Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the well-received Bruce Kohler mystery novels. She is also a short-story writer of note, having two nominations for the Derringer and three for the Agatha award. Her stories have appeared in both EQMM and AHMM, as well as in several anthologies, and readers will find a new Bruce Kohler story in EQMM in early 2017. Liz is also the author of several historical mysteries, at both novel and short story length. Her books Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, as well as her EQMM stories “The Green Cross” and “Navidad,” are set in the era of Columbus and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In this post she considers how what we count as historical fiction is changing.—Janet Hutchings
I was born shortly before the end of World War II, just too early to be a true Baby Boomer. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was very clear to me when “history” was: back before World War I, when people wore costumes rather than modern dress. As a young adult (in the chronological rather than the book-marketing sense), I knew perfectly well what a “historical novel” was. Whether it was set on Napoleonic battlefields or in ancient Rome, Victorian London or the American frontier, the characters still wore fancy dress, itself a marker for a distinct separation between “then” and “now.” It’s not that I thought that Nazi Germany was culturally contemporary with the Sixties. It’s just that to me, “historical” meant something else, something much further removed from our own times. Nowadays, novels set in the 1950s are considered historical novels by the publishing industry and, I suppose, by readers themselves.
I never expected to write historical fiction myself, and I never would have if a young Jewish sailor named Diego Mendoza had not come knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, demanding that I tell the story of how he sailed with Admiral Columbus in 1492. That encounter became two stories that appeared in EQMM and, eventually, two novels that followed several threads of the Sephardic diaspora, following Diego and his family through Europe to the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Historical? Of course. I made the Mendozas up and meticulously researched the rest.
The concept of history became a problem with my contemporary series, the Bruce Kohler mysteries. Bruce is a recovering alcoholic with a New York attitude, a smart mouth, and an ill-concealed heart of gold. At the beginning of the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, he wakes up in detox on the Bowery and realizes that he has to change his life. I finished the first draft in 2002, and the novel was published in 2008. It’s still in print as an e-book along with four other novels, and the seventh short story will appear in EQMM some time next year. In that fourteen-year span, it is staggering how much our culture has changed, how much New York has changed, and how much the author, yours truly, has changed through the sheer passage of time (okay, aged).
When I first visited the Bowery as a fledgling alcoholism counselor in 1983, how could I have known that by 2015, New York’s world-famous skid row, a haunt of “bums” (no, we didn’t call them that) who frequented its bars and flophouses and passed out in its gutters, would be history? How could I have known when I finally wrote my novel about my experiences there, that by 2008, homeless drunks smoking in their detox ward would be history? In 2015, a publisher who loved my work referred to Death Will Get You Sober as “a period piece.”
As the series continues, Bruce leaves alcohol behind and stumbles toward emotional maturity and into a variety of murders. His sidekicks are Barbara, a nice Jewish girl from Queens whose codependency issues make her a terrific sleuth: addicted to helping and minding everybody’s business; and Jimmy, whom I created as a “computer genius” to deal with any tech issues that emerged as I plotted my mysteries. In 2016, it takes a lot more than it did back then to be a computer genius. In Death Will Pay Your Debts, I had to rescue Jimmy from the collapse of his finances by giving him a day job and sending him to Debtors Anonymous. I also had to rescue him from the reputation I’d given him. He says, “The generation coming up now have had digital everything all their lives and been online since they were two years old. Nowadays any kid can do what I do. I’m not a computer genius any more. I’m just an aging geek who’s never tried to live within a budget.”
Because of the extended life e-publishing has given fiction, we authors now have a chance to update our work, both novels and short stories, for new editions. Besides correcting typos and undoing the damage done by past copy editors who didn’t get our jokes, we scramble to update the tech references. Jimmy brings an iPad, not a laptop, to the beach; Barbara no longer flips her cell phone open. But the changes go deeper than that, and new issues arise as our characters’ lives develop over time. I knew for years that I wanted Barbara to have a ticking biological clock. But I could never figure out when or how to work it in. She and Jimmy have been living together for twenty years, for most of which he’s been sober, in AA, and an exemplary partner. I knew he was wary of marriage and fatherhood, because his alcoholic father was a terrible dad. The moment came in Death Will Pay Your Debts, when Jimmy runs out of money just when Barbara is turning forty and thinking it’s now or never for marriage and a baby. The historical problem, with ramifications that affect hundreds of details in the development of my characters? The OMG moment when I realized that if Barbara is young enough to have a baby, she can’t possibly remember what I remember about the Sixties.