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!