R.J. Koreto will make his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First stories in the December 2015 issue. The award-winning journalist and magazine editor chose a contemporary setting for that first published work of fiction. But what really inspires him is history and in 2016 his first novel, Death on the Sapphire, the first in an Edwardian-era series featuring suffragist-detective Lady Frances Ffolkes and her maid/bodyguard, will be published by Crooked Lane Books. It will be followed by another novel featuring Lady Frances, Death Among Rubies. In his post, the author shares with us the unexpected challenges he has encountered writing historical mysteries. —Janet Hutchings
The first rule of writing a historical mystery is keeping the characters in the same place. I realized this when writing my first historical mystery, set in Regency England. I backed myself into a situation that required my London-based protagonist to visit another city 300 miles away. Even considering he was a good rider on a strong horse, I suddenly realized I was sending him on a two-week round trip. It was a plotting nightmare.
What would happen to him in all that time? Was there any way to freeze all the other characters in London meanwhile? Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep everyone in London?
But I had gotten the historical writing bug, and happily jumped into the challenges and joys of creating characters who lived in another era. My next historical book is my upcoming Death on the Sapphire, which is set a century after the Regency, during the Edwardian period. Now, I was able to give my characters telephones, motorcars, and, best of all, fast trains all over the country. But there’s a lot more to keep in mind, even in turn-of-the-century England.
Let’s start with how people can die in a murder mystery. They can get shot, but with what? Semiautomatic handguns were around, but rare. A revolver was much more likely. Actually, guns were loud, heavy, and expensive. The nineteenth-century murder preference, I uncovered, was the garrote: quick, cheap, and silent. Indeed, the high collar of early constables, or “bobbies,” was designed to prevent such murderous sneak attacks.
“Bobbies,” by the way, is in honor of Sir Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police Service. The service’s early headquarters were in the courtyard of a building once used by the kings of Scotland as an embassy—hence the nickname it retains to this day: Scotland Yard.
But all is not murder. Even detectives have time for entertainment. Today we like to see a detective brooding in dark movie theater as he turns over the case in his mind. Fortunately, the Edwardian detective, I discovered, had the same retreat: The British film industry was already underway. The Charlton Heston Ben-Hur was actually the third movie version of the famous book. It was first filmed in 1907, using firefighters and their horses in the chariot-race scene. And although Edwardians didn’t have James Cameron, they did have real-life Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson, an actress who played herself in the first filming of the nautical tragedy, Saved from the Titanic, in 1912. (Sadly, all copies were destroyed in a fire decades ago.)
Still, my protagonist, Lady Frances Ffolkes, is a little highbrow, and the golden age of such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford was still in the future. She preferred the “legitimate” theatre, and was lucky, living when George Bernard Shaw was penning masterpieces. She got to see the original production of Major Barbara. She even might’ve noticed a young actor named Edmund Gwenn, who later became well-known to American audiences for playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.
I had to figure out what else Lady Frances did for fun. She danced, and in Edwardian times, that meant the waltz, which was popular and perfectly respectable. But it hadn’t always been that way. I delved into the history of social dancing: In the early nineteenth century, the waltz was risqué—men and women dancing so closely!
But the Edwardians faced their own scandalous dances. At the turn of the century, the shocking tango made its way from Argentina to Europe—clergymen even spoke out against it! And I imagined Lady Frances dabbing her brow with a lace handkerchief as she watched tango dancers—and considered learning it herself.
And as all this transpired, I had to make sure the vocabulary was correct. Without thinking, I had an Edwardian character refer to the “fallout” from a problem. Fortunately, I caught it before sending off the final draft. And I’ve had to be careful about where you use “OK”—and who says it.
At least those things can be looked up. More of a challenge are attitudes. For Death on the Sapphire I had to research the Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa. Yes, there are plenty of accounts, and I know what public opinion was. But what would my characters feel? Perhaps Lady Frances looked at it the way many would look at the Vietnam War, half a century later: an imperial power fighting a citizen army in a distant land. I decided she would have pride in British and colonial fighting men and anger at the politicians who sent husbands, brothers, and sons overseas. Life was different in 1906, but attitudes on love and glory are timeless.
And in the upcoming sequel, Death Among Rubies, I introduce a lesbian couple. Lovers may look at each other the same way throughout history, but I had placed these two in a time where such a union couldn’t even be discussed, let alone admitted. Worse, a sheltered woman from a wealthy family would have no one to ask about her feelings, no place to look them up, even as she was pushed to make a suitable marriage. My characters see the fact that they found each other as a small miracle, but they would also be fearful at being uncovered. Still, lovers have a long literary tradition of fighting for their love since the days of Arthurian romances, and why should Edwardian same-sex couples be any different?
Those are some of the big issues, but as a writer of historical mysteries, I had to look at the small ones too. Take the relationship between a well-born lady and her maid. Historical mysteries love servant-employer pairings, after all: Lord Peter Wimsey had his Bunter, Albert Campion had his Lugg, and any aristocratic female detective had to have a lady’s maid. The trick is translating a kind of friendship that was common enough then but is unheard of today. How many lady’s maids, valets, and butlers do you know?
I decided that Lady Frances and her maid Mallow would share a lot of things—but not necessarily discuss them. Friendship was one thing, but the gulf of class distinctions was wide. It would be impossible for Lady Frances to hide the fact that she had a serious suitor, but it would be difficult to discuss him with her maid. On rare occasions, I imagined, both women might lower their guard briefly and forget they were mistress and maid, sharing confidences—but those would be exceptions. Their relationship, with no parallel today, provides endless fascination for me as I take them through one adventure after another. Yes, there is mutual respect and affection with an almost sisterly love, but feelings are shown more by a change of tone, a raised eyebrow, and a smile than by overt statements.
I learned a lot about Edwardian clothing, manners, weapons, and cars when researching my book. These are just trappings, though. Feelings of love, anger, hatred, greed and jealously never change. What differs is how an earlier society may address these emotions, and the criminal responses they may be driven to. Creating complex characters with believable emotions and motives was the hard part, I found out, no matter when they lived. The historical details are a piece of cake in comparison.
Sorry. That phrase wasn’t likely known to the Edwardians. Make that, “easy as pie.”