The Layers of Writing Historical

Author Jeri Westerson writes a Tudor mystery series and a Sherlockian mystery series (and other time periods). In 2012 (!!!) I interviewed her on this very blog – not sure why we’ve let so much time go by without another post – but I’m delighted to have her back. Jeri’s just released novel is The Twilight Queen – a King’s Fool Mystery.

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Writing historical mysteries comes with its own set of problems. There’s already the problem of writing a historical but on top of that is this layer of mystery woven throughout. Dorothy Sayers talked about her Lord Peter Wimsey book BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON as a love story interrupted by a mystery, and that’s how I see historical mysteries. A perfectly good historical novel interrupted by murder. 

As with science fiction or fantasy, there is a certain amount of world-building that needs to happen, and by that I mean that the reader must be thoroughly positioned in that time and place. The smells, the sounds, the feel of it all must be part of the prose without devolving into a travel log or documentary. Everything must be real for the characters and no one should seem out of place. And because readers of historical fiction and mysteries are very particular and have purposely stepped into your world to time travel, the history has got to be authentic.

But how does that work when you are writing a work of fiction to begin with?

I consider the history the skeleton of my story. If the skeleton isn’t sound, if it’s made of fictional history, then it doesn’t give enough structure to the rest of it. It’s also more of a challenge to try to fit your square fiction into the round hole of the actual history. It must be the other way around. Readers who like historicals have the expectation that it will be as accurate as possible. And let’s be frank. Writing about Henry VIII’s court is already fraught. So many readers “know” the history. Ah, but do they? Have they researched it like I have, or are they relying on films and other fictional depictions? And then I have put that other layer on top, seeing the world of Henry’s court through the eyes of the court jester instead of other courtiers. Which means well-known events are portrayed from a particular eyewitness’s level of society. It’s going to mean something different to the jester than it would to one of Henry’s trusted but perhaps manipulative cronies.

Research, as you can imagine, is the most time-consuming part of the writing process. I do some initial research before I start to write so I can ground myself in what’s going on at the time, but even as I write there are constantly things that need to be addressed with further research. The real people who walk into the story. Some complicated point of politics must be simplified. Hampton Court looms large in the whole picture most people have of Henry VIII, but I’m in the throes of writing the third book in the series and we haven’t been there yet, mostly because it depends on what point of history is happening in that particular story, and we always seem to wind up at Greenwich…which was Henry’s favorite palace anyway.

How is this research accomplished? Plain old-fashioned book reading, which means buying good books by trusted historians (probably not who you might be thinking of) and a trip to my local university library for further reading (and by the way, do not ignore those footnotes. I have found the best turns of plot in just the footnotes).

Then there is the internet. I can contact people in archives across the pond to get information I need and sometimes I can simply Google something, like a cathedral floor plan, and it comes up! More and more archives are available on the web, and more information than ever is uploaded. Gotta love the internet! But beware. Check your sources and then double check. 

There’s hands on research, too. I have a collection of medieval weaponry, mostly daggers and swords, mail, helmets, pieces of armor. How did it feel to wear these items, to use them? What do the clothes feel like? What does the food taste like? So make the food, brew the ale. All of these things have to be done to really get a feel for the era.

I’ve often been asked if I would like to time travel back to England in the fifteenth century. If I could get access to a time machine, I would certainly go back and step out. I’d love to really smell those streets and observe the people. I’d like to taste the food the way they cooked it rather than relying on the medieval recipes I have. I would like to see the shopkeepers and touch the wares they are selling. I’d like to eaves drop on conversations to hear the cadence of the language and how they used their words and how they pronounced them. 

And then, I’d climb back in that time machine and go home, because I know how good we’ve got it here and how tough and foreign it was back there.

A novel is that time machine, at least for the readers. I like to let them walk around in it.

Many thanks, Jeri for explaining the multi layers of historical mysteries.

The Twilight Queen by Jeri Westerson

Court jester Will Somers is drawn into another gripping and entertaining mystery when malevolent forces strike again at the court of Henry VIII – and Anne Boleyn is the target.

1536, London.
 Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, is in peril. In the mid of night, court jester Will Somers is summoned to an urgent assignation when she discovers a body in her chamber. The queen wants Will to find out who the man is and how he ended up there. Is someone trying to frame her for his murder?

Queen Anne has many enemies at court, and to make matters worse, Henry VIII is lining up his next conquest and suspects his queen of treason. Has the formidable Thomas Cromwell been whispering vile lies in the king’s ears, and could the queen be the target of a Catholic conspiracy? As further attacks plague the court, Will is determined to uncover the truth behind the plotting and devilry, but he will need to keep hold of all his wits to do so!

Jeri Westerson is the author of a Tudor Mystery series the King’s Fool Mysteries, with Henry VIII’s real court jester Will Somers as the reluctant sleuth, with the second book in the series just released, THE TWILIGHT QUEEN. And her Sherlockian series, An Irregular Detective Mystery with one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars all grown up and solving his own cases under the judicious eye of the Great Man, will release its second in the series in July, THE MUMMY OF MAYFAIR. See more at JeriWesterson.com

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY. Use the SUBSCRIBE function on the right hand side of the page.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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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4 Responses

  1. Soooo true on all parts of the layers of writing Historical Fiction. One particular issue I have to deal with and one I deal with it with the poor reader in mind….Roman names. While mom and pop call their kids by their FIRST name, but no one else is allowed except for their marriage partner. They must use the second and third name. Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Family= Gnaeus . Friends= Julius Agricola. Formal introduction= Gnaeus Julius Agricola.
    And then there is the issue of ALL sons carrying their father’s exact name (ie…All are named Gnaeus Julius Agricola) and all daughters carry the feminine form of father’s name. ( Julius/Julia).
    I just simply cannot put my reader through that hell trying to figure out who the heck is he;/she talking to. So , for the readers’ sake, I defy those historical truths and stick to one name for the hero Julius. and nicknames the others. Baby Gnaeus. Gnaeus etc. Arrrgh!! Imagine trying to write or read a hot argument between friends and family over one of the kids.

    1. I feel for you. I only write French fiction and since the French used the last name a lot up to the 70s, I sometimes have to break the rule and revert to first names. It irks me, especially when I know that my mother for instance, would never have used her father-in-law’s first name. It should have been Monsieur Callard. Far too formal, so they didn’t call each other anything. How do you write that?

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