Decisions, Decisions

Kaitlyn Dunnett, aka Kathy Lynn Emerson here. I’m in the very early stages of thinking about my next project, the one I’ll begin work on in earnest after the seventh Liss MacCrimmon mystery and the sixth non-mystery historical are turned in later this year. There are a few things I know up front. It will be in the historical mystery subgenre. It will be set in sixteenth-century England, the era I know best. The sleuth will be a woman. And investigating a murder will put her in deadly danger.

Other than those starting points, everything else is pretty vague. Or to put it in a more positive way, I have unlimited options. What I’m trying to do at this preliminary stage is narrow down my choices and make some decisions. For example, I’ve been looking at locations for the principal setting. I want my detective to live close to London but not actually in the city. Bermondsey, as shown in this painting by Joris Hoefnagel dated c.1569/70, is a leading contender, although nothing is settled yet. That’s the Tower of London in the background, just across the Thames from what was still, in those days, little more than a rural village. The Tower always adds a nicely threatening touch. I look at this image and imagine all kinds of danger lurking behind closed doors. Dark secrets threaten these happy festival-goers, and no doubt there’s a dead body hidden somewhere. Will I actually use Bermondsay for my novel? There’s a good chance I will. Will it be Bermondsey c.1570? That’s harder to decide.

You might think that with fourteen historical mystery novels and five contemporary mystery novels already published (and two more contemporaries in the pipeline) it would be easy to sit down and plan out a new one. Not so. There are a lot of questions to answer before I can be sure I’m on the right track. Okay, I have a woman sleuth. But how old is she? Is she married or single? How about her family? What is her social standing? What special skills does she have that will make her well suited to solve murders? What’s her name? Once I commit myself, I’m stuck with that decision, so it had better be the right one. My last sixteenth-century sleuth, Lady Appleton, solved murders in ten novels and I’m still writing short stories about her and her friends. Once the first book, Face Down in the Marrow- Bone Pie, came out, there was no going back and changing any of the history I’d given her.

I give advice about the basic decisions involved in planning historical mysteries in my How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries: The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing Through the Past (w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson, the same name under which I’ve, so far, written all my historical mysteries). I have a whole chapter titled “When, Where, Who, What, and What Do You Call It?” My advice on the “when” is to keep narrowing it down.

That’s good advice, even if I am giving it to myself. The hundred years from 1500 to 1600 saw a great deal of change. Even though my characters in this new project are not going to be at court, the identity of the person who sat on the throne affected everyone in the country. The century started with miserly old Henry VII. From 1509 until 1547, his son, loud and lusty Henry VIII, ruled England, working his way through six wives and numerous changes in religious policy. Edward VI, the boy king, initiated more religious reforms. Queen Mary took the country back to Catholicism. Queen Elizabeth returned to the Church of England, and as her reign advanced from 1558 until 1603, Puritanism (although it wasn’t called that yet) began to have a greater and greater impact on the ordinary citizen. Her long reign included all kinds of pivotal events, from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to high points of English literature thanks to luminaries like Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. There were advances in technology, and the introduction of shopping malls (really!), and the first appearance of all kinds of previously unknown products, especially foods, that were introduced to Europe from the New World.

The Elizabethan age is starting to edge out the other eras, but that still leaves me over forty years to play around with. I need to pick a decade. Then I need to pick a year. Then I need to do heavy research into what happened during that year and pin down not just a month or a week but a day. I need a day on which something different can happen to my protagonist. It may not be the day of the murder, but it has to be significant in some way. The precipitating event could be real or fictional. I’ve just finished writing a short story in which the action starts with the earthquake that rocked southern England on April 6, 1580. There’s nothing to stop me from using that same event again. In London, the earthquake destroyed a playhouse under construction, to the delight of the conservative clergymen opposed to such frivolity. What if there were also a body?

1570? 1580? Some other year? Decisions. Decisions. Thank goodness none of them needs to be made right away!

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13 Responses to Decisions, Decisions

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Kaitlynn/Kathy — your process for begining an historical is VERY similar to the way I’ve started each of my historicals. Place, time … down to day. Weather is important, too! A very different process from the one I’m finding myself using when planning my contemporary mysteries. Interesting — for many ways! Thanks for sharing!

  2. It’s so true that you can’t go back once you’ve started. In hindsight, I would have changed many things about the Tito Amato novels–relationships, mainly, and his sidekick should have been in it from the beginning. Good luck with this new project. I’m excited about it, too.

    • Thanks for posting, Beverle, but you forgot to mention that you have a new historical series yourself. Face of the Enemy, co-written with Joanne Dobson, is in stores in September. It’s set in 1941.

  3. Any date Kathy Lynn Emerson picks for her historical mysteries will be a great day for mystery readers!

    • Hi, Marilyn. Thanks. And for those not familiar with Marilyn’s mysteries written as M. E. Kemp, they feature two nosy Puritans in Colonial New England and New York. Death of a Dancing Master is the most recent.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Kaitlynn

    I think making decisions is the most critical and sometimes least talked about part of the writing process. It’s an endless conscious and unconscious process as you work your way from “What happened and why?” to “What happened that night?” to “What happened in that exact moment?” All the time you’re writing, you’re ruling out a world of possibilities, which is hard.

    Sometimes I think “writers block” is all about unwillingness to make decisions/fear of making the wrong decision.


    • Good points, Barb. And have you ever noticed that what seems like a brilliant idea one day isn’t nearly as impressive the next? I’m always second guessing myself. And yet, somehow, eventually, all those decisions get made and usually they are the ones that are right for the book.

  5. Rusty Fairbanks says:

    Loved hearing the process – the winding down to find The triggering event/The day, etc. Do you write these decisions (and reasons) down somewhere for reference as you go forward (and for future reference)?

    • Hi, Rusty,
      I wish I had done that for past books. I keep some notes on what I write day to day, but only enough to show me that I have a bad habit of making several false starts before I find the right place to begin. I’m terrible at writing a synopsis, too, unless I write it AFTER I finish the book! On the other hand all those wrong beginnings do usually end up as scenes in the novel. Just not in the place I originally thought they’d be. Will I be able to go back with this one and trace the way I ended up where I did? Hard to say. After awhile it all starts to blur together. The final decisions stick and the rest fade away.

  6. Coco Ihle says:

    Fascinating process, Kaitlyn. I had no idea there was so much to think about in historicals. Research is quite important, but I never thought about how you decide plot, place, time, etc. Really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing.

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