Sharpening the Blade: Borrowing Elements from Mysteries to Craft Compelling Historical Fiction 

With their life-and-death stakes, mysteries have had a profound narrative power since Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone in 1868. In a mystery, the reader often strongly identifies with the protagonist, an amateur sleuth or professional detective encountering clues and experiences simultaneously with the reader. As a result, both intellectually and emotionally, the protagonist and reader are, quite literally, on the same page. Mysteries produce the emotions of suspense, confusion and surprise as well as intellectual curiosity through a plausible matrix of events and character’ motivations. And they deliver a denoument replete with (nearly) complete knowledge and a measure of satisfying justice. In this presentation, historical mystery novel writers Karen Odden (A Trace of Deceit) and Mariah Fredericks (Death of A Showman) and agented historical mainstream author Julianne Douglas (writing on 16th-century France) explore ways to draw upon specific narrative elements fundamental to the mystery genre to write more powerful, compelling mainstream historical fiction.  

Like solving (real-life) mysteries, writing historical fiction often requires an excavation of violence. Whether the context is war (The Nightingale, City of Thieves, The Huntress), class struggle (The God of Small Things, Ragtime), captivity (A Gentleman in Moscow, The Year of Wonders), or gender- or race-based injustice or cruelty (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, Hidden Figures), usually you have a victim, a perpetrator, at least one motive, an initiating event, a timeline (to reconstruct), a cluster of facts (to discover), and consequences.  

This presentation/workshop will focus on several of the most important narrative elements, including the following, and we’ll provide some examples of novels that employ these elements effectively. 

1. An inciting event with a significant backstory. In murder mysteries, the Inciting Event is often the discovery of a dead body. Put simply, if there’s a dead body on page 5, the entire rest of the book is the discovery of how it got there in the first place. That means that dead body usually has a hefty backstory. In historical fiction, the possibilities for the Inciting Event are broad: the Titanic sails, a queen is crowned, a plague breaks out, a spy is put under house arrest. A hefty backstory creates possibilities for the novel’s plot.   

2. A compelling and relatable protagonist with whom the reader strongly identifies, who is trying to make sense of increasingly confusing events. In a mystery the sleuth and the reader discover clues and experience setbacks and red herrings together. In a historical, the protagonist might be a young queen thrust into a foreign court, or a general fighting in enemy territory, or two men sent out on the impossible task of finding eggs in war-torn Russia. Identification with the protagonist(s) is a strong draw for most readers. 

3. A group of well-developed secondary characters, each with their own secrets or desires and small plot arcs. In a mystery, you have a group of suspects—but in order to be plausible and interesting, each characters has their own quirks, desires, and motives. If there’s a dead English viscount, suspects might include the resentful elderly butler, the young maid with a dark secret to protect, and the greedy cousin with gambling debts who needs the inheritance. In a historical, you have allies, foes, and foils, with their own quirks, desires, and motives: the lady-in-waiting who sleeps with the king, the village wise-woman who compounds herbs, or the chef who creates delicious dishes despite severe food shortages. Well-developed secondary characters add complexity, humor, and conflict to a novel. 

4Narrative drive. This is the series of obstacles and rising stakes that create a drive toward a resolution that achieves both knowledge and justice. In a mystery, the killer is discovered and delivered to jail. In an historical novel, the herbalist discovers a cure that enables her to save the life of a deserving character; or the queen learns a piece of information that enables her to save her adopted realm from invasion. Narrative drive makes a novel a page-turner. 

 In this workshop, we’ll discuss how to use the tools in the mystery-writer’s toolbox to enhance the shape, suspense, pacing, characters, and structure of historical fiction, and we’ll be sharing writing exercises that will help you use these tools. Join us on Saturday, June 26, at 1:30 pm CT. See you then! 

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