Writing Historical Mysteries in Dual-Time Mode: Strategies and Tips

Author Mary Burns returns with advice on dual-timeline mysteries. Her latest novel is The Eleventh Commandment, the fourth Sargent/Paget mystery, which is described as “Sherlock and Watson meet Indiana Jones.” Bound to be an exciting read!! As you can see from the title, Mary’s post is about dual timeline mysteries – something I struggled with when writing Time and Regret.


When I write historical or even literary fiction, I’m pretty much a seat-of-the-pantser—once the research is (mostly) done, I just start writing and see where the characters will take me, with a vague idea of what’s going to happen.

When I write historical mysteries, it’s a little different—one does have to plot a bit ahead in order to leave clues that the reader may or may not pick up on, but which will allow for a plausible and satisfying conclusion. Although truthfully, I often do not know who the murderer is (yes, it’s always a murder) until the last few chapters. In one of my books in the John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Series, I was convinced the murderer was “X” until the second chapter from the end, when it turned out to be “Y”! I was as surprised as they were!

Which brings up the question: Why is it always a murder? I think it was P. D. James who answered that question: (a) because murder is the most horrific of crimes, taking away the life of a human being—way worse than stealing the Queen’s emerald necklace, for instance (that can be fun); and (b) the killer may strike again, so there’s built-in suspense—the closer the ‘detectives’ get to the truth, the more they—and other potential victims—are in danger. 

Finally, using dual-time periods in historical fiction that is also a mystery—now, there’s a challenge! Multiple time periods are a lot more common now than they used to be, but they pose a number of interesting questions and issues that must be handled skillfully.

So here are some ideas, strategies and tips when writing an historical, dual-time mystery. 

  • Because I write a series, with the same amateur sleuths each time, I always start out in their time period, (from 1879 – 1913 for mine) where the initial murder will happen. I’ll call it “current time” vs. “past time”. (I’m now up to 1884 in the timeline of their lives.) This doesn’t mean you can’t also have a murder in the past time, but obviously your amateur sleuth is the one to focus on, with his/her current murder to solve. But of course, something about the murder or its circumstances has to lead them back, eventually, to whatever you have cooking on the past time burner. 
  • Which comes first for you, the writer? I have to say, most of the time I find the past time story I want to write about first, then figure out how to make it line up with the current time. All four of my books were written around a spark that burned in me for an historical event or person: the ruin of Glastonbury Abbey, the Unicorn Tapestries, the plot of a Commedia dell’Arte play of 18th century Italy, and an ancient biblical scroll that caused a scandal in 1883 London. For your current time murder and clue, the “diary found in the attic” motif is getting pretty stale, so be inventive—a music score, a saint’s relic, a miniature portrait in a cameo, a bottle of vintage wine spilled. 
  • Limiting the passage of time in the current time to no more than one week or ten days is very useful—it concentrates the action, heightens the tension, and conforms to the convention that a murder gets solved rather quickly or not at all. (Think TV cop shows—the first 48 hours are the most critical.) The ‘drawback’ to this is that you need to track nearly every day/night during the hunt for the murderer—this can get very detailed and could get bogged down; I get around this, frequently, with major exchanges of dialogue while other things are happening (having dinner, travelling, etc.). This is where the personality of your amateur sleuths can come on strong, making this a lively time of thinking, plotting, arguing, etc. Daily activities and sleeping at night are easily passed over – I believe I didn’t even have my characters go to the bathroom until book three! 
  • Dealing with the “Amateur” sleuth – if your sleuths are private citizens and not police, they have particular challenges. In ‘modern day’ cozy village mysteries, I tend to get really annoyed with the tired trope of the “feisty female bookstore/bakery/whatever owner” who is always getting in the way of the “handsome, blue-eyed, suspicious, hunky sheriff/detective” who tells her to butt out, etc. etc. etc. And then they fall in love. Whatever. Sorry—my pet peeve! But pre-1900, there is a lot more latitude for amateur sleuths—thanks, Sherlock—to be consulting detectives to the real police, or to just solve the case on their own, due to circumstances allowing them access (like being in a country mansion in a snowstorm—that’s not a cliché, is it?). I won’t write about any time that has a cell phone.
  • Try using First Person POV in one or the other sections. My main sleuth, Violet Paget, tells the story in first-person narration, as a ‘recollection’ she is writing about many years later—but the first person point of view brings an immediacy to the story and allows her quirky personality to shine as she comments and gossips about people and events. I usually go for ‘close third person’ in the past sections, but I have also used first-person POV there to good effect. It’s important to make sure, though, that there is a marked difference in the two voices if you go with two first-person speakers: male/female, old/young or different cultures, ethnicities, etc., if you can. 
  • In the “past time” segments, you can be more flexible about the duration of the story. I started out in the first book of the series (The Spoils of Avalon) in March 1537 and went to November, nine months, which covered the last critical months of the “final” threat, attack and dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey in the time of Henry VIII. Unlike the current sections, I sometimes skip weeks or even months in the past sections, jumping over daily details, etc., to get on with the story. In the third book, I took a huge leap, starting in current time in 1882 and going back to 1500 in France (it’s about the Unicorn Tapestries), and then continuing in the past time to tell the stories of two families down through the centuries, skipping over a hundred or so years here and there, and finally ending up at the exact moment in time when John and Violet enter the scene, with a descendant of the original family also right there. Whew.
  • Writing in alternating chapters can be tricky—I’ve had readers tell me “I got so involved with John and Violet that I didn’t want to change to the other time period.” But then, when they get to the end of that chapter, they feel the same! I find that ending each chapter (which I think of as ‘scenes’, really like in a movie) with a question, a surprise, a hook of some kind is the best way to keep the reader going. And it helps you, the author, know exactly where to pick up for the next chapter in that time period. Even though I always put dates at the beginning of each chapter, I find that readers just breeze over the dates and just start reading, so the first sentence of each chapter has to be VERY clear who is speaking from what time frame.
  • Use a two-column table to keep track: For about the first half or so of my mysteries, I make a table with two columns, and when I’ve finished writing a chapter, I write in the proper column the main points that happened in that chapter, and the time/place/date. Sometimes I use the table all the way to the end, sometimes I stop using it half-way through, depending on how strong the impetus is to keep writing, and how clearly the plot is coming to me. Here’s a sample of the chart—the remark in red type is a note that occurred to me at a later point, and I wanted to make sure I would follow it up for consistency:
Outline of The Eleventh Commandment Chapters

As you can see, only two days go by in the first seven chapters of the ‘current time’, whereas the ‘past time’ has gone from 1856 to 1872 in the blink of an eye! There is a lot of excitement in writing in two or more time periods, and especially, figuring out how to link them. Especially if you write a series, there’s always something new and different for your main character(s) to focus on, and the past events are of course an excellent opportunity for introducing your readers to a time period you love and want to share.

Happy Writing!  Please feel free to contact me through my website and ask any questions or share your thoughts.

Many thanks, Mary. Your post makes me want to consider writing another mystery!

The Eleventh Commandment by Mary F. Burns ~~

In 1856, young Moses Shapira entered the Jaffa Gate of old Jerusalem, determined to make his fortune any way he could. By 1872, he was widely recognized as the foremost antiquarian dealer in Europe. Tourists from around the world came to his shop in the Street of the Christians. Museums fought to buy his Moabite figures and pots, excavated with the help of Bedouin tribes, deep in the caves above the Wadi Mujib in Moab.

In 1883, he revealed his greatest find—sixteen strips of hand-inked, leather-like documents—3,000 years old. They told an earlier version of the Last Words of Moses to the Hebrews: what became known as the Book of Deuteronomy. But this version had an extra commandment: Thou shalt not slay the soul of thy brother.

He offered them to the British Museum for a million pounds. The London papers could talk of little else than “The Shapira Scrolls” for three months. But were they authentic? Everything hung on the judgement of two scholars, Christian David Ginsburg, a friend to Moses, and Charles Clermont-Ganneau, his arch-enemy. By the end of the summer, both men declared the scrolls were a forgery, and Moses Shapira left London in disgrace.
Six months later, he was found in a shabby hotel in Rotterdam, a bullet through his head.

But was it suicide, as the police seemed to think—or was it murder? 

John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget face their most perplexing case yet, as they become involved in investigating the death of Moses Shapira—and determining the fate of the Shapira Scrolls.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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