Is That the Time?

Kieran Shields here with another guest blog.  Since it’s fresh on my mind, I’ve decided to discuss something that I talked about today in a phone interview with Suzanne Fox, a fellow author who does reviews for Publisher Weekly, among other things.  It was a fun interview and we both jokingly apologized for how little sense our questions and answers were making.  My excuse was that I have a real clunker of a head cold that made me even less coherent than usual.

It was a half hour talk designed to produce maybe a single quote for an article, and Suzanne mentioned she had researched prior interviews by me and would be covering some of the same ground I’d already addressed in other formats.  I made her promise to use the older, pre-canned quotes if they sounded smarter than my current answers.

She’s writing a piece about Victorian mysteries and it turns out she had just read something like eighteen books in twenty days as research. Given that accomplishment, she was remarkably clear headed.  I couldn’t decide whether I was jealous or sympathetic about her task.  I often find I spend so much time in reading non-fiction for research that I don’t get to read as many good fictions titles as I’d like.

One of the topics that we talked about was the decision to place a mystery novel in a certain time period.  Not just in terms of personally finding that period interesting or full of the right atmosphere that an author wants to employ and hopefully readers will love as well.  But also the strategic decision to choose to make a mystery historical in the first place and to choose a particular time period over another.

Although I used the word ‘strategic,’ it does strike me a bit out of place. What I mean is the process of weighing the pros and cons of where in time to set a mystery.  I don’t want to sound like I’m turning the creative process into an actuarial event.  But even if I was totally caught up with an idea set in a specific year, and dead set on writing it no matter what, at some point I’d have to face the question of  how am I going to make the story work based on that time period.  How much effort and research does that involve versus how much extra value does a certain historical setting bring to the story?  Does it open the door for interesting character backgrounds and era-specific plot lines or does it threaten to bog down the story by requiring too much description because readers will be too unfamiliar with the period?

When I was thinking up the story of my first novel, a lot of factors went into the final decision to set a series in the 1890s. I was aware that I would need to engage in a considerable amount of research just into the nitty-gritty of how things worked one hundred and twenty years ago.  And that has turned out to be case.  But it also dawned on me that the amount of research required for a historical versus a current day mystery might not be as lopsided as I first thought.  In some ways, a historical mystery may require a broader field of research but that research doesn’t always need to be as deep and detailed as might actually be required in a modern mystery.  On the down side, I had to research things as mundane as the procedure for actually making a phone call in 1892.  Details like that can help capture the essence of the time period, and provide readers with a sense of being in that time.   But on the bright side, there aren’t many folks around these days who are intimately familiar with such minutiae from over a century ago.  So if I don’t get it 100% right, it’s unlikely I’m going to be hounded by an irate antique switchboard operator.  The same is true of the technical elements of my stories.  The field of criminal forensics was in its infancy at that time.  Choosing that period essentially puts me, the readers, and the novel’s protagonists all on equal footing in terms of education about the process.

People will often comment about how much historical research I must have done, but in the end I think it was the right strategic and creative decision for me.  I find the idea of trying to write a modern mystery, and having to be well versed in the constantly evolving technical and scientific matters involved in modern criminal investigations to be a far more intimidating challenge.

I thought about asking whether readers find modern or historical crime novels more interesting in terms of the technical aspects – the current CSI-like elements as compared to the antiquated detection methods of older times.  But then I suppose the answers would boil down to personal taste and whether the author does his or her job of crafting a story that draws you in, a  plot that moves you along, and engaging characters that you want to see again. Those are the only truly important elements of a good mystery, and that doesn’t change over time.

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2 Responses to Is That the Time?

  1. Hi, Kieran,
    Interesting post, but it made me curious. What other periods did you consider and reject before settling on the 1890s? With the Salem backstory, I could see your first novel set either earlier or later, although it works wonderfully well just where it is. Good decision.


    • Kieran says:

      I mostly wanted it to be on a century anniversary of the witch trials for plot purposes, but I quickly dismissed 1792 as not culturally/scientifcially different enough from the era of the trials. And 1992 was too technologically advanced to fit the story I had in mind, so that went out the window as well. I also considered scrapping the anniversary element and placing it in the 1910s/20s to give it a slightly more modern feel. I think that time frame during and after WWI is very interesting. Maybe I’ll visit it in a future project.

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