Writing Historical Mysteries

I joined my love for writing historical fiction with my love for mystery stories when I wrote the first book in the John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mysteries: The Spoils of Avalon. It came about because of two things: First, I missed my characters of Sargent and Paget from my novel Portraits of an Artist so much that I kept hearing their voices talking to me and insisting I write them back onto the page! Second, as I had already written about these two people “seriously” in the novel, I wanted to set them up in a more amusing and entertaining way, to bring out their playful and witty natures — so I brought them to life again as amateur sleuths. This is a growing genre that has many celebrities on offer: Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and the team of Henry, William and Alice James, to name but a few.

Mysteries as a genre tend to be plot-driven — i.e., the actual murder and the solving of it are the primary concern. Because I have real, historical people as the main characters, my focus is more character-driven – -i.e., the story tends to reveal how the characters react and respond to events and other people, to show their feelings, thoughts, personal dilemmas and idiosyncrasies, all while they are involved in solving a mystery. Still, I try to concoct a plausible and interesting mystery that readers will find intriguing and fun.

Which brings me to my particular historical genre: my Sargent/Paget mysteries are definitely in the “cozy village” camp — as opposed to “noir”, “police procedural”, and “thriller/suspense” mysteries. The main components of Cozy Village Mysteries (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple as the sterling example) include: the murders are not gruesome or graphic; very little to no mention of sex (though a lot of hints!!); amateur sleuths who often get in the way of the police, or have a skeptical ally on the force; and humourous and witty dialogue and situations.

In short, lots of fun and light-hearted reading, but in my mysteries, I also try to reflect on larger issues, both historical and contemporary (as in, “there is nothing new under the sun”). In the Spoils of Avalon, I was fascinated by the difference between two time periods: the late 19th century Victorian culture, which had been shocked and derailed by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the immense changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the changing nature of colonialism that would ultimately bring down the empire; and the mid-16th century, still medieval world of monasteries and small English villages, steeped in religion and ritual, about to be destroyed forever by the apostate machinations of Henry VIII and his henchman, Thomas Cromwell. (Guess I’m kind of showing my Catholic side there, lol.)

Enough for now! Keep on reading!

Why I wrote “J”

Over the winter of 2006-2007, I read Harold Bloom’s “The Book of J” – an enthralling literary critique of Genesis and Exodus, accompanied by a stunning, elemental new translation from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg. The translated passages were the only ones that scholars contend can be attributed to the “J” author of the Old Testament, hence, The Book of J.  In Bloom’s critique, he surmises that “J” may very well have been a woman, a member of the royal court of David, and one whose irreverant and humorous attitude toward Yahweh, the patriarchs and religion itself would have naturally led to subsequent priestly censorship.

Scholars agree that the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) was written and composed over many hundreds of years by different people.  The oldest or earliest sections of the text were probably composed at Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. (“before the common era”) during the reigns of David and Solomon.  Later versions often completely suppressed earlier stories for political, social or religious reasons; sometimes duplicate versions were just tagged on, and of course, many new stories, histories, poetry and polemics were added as time went on.

“J” stands for the original author, the “Yahwist” named for Yahweh – or Jahweh, in the German spelling, as it was German theological scholars who started this author naming process in the 19th century. They named this first author after the name of God most frequently used in those texts. The later strands of Bible stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are all revisions or censorings of J, and their authors are known as “E” (Elohist for “Elohim,” the plural name of God used for Yahweh in that version); “P” for the Priestly Author or School that wrote Leviticus; “D” for the author(s) of Deuteronomy; and “R” for the Redactor (or revisionist/editor) who performed the  “final” revision after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile.

After reading Professor Bloom’s book, I was compelled to write my own story of J, and how she came to be The Woman Who Wrote the Bible.  Here’s a taste of the novel.