It’s JJ today, reviewing historical mysteries. I don’t have the opportunity to read them anymore, but there was a time I truly enjoyed them. Besides old masters Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, a couple of much-loved favorites from long ago (almost historical in itself) are Anne Perry and Ellis Peters.
If you’re considering writing one, pick a period you’d like your mystery to be set in and get to know it well, because you’ll need to include descriptions and details related to that era. Research should become your new best friend.
Don’t simply plunk history—events, equipment, tools, fashion, politics, concepts—here and there. Consider which elements are central to the tale and use them accordingly. The historical information should be accurate and make sense for the storyline and setting. Then ensure there is a balance between plot/story and those historical components (too much history might prompt a yawn).
If you choose a real city to set your story in, learn all you can about it. What was popular at that time? Who was popular at that time? What did people eat and do for entertainment? How were the roads? What were the modes of transportation? Who ran the city? Enable readers to see the story; create a clear, convincing picture of a bygone period. While true events may not play an integral part in your mystery, they might have caught the interest of, or affected, a character or two. No one, regardless of the century, is oblivious to what is happening around him or her. If a member of royalty is assassinated, surely that would have had lips flapping? As such, maybe it’s worth mentioning in some respect, if only in passing.
Don’t forget language. In the days of yore, people spoke differently. Now, you may not want to plug in a score of “thou art” and “prithee” but do stir in some past-century flavor to boost mood and feeling. And give thought to who’s speaking; an officer of the court or law would speak differently than a lord or lady of the times. Remember: education, like equality, was not granted to all.
Men and women played distinct roles within society and had certain traditions and morals to follow. Women wore rather constricting clothing and men with money sported the fashion of the time. Having a swashbuckling heroine would work for a historic romance, but maybe not so much for a historical mystery. Still, it is fiction—artistic license and all that—so if you think you can pull it off, given the crime(s) and storyline, give it a go. Do remember, though, readers know their stuff. Don’t be surprised if you’re called out on something.
And while on the topic of men and women, just who is your main character, your protagonist and “sleuth”? Develop him (or her) thoroughly, based upon the period you’ve chosen for your mystery.
Last but not least, don’t forget crucial components for mysteries: police/detective work and forensics. They’d not have used DNA or fingerprints in the 17th century to solve a murder or abduction or robbery. Learn how crimes were processed. You don’t have to provide a history lesson—too many details can prove as detrimental as incorrect facts—but do allow “glimpses” how legal folks went about collecting evidence . . . if they even did.
There’s a lot to share about historical mysteries, but I believe—hope—I’ve provided enough to get you started. The rest will fall into place (trial and error, and all that). Enjoy the time-travel trip.
May ye fare well.