief as a love is lost forever.

I don’t know how long I stood there, caught up in the scene playing out in my own mind. The thought of it just wouldn’t let me go. And so began The Fate of Mercy Alban, a novel centered around a long-ago summer party at a stately old mansion much like Glensheen, where one of the party guests, a world-famous writer, winds up dead, and the daughter of the host and hostess disappears without a trace.

Now I’m looking for inspiration for my fourth novel. Know of any haunted mansions to tour?

Wendy Webb is the author of the Heartland Indie bestselling novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013, Hyperion), and The Tale of Halcyon Crane, (2010, Holt), which won the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction. Her newest book, The Vanishing, will be released in January, 2014. Visit her online at www.wendykwebb.com.

Year End Review: Don’t Tell Me

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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”

Me and Mike: Sophie Littlefield Interviews Mike Cooper

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!

Sophie Littlefield:  So let’s get the basics out of the way first. You write, I write. You’re the much, much older east coast sibling and I’m the fun-loving west coast one. We both have kids and we both grew up with our noses in books. What else should people know about us to start off with?

Mike Cooper:  We’re bicoastal now but we started in Missouri! – and in a much different time, when children were allowed freedoms that seem extraordinary to me now.  My memory, perhaps unreliable, is that we were completely unsupervised after school and on weekends.  The woods and fields just over the backyard fence were a place of fantastical play: ponds to swim in and skate on, the cemetery and the quarry, the derelict airport with runways like the Bonneville Salt Flats.  How could we not become people who live by our imaginations?

Of course, my stories involve ruthless banksters and exploding helicopters, and some of yours have decidedly noir, even dark elements.  In some ways our lives were difficult and complicated, and that’s as essential as the sunny memories.

We both came to write seriously somewhat later in our lives.  In my case it was after my daughter was born – my wife and I decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent, and what with two naps a day, I suddenly had time to try what had been only a hobby.  (I took one of those naps myself, true.)  I recall you publishing stories, fiction and non-fiction, for many years before you buckled down to novels.  What was the impetus?

SL: I think the better question is, “What took you so long?” And the answer, of course, is fear. I’m astonished at how much I’ve given away to fear over the years. Oh well, middle age took care of that in a hurry. My first novel was tentative, limp, diluted, and derivative. But I learned something from it and from every one that followed, until I finally ended up writing a novel with teeth.

Nowadays, I seek out opportunities to be brave. Lots of extra points if someone chokes on their coffee when I propose a new project. For instance, when I first told my agent my idea for my January ’13 book (A GARDEN OF STONES, MIRA) the pitch was “Japanese internment in WWII, plus taxidermy.” I stubbornly believe there is an audience out there that longs to be challenged.

Which reminds me. Do you remember when you wrote that short story a few years ago and I read it and told you “that story’s a best-seller for sure, drop everything and turn it into a novel”? And then you spent the next few months writing and polishing and submitting it? Continue reading “Me and Mike: Sophie Littlefield Interviews Mike Cooper”

Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Greg Rucka

iraqOur post-Comic Con celebration of come of our enormously talented, cross-media authors continues with an interview between Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and Greg Rucka, whose first new thriller series in a decade kicked off with ALPHA, now in bookstores everywhere.

Brian Michael Bendis: So we’re being honest with our reading audience. Last week you were cool enough to come to my class—I teach a class at Portland State—and you came there and dropped some truth bombs on them, and rattled them to the core. It was a lot of fun. But I had questions left over that we never got to because it was more of a free floating conversation, so there was questions I was going to ask, and I didn’t. And the primary question I had that I think is more pertinent to this conversation than the one we were going to have in front of the students, was if you’ve given thought to your goals as a novelist at this point. Like, there’s the goals that you had when you started, which was to get published—and now you’re starting a new kind of phase in your career, in that age we’re in, we get more introspective. OK, we’ve been published—now what? OK, I get to do this—now what am I going to do with it? So I was curious if you had given thought to that, or if you were bring more take it as it comes.

Greg Rucka: You know, it’s weird, because coming into Mulholland, and Alpha is the first new series that I’ve done in over decade in novels, in prose.  Stumptown was sort of the next step, but Alpha is the first in what is initially conceived of as the first of three novels, and may grow beyond that. I did give it some thought. There were two factors at work. The first is the obvious commercial one—you want to write something that’s going to be successful and you want to justify the publisher’s faith in you. You want to return them the money they’re willing to extend to you to write this thing, and most of the other novels are selling pretty well, but none of them have really broken out, and I’m not sure that’s a top agenda point.

But I would like to be able to write something that rewards the publisher’s faith. That actually does matter to me. I don’t hear a lot of writers talk about it. But self publishing is so viable that if you do go with a publisher you do want to make it worth everybody’s time. Content-wise, you touched on it, you know—I’m older. Like you, I’ve got kids. I have a different perspective than I did when I was 24, when my first novel was published. Continue reading “Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Greg Rucka”

A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part I

Suffering from post-Comic Con withdrawal? Get your fix with the below conversation between award-winning writer Ed Brubaker, author of CRIMINAL, SLEEPER and INCOGNITO, among many others, and Duane Swierczynski, originally appearing to celebrate the publication of FUN & GAMES. Hardie endures!

Ed Brubaker: So, Duane – FUN & GAMES, am I right in saying this is your first non-Philadelphia book? (Not counting any co-writing) Did you leave your hometown behind in life and fiction?

Duane Swierczynski: You’re right — this is my first book set in a place other than Philly. I still live in Philadelphia (for the time being), and my fictional heart still lives here, too. But I do cop to a little bit literary wanderlust. The idea for FUN & GAMES, grew out of repeated visits to the Hollywood Hills over the years, and even though I tried (at one point) to set it closer to home, it refused to work anywhere but L.A.
Ed, how important is “place” in your work? You’ve created this brilliant fictional location in CRIMINAL‘s “Center City,” but was that on purpose? Why not, say, Chicago, or Seattle, or NYC?

EB: I think with CRIMINAL, it was to make it like the city in Walter Hill’s The Driver, or to use Chandler’s Bay City and Macdonald’s Santa Teresa as location names. Also, I was a Navy brat, so I don’t have that hometown thing a lot of writers have. I lived in DC (or right across the bridge in Arlington) in the summer of 1979, so I get Pelecanos’ views of it from the little I experienced at age 12, but I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to a lot of crime writers I love is the way their books inhabit a city, in a way I never could, as the always traveling outsider.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part I”

A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York Times Book Review raved that BLOODLINE offers a “psychologically twisted and strikingly original plot” with a “relentlessly swift pace and high emotional pitch.” Here, we present Part I of a conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. And don’t miss the newest Tom Thorne novel THE DEMANDS, now available in bookstore everywhere.

Mark Billingham: I was thinking a lot about series and the demands that writing a series makes on you and the benefits of it.  Obviously in the last week or so there has been heaps of internet chat in response to the rumor that Tom Cruise might be about to play Jack Reacher. Whatever your thoughts are about that, it’s an incredible testament to the power of the series and the ownership readers feel they have of the character.  Do you feel that Reacher is yours?  Do you feel like you share him?

Lee Child: That’s a great point and it’s something I’ve been very aware of as the years have passed because it’s completely a progression, obviously.  On Day 1, nobody in the world knows anything about Reacher apart from me because it’s the first book. It’s a work in progress, it’s not finished, and nobody has seen it. Then, the first book gets published and then the second and the third.  And gradually the ownership of the character does migrate outwards into the public realm.  I was very aware actually of the particular point which was after eight or nine books, maybe ten books.  Previously to that people were kind of deferential.  They thought Reacher was an independent entity, but they knew somehow he belonged to me. Then, after about the tenth book, he became totally publicly owned to the point where I now get abused just like any other fan with a different opinion.  I count for nothing anymore.  Reacher is completely independent and completely out there.  And you’re right, the casting choice in Hollywood is being made right now.  My attitude towards that was whoever is cast, whoever it was, 99% of the fans would be outraged because it would be a sheer coincidence if whoever it was matched their own personal image.  I think it’s just proof actually of how tightly owned a series character becomes by the readers, which is great really because that is the advantage of a series.  This is a tough trade.  Launching one book every year is a new mountain to climb every time and if you can get any help at all carried over from previous years you need it.  Of course, one of the great helps is, if it is a series, (to borrow the language of credit card companies) the new book is kind of “pre-approved.”  The readership thinks, “Well, I liked the last six, so I’ll probably like this.”  It’s a much lower hurdle to get over.  I think with people who write standalone books, the author’s name obviously continues and counts for something, but you’ve got a slightly higher mountain to climb.  Are they going to like it?  Is it the same as what you’ve done before? You’ve mixed it, haven’t you?  How have you felt about that?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I”

Why I Write “Strong Female Characters”

[This post originally appeared on i09]

Greg Rucka has rocked the worlds of comics and novels for years, including memorable Batman writing, plus the Queen and Country series and the Atticus Kodiak books. But he might be best known for being a man who writes a lot of “strong female characters.”

People always ask Rucka why he chooses to write so many hard-hitting women. And now, to celebrate the release of his new novel Alpha, he’s explaining why.

The first story I can remember writing, that I truly set down on paper, was a Christmas story that I wrote when I was ten years old. The irony of this isn’t simply that I’m Jewish, nor is it that the story was about what happened to North Pole Operations when Saint Nick “went to join the bleedin’ choir invisible.”

No, it was that, in this little school assigned short-story I wrote, the mournful elves were roused from their grief by a determined and forceful Mrs. Claus, who took – ahem – the reins of the operation in hand. Under her steely gaze, toys were made, presents were wrapped, reindeer were harnessed, and the sleigh took flight with her in the pilot’s seat.

It wasn’t, I think, a terribly good story, but it had two things going for it. It had the shameless unselfconsciousness of a ten year old author, and it had a clear feminist agenda.

Shades of things to come.

When I was in high school, I started writing a serial novel, longhand, set in the Arthurian mythos, and influenced not incidentally by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. It was the story about a young pagan priestess, a Lady of the Lake, as it were, named Adriana, and the various adventures, trials, and tribulations she experienced. I wrote this in several college-lined notebooks. This was what I did sitting in the back of the classroom during English. My thinking was, well, I’m writing it in English, aren’t I? An excuse that, incidentally, did not impress my teacher at the time, Mr. Murray.

I still have those notebooks buried in a filing cabinet in my office. As with Mrs. Claus, the story – in memory, at least – isn’t terribly good. And like Mrs. Claus, Adriana was no wallflower. While I’m certain I never once put a sword in her hands or armor on her form, she was undeniably kick-ass, strong-willed and proud and disinclined to back down in the face of adversity.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"In graduate school, I wrote a one-act play called Work Ethic under the guidance of the terrific writer David Milton. There were three characters in this play, two men and one woman. The woman was a Deputy U.S. Marshal by the name of Carrie Stetko, a later-iteration of whom would reappear as the protagonist in the graphic novel Whiteout, written by me, and illustrated by Steve Lieber. Whiteout was my key through the razor-wire and spikes surrounding the comics industry.

Whiteout was made into a movie. There’s a Carrie Stetko in that, too. She shares the name, but the similarities between Movie Carrie, Comic Carrie, and One Act Play Carrie begin and end with the name. Comic Carrie and One Act Play Carrie would shake Movie Carrie down behind the bleachers, laugh her out of the You Share Our Name Club, and send her limping and mewling home to mother. And they wouldn’t feel a moment’s regret about doing it, either.

In early 2001, Oni Press published the first issue of Queen & Country, a comic book series written by yours truly and illustrated by many wonderful artists throughout its run. I later wrote three novels that are – depending on your point of view – either tie-ins or crucial parts of the series. The main character of both the comics and all three novels is a woman named Tara Chace. Tara is a Special Operations Officer for the British SIS, or MI6 if you’re the kind who likes Old School. She’s basically James Bond, except without the hyperbole and the bullshit. Quiller set in a Le Carré-influenced world might be a better description.

Tara can kill people with her bare hands and escape from Iran with two bullets in her body, but she can’t maintain a personal life worth a damn.

There are more. There are a lot more. There’s Renee Montoya and Kate Kane and Sasha Bordeaux, all over at DC Comics. There’s Black Widow v1, Natasha Romanov, and Black Widow v2, Yelena Belova, and Elektra, and currently Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves, all at Marvel.

There’s Bridgett Logan, and Natalie Trent, and Alena Cizkova, all from the Kodiak series of novels. There’s Miriam Bracca from A Fistful of Rain, and there’s Dexedrine Callisto Parios, from Stumptown, and there’s Her Ladyship, Captain Seneca Sabre, from the webcomic that I write and that Rick Burchett draws, called Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. There’s Victoria Black from a Project That Is Yet to Go into Production but by the grace of God will soon see the light of day.

There are a lot of women.

You will have no doubt detected a theme, here. Continue reading “Why I Write “Strong Female Characters””

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”

The Lineup: Weekly Links

Contrasted ConfinementGreg Rucka is everywhere on the internet this week!

Rucka’s new novel ALPHA has received fantastic reviews from the likes of Library Journal, who in a starred review wrote: “Rucka gets his new series featuring Ex-Delta Force Master Sergeant Jad Bell off to a smashing start with this pitch-perfect thriller [that] will appeal particularly to readers who like a strong hero along the lines of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher,” Publishers Weekly, who called the novel “pulse-pounding,” and Booklist, who proclaim it “gripping….A real corker.”

Also check out fantastic blogger reviews from the likes of IE Mommy, BrodartVibe’s Blog, Deer in the Xenon-Arc Lights, and this nice Staff Picks note from Mystery One Bookstore.

For more from Rucka himself, don’t miss the amazing conversation between Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis (Parts I and II), Rucka’s io9 post on writing strong female characters, and Rucka’s interview and podcast with Russ Burlingame of ComicBook.com. Then consult Greg’s schedule and head on down to the event nearest you!

Liam Neeson just signed on to play Matthew Scudder in a forthcoming adaption of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones. Congrats, Larry!

In other Mulholland news, bloggers like Mysterious Reviews have continued to shower the love on Marcia Clark’s GUILT BY DEGREES, while Marcia recently dropped by KTLA in Florida to discuss her newest Rachel Knight thriller. And Deadline reports that Nick Santora has signed a deal to develop new projects with CBS TV Studios and rights to his new novel FIFTEEN DIGITS are currently under auction.

We’re going to go ahead and call The Great Gatsby a crime film if that’s OK with you.

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.