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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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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“The Most Beautiful Train in the World”: The Coast Daylight in the Mid-20th Century

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Photo Credit: Postcard of the Noon Daylight leaving San Francisco, 1949, Jim Fraiser, Los Angeles, CA: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Today, trains seem like one of those quaint, old-fashioned things we reminisce about. But if you’re a writer or reader of historical fiction (or, for that matter, a fan of classic films), trains seem as real as the SUVs and 747s of today.

There’s a romance attached to trains, and this is something I wanted to capture in my story “Soul Destinations,” which is part of the collection in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. The story takes place in the mid-1950s, when more modern forms of transportation were starting to become popular (such as cars and planes). Joan, the protagonist of the story, is the old-fashioned kind, and her dreams of traveling begin with a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I was happy to find in my research that there was an actual train that traveled that route during this era, in fact, quite a famous one.

The train, run by the Southern Pacific, was called the Coast Daylight, or, simply, “the Daylight”. The Daylight’s first run was in 1937, and it soon rose in popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The train was indeed advertised as “the most beautiful train in the world” because of the amazing California scenery that graces the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco (which, if you’ve been fortunate enough to travel the Pacific Coast Highway, you may have seen). The train ride in the mid-20th century was about 10 hours, so people had a lot of time to sit back and enjoy the coastal views and mountains rolling past their windows, to read or sleep or chat or do some soul searching. And they could do it in a luxurious style that I think hardly any train (and certainly no car or plane) can boast today. If you’re curious, here are some photos from the era of the inside of the Daylight passenger cars. They look pretty comfy to me!

Photo Credit: Southern Pacific steam locomotive at Jack London Square in Oakland, CA, May 1981, taken by Drew Jacksich: Flickr upload bot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The Daylight was also pulled, for a while, by one of the most famous steam engines in America, the 4449 steam engine. It has a futuristic look to it that immediately reminds one of the old 1950s sci-fi films and TV shows (The Jetsons, anyone?) The locomotive was used to pull the American Freedom train in 1976 which traveled all over the county in what made up a moving museum, with lots of American relics on it, stopping at many cities so people could admire them. The 4449 now rests in a museum in Portland. You can see it and learn a bit more about its history here.

The Daylight isn’t only a practical means of transportation for Joan, the protagonist of “Soul Destination” but it’s also symbolic of the journey she and Gary, an aging musician, take into their own pasts that end, as most trains do, at a new destination:

“Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

For both of them, the Daylight, then isn’t just a physical destination, but a psychological one as well.

The Daylight, unfortunately, went the way most trains did later in the 20th century, when both car and plane travel became more popular, efficient, and time-saving. In 1971, Amtrak took over the few remaining Daylight trains and turned them into the Coast Starlight, A 35-hour train from Seattle to Los Angeles that still runs today.

To read “Soul Destinations” and the other four stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, plus an author’s note and a sample chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, go here.   

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Art in Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: Vintage art flea market, created 2 March 2014, uploaded 24 October 2016: teliatan/Pixabay/Pixabay license

If you’ve read some of my books, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to make associations. I’m drawn to different works of art that often times relate to my characters and help bring out their psychological reality. For example, in False Fathers, the myth of Actaeon and Diana plays a heavy role symbolically in Jake’s story (something you can read more about here and here). 

I usually don’t plan these things ahead of time. During the outline or first draft phases of my writing, certain associations will come to me, and I’ll research a myth, book, artwork, musical piece, etc., and realize the symbolic and/or thematic significance of it and then weave it into the story. Sometimes it becomes something major (like the myth of Actaeon and Diana), and sometimes it gets only a mention. 

Although literature is my usual comfort zone, I also find certain works of art fascinating, and two of these found their way symbolically and thematically in two of the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Photo Credit: The Nightmare, Henri Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old)   

A painting I found a while back while looking for images for my old blog site that absolutely intrigued me was Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. I actually did use it for a time until I got my logo and put that on the site. The painting, as you can see above, has very gothic, dark undertones reminiscent of popular late 18th century gothic novels (and the painting was indeed created during that time period). As described in this article, the painting was shocking in its immoral and sexual undertones when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781. The painting appears in my story “Soul Destinations” where Gary, an aging musician haunted by ghosts from his father’s past, tries to explain to Joan, the woman he meets on a train, about a hallucinatory demon named Lucas that exists in his father’s mind:

“Have you ever seen Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare?” Joan nodded. “That woolly demon sitting on the sleeping woman in white,” said Gary. “That’s Lucas. Always crouched over someone with those hollow, evil eyes and that twisted mouth.”

Lucas becomes a symbol for Gary of many things: his failing musical career, his father’s unstable mental health, and the tragedy of a man he never met caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: The Disquieting Muses, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916-1918, The Hidden Art Treasure: 150 Italian Masterpieces, Exhibition in Naples, March, 2017: Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain

The other painting that makes an appearance in Lessons is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses, which appears in my story “Two Sides of Life.” The painting depicts two of the nine mythical Muses of Greek mythology: Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy (representing by the sitting muse with the red mask lying near her feet) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (who stands beside what looks like a straight candy cane, which represents her staff). The picture, even with its brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and greens, is disturbing in its abstractions of the faceless, bald muses. 

However, the protagonist of the story, an empty-nester named Leanne, sees the muses differently in a sculpture inspired by de Chirico’s painting shown to her by her husband’s lab assistant, an art enthusiast:

“I’m not familiar with the Muses,” she admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be.” He smiled, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked like a grasshopper resting on a tree stump. “The one with the sword is Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Her sister, Thalia, is the Muse of Comedy.”

“I see,” Leanne murmured. “The two sides of life. Sadness and joy.”

Leanne later relates this idea of two sides of life in her connection with Arlene, a woman who is a generation younger than she is and has only disdain for the women of the Occupation: Housewife era.

I first heard of de Chirico’s painting through reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Disquieting Muses”. The painting is striking, through not really my style (I prefer more classical paintings like The Nightmare). Plath’s poem, like my story, appropriates the painting in a different way. You can listen to Plath reading the poem herself here.

If you want to read these stories, feel free to pick up a copy of Lessons From My Mother’s Life. Buy links can be found here.       

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