What is Historical Mystery Fiction?

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Photo Credit: Old book and magnifying glass, taken 20 January 2017: Pxhere/CC0 1.0

The tagline for this blog (bet y’all didn’t know it had a tagline…) is “psychological insights on history, mystery, and the arts.” Much of this blog deals with history, and I’ve dabbled here and there in the arts (such as my revisiting of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth here and my discussion of the role art plays in one of my books here.) But so far, I haven’t dealt with the mystery part of my blog.

Why? Because I wanted to bring you into the world of my current books, the Waxwood Series, and my stand-alone post-WWII women’s historical fiction short story collection (that’s a mouthful…), Lessons From My Mother’s Life. As much as I love classic and historical mysteries, I wasn’t ready to turn to the topic of historical mystery on my blog.

But now that the Waxwood Series has come to a close, I’m super excited to bring you all into my world of historical mystery fiction. So I’m starting with the basics: Just what is historical mystery fiction anyway?

On the face of it, a historical mystery is a subgenre of mystery fiction or, more specifically, the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Many might see the only difference between historical mystery fiction and mystery fiction is that the former is set in the past while the latter is set in the present (or future, but then, we get into sci-fi mystery if there even is such a thing.)

The genre has a relatively recent history. Classic mysteries like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Amelia Butterworth series have, of course, been around for quite a while. But these are books set in their own time, and so were contemporary to their original readers, even if they are historical to us. The first actual historical mystery fiction was a series of short stories set in the pre-Civil War era (if you’re curious, they were written by Melville Davisson Post and can be found here.) The first full-length historical mystery novel was written by — no surprise — the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie. Murder Comes At the End is set in Ancient Egypt, so it’s a huge step away from Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

The cross between mystery and history becomes interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers into a world of the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved, but they’re also giving readers insights into another era. And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but the crime and criminals that such an era would have produced and how those crimes were solved and the criminals caught.

The latter is especially important because we have to remember that crime detection, investigation, and conviction has changed drastically over the centuries. There was no DNA testing and no real scientific forensics to help solve crimes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fingerprinting, for example, didn’t begin until the late 19th century. So crime detection was relatively primitive and crude in most cases, which makes it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective to solve them, but, I would argue, more fun for readers to follow. 

As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people lived and breathed their time and I love solving puzzles, which is one reason why I decided to delve into the historical mystery genre. My upcoming series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, takes place at the turn of the 20th century when America was beginning to clean up its act regarding the corruption, greed, and graft of the Gilded Age. Progressive Era reforms were starting to take shape in many American institutions, including the judicial system. 

The first book of this series will be out this summer, but you can read more about it here.  

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Social History: Putting the Human Element Back into History

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Photo Credit: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, 1872, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust, UK: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

I’m starting out this year as a revisionist (in a sense). I’m revising my perspective on my writing and my passion for history by examining what really makes them tick. For those who have been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve had several transformations in the past years. I started out in 2017 as a contemporary literary fiction writer believing in psychological reality in fiction, something I am still fascinated by and still incorporate in much of my fiction. Then I discovered a way to transform my passion for history, especially women’s history, into stories about resilient women and the nooks and crannies of history that don’t always come up in historical fiction. 

Last year, I completed the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga set among San Francisco’s elite. I discovered that my real passion for history lies more in its social and psychological aspects rather than its politics and events. Those terms can sound a little vague and academic, so this month, I’ll be talking about what social history is and what it means in my fiction.

Let’s begin with a simple definition: Social history is history with the human element thrown in. Not that political or economic history isn’t about humans, as all history inevitably is. But you’re more likely to read a book about or set in the Civil War, say, where the people or characters are players in the big event. Social history looks at the people who participated in history, how they were affected by it, and how they influenced it. In my Civil War example, a novel might be about African American soldiers (actual or fictional) and their daily struggles not only with the war itself but with the racism surrounding them on the battlefield, forsaking a more blow-by-blow account of the events of the war. Social history gives us a window into the way people lived and breathed in their time and, sometimes, the values and beliefs they held that we want to acquire or release in the 21st century.

Social history is actually an academic field of study that emerged in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t much of a surprise, since much of the social awareness that emerged during these times required knowledge of the past. For example, the Civil Rights movement was built on the oppression and heinous crimes of slavery and on racism not only of the present but of the past. Similarly, the second-wave feminist movement, as I discuss here, took the issues the 19th-century suffragists were fighting for to the next level.

When I say I focus more on social history than on political and economic history, I mean that how my characters live and relate to their environment matters to me. The more academic perspective of social history often looks at the bigger picture, like the movements, systems, and structures of history. These are important, but I also find the way people related to these social structures and lived within them (or rebelled against them) is part of what makes history so fascinating and relevant to us today. 

Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the Waxwood Series, is a great example. Like many 19th century women, she is locked in social systems and structures with very rigid definitions of what women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a member of the Nob Hill elite, adhering to the social norms of the aristocratic class (which is especially true in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women). Later, she moves into suffragism and progressivism, but, just as she had to revise her position in her Nob Hill world, she also has to examine her values and beliefs against those of her new world (which you can read about in the last book of the series, Dandelions). 

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, social history plays a huge role. The series begins in the first years of the 20th century when many people were still reluctant to leave behind Victorian values for the complexity and fears of the modern. Like Vivian, the series main character is a social reformer, and when she moves from San Francisco to the small, dusty town of Arrojo, her forward-thinking ideas aren’t always embraced, appreciated, or understood. 

You can find out more about that series here. The first two books of the Waxwood Series, which were re-edited and refreshed in 2020, are here and here

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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The Buccaneer in Nineteenth Century America

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Photo Credit: sdigitall/Depositphotos.com 

If you’ve read the first book of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, you might already be familiar with the term “buccaneer” as it pertains to the 19th century and to the Gilded Age in particular. Early in the book, there is gossip amongst the Nob Hill blue bloods about Malcolm Alderdice, the patriarch of the Alderdice family, and his rise in business and society:

“Oh, that poor Penelope, the woman was such a lamb!

“Too good for him for the likes of her father’s clerk, to be sure. Can’t think why she married him.”

“Oh, that’s obvious, my dear. Where there’s money to be had, rest assured, the buccaneer shall have it.”

“True, Catherine, true. And who can say how far the buccaneer will go to make himself one of us?”

So the buccaneer was a popular image in the 19th century Gilded Age, especially in the realms of the public sphere.

Ever since I started writing historical fiction, definitions and word origins fascinate me, and the word “buccaneer” is no exception. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as “any of the freebooters preying on Spanish ships and settlements especially in 17th century West Indies” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). This is the way I think many of us picture the buccaneer — something off of a pirate ship, a bad guy who looks like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

But in the 19th century, the word took on the more figurative meaning that exists today in our modern world which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “an unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). As I mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age here, the 19th century was a time when big businesses were built, millionaires were made, and corruption and graft abounded. It wasn’t just about spending money in an excessive, lavish way. It was also about making it — any way you could, whether it skirted the laws of fair trade or not.

In this atmosphere, the modern buccaneer was born. Ambitious, ruthless, and driven, the buccaneer was a wheeler-dealer whose only interest was getting ahead and making money. Thus, he often used unscrupulous business methods. Probably the most infamous of these in the 19th century were the Robber Barons. These were men like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan. In San Francisco, there were specifically four heavy hitters who made up the railroad Robber Barons: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington. 

We do, however, want to consider that these men, while ruthless in business, also did some good works. Many had the “pay it forward” attitude, and some of America’s most impressive institutions and cultural centers were built from their initiative. For example, Leland Stanford served as governor of California and instituted forest conservation and, as a believer in education, oversaw what is now San Jose State University and, of course, founded Stanford University.

And, interestingly, the term began to acquire less negative connotations around the mid-20th century, at least in Britain. According to this article from the BBC, several powerful corporate businessmen saw the term as connoting qualities of daring, adventure, and innovation.

While Malcolm Alderdice is not on the scale of Stanford or Carnegie, San Franciso society is none too keen to accept him into the fold, and this is part of the Alderdice family struggle in the series. There’s also another buccaneer who appears in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women. His name is Monte Leblanc, and he’s referred to by a minor character as “our cousin, the Canadian buccaneer”. His cousin (one of the San Francisco social matrons) insists he made his fortune “without ruffling any feathers”. Whether that’s true or not remains a question in the novel.

You can read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out next month, here. You can also learn about Malcolm Alderdice and his buccaneering ways in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, which is currently on sale for 99¢. And if you want to know more about the series in general, including Book 4, which will be coming out at the end of 2020, you can go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Buccaneer. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/buccaneer.

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Jake and Vivian Alderdice: Isolated Siblings

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Photo Credit: Siblings,  Carl Froschl, 1913, oil on canvas: Mutter Erde/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 80 expired

May 2 is National Brothers and Sisters Day. Since I’ve been working on Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, I thought this would be a perfect time to revisit the characters of Vivian and Jake Alderedice, the sister and brother of the Alderdice family. I say “revisit” because I’ve written about both characters in the past (about Vivian here and about Jake here). But Book 3 finds them both older, wiser, and, in some ways, very changed.

I talked here about how a novel I wrote in 2004 evolved into this series and some of the changes from novel to series. One thing that didn’t change was the relationship between this sister and brother. I envisioned Vivian and Jake as rather isolated as children which, in that contemporary version, was due to the dysfunctional family dynamics of the Alderdices. That disfunction became more complex when I decided to put the series in a historical context because so much in the Victorian era was hidden and “not talked about”. Often times, my fiction works off of metaphors, images, and symbols and the playroom became the metaphor for Vivian and Jake’s isolated world. On the top floor of the massive Alderdice Hall, Vivian and Jake spent many hours there, left to themselves because of the Victorian era idea that “children should be seen and not heard.” In The Specter, the first book of the series, Vivian describes the playroom in this way:

The playroom looked just as she and Jake had left it the last time they had played there as children. Maids still kept the dust out, and the sailboat window was locked so as to keep out intruding creatures. She turned on the gaslight, and the yellow glare immediately illuminated the small cabinet with the transparent door where the glass circus still stood in mid-action, ready for its audience of delighted children. She approached the cabinet and feeling for the panel at the bottom of it, pressed the flap back. 

There were images that stuck in my mind when I was writing about the playroom in earlier versions of the story: The round windows, like you see in a ship’s cabin, toy soldiers Jake’s grandfather had bought him as a child as a sort of token of the manliness he expected from him in the future, and the display of glass circus animals in the cupboard (which, I frankly admit, was inspired by Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie). As children, virtually ignored by their elders, Vivian and Jake created a make-believe world together, though one that was less defined than, say, the worlds of Gondol and Angria created by the Bronte sisters, but in Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, Jake asks his sister to pose for a painting in the wax woods, and the picture he creates is a sort of mythical child-like Diana in an enchanted forest.

Photo Credit: Sister and Brother (Portrait of Ernesta and Philip Drinker), Cecelia Beau, 1897, The Atheneum: BoringHistoryGuy/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 70 expired   

When I started to rethink the series in the Gilded Age era, I also realized that, while family secrets and lies play a role with this family, there was another element that contributed to the close-knit relationship of these two siblings: time. The Gilded Age saw a lot of families rise to the top and legacies form and along with that, generations of young men and women who were burdened with rigid social and conventional expectations. Vivian and Jake, I knew, were not ones to bend to social conventions and therein lay their psychological reality. Conflicts of family expectations and obligations on the one hand, and the quest for their own identity on the other, are what drive both Vivian and Jake in the series.

You can read more about Vivian and Jake in The Specter and False Fathers, the first two books of the Waxwood Series. And to find out more about the series itself, you can go to this page.    

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Ghosts From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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Photo Credit: Photo Credit: evdoha/Depositphotos.com

My historical family saga, the Waxwood Series is about more than just an affluent Nob Hill family coming to grips with the startling changes happening in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s also a story about a Gilded Age family whose lies, half-truths, and myths force every one of its members into change. It’s about the psychological ramifications that go with the personal and social baggage of history.

The series changed greatly from the novel in three voices I started out with in 2014 (something I talk more about here). Similarly, many of the characters, including all the members of the Alderdice family, went through their own evolution. This is especially true because expanding the original novel into a four-book series gave me space to really explore the psychological reality of each character and tell his or her story. 

Penelope Alderdice, the Alderdice family matriarch of the older generation, is one of the most evolutionary characters in the series. When I wrote the novel, she wasn’t even a character. That book was about the current generation only (and a few other stragglers who will be appearing in a novella I have in mind as a series off-shoot one of these days). To turn the novel into a family saga, I had to add characters from the older generation because, by definition, family sagas go back for several generations. Also, I knew older generations leave their wounds upon the younger, whether they want to or not. At that point, Penelope was still a shadowy character, someone in the background who was, predictably, a product of the separate spheres. I had, to put it bluntly, no interest in exploring her life further, since my series was about the more revolutionary journey of her granddaughter, Vivian.

In 2017, I started my newsletter and wanted to give subscribers a free gift that would give them a little extra about the Alderdice family. So I took a scene from the old novel and expanded it into a short story called “After the Funeral”. The plot took place at Penelope Alderdice’s funeral where an uninvited guest claims to have known “Grace” in her youth, revealing things about the Alderdice matriarch Vivian and her brother Jake never knew. I realized the story could and should be expanded into a book that kicks off Vivian’s journey to self-discovery. That book became The Specter, the first book of the Waxwood Series.

I realized my earlier mistake in dismissing Penelope as just another Angel in the House. She was, in fact, a much more complex character, emotionally and socially. She was also the engine that begins Vivian’s journey to maturity and her ghost and its secrets bring the entire family to self-awareness. Penelope’s story, which begins about halfway through The Specter, tells of the sort of woman you would expect to see in Gertrude Atherton’s The Californians, a book about  San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850s and 1860s. Penelope’s angelic demeanor prepares her for the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman, but there is more to her than that. Her one moment of rebellion has ramifications for the entire family for generations to come.

To find out more about The Specter, which will be revised and updated later this year, go here.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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