Guest post: Writing an authentic historical mystery

I was thrilled to ask debut author Cheryl Honigford about how she researched the 1930s. Her novel, The Darkness Knows, is a vibrant murder mystery that sparkles with energy and authenticity. I love her answer!

“My debut novel, THE DARKNESS KNOWS, is set in 1938. I was not alive then and very few of the people in my life were either. I do have, however, a passion for the era and a passion for history, in general. To me, writing historical fiction is a way for me to spend inordinate amounts of time researching and “living in” an era that is not my own with the added bonus of being able to produce something tangible from all that research and daydreaming.

So how did I write characters that are products of a time I have no first-hand knowledge of? First, I sought out media (movies, radio shows, newspapers, magazines, etc…) of the actual time period. Immersion in the pop culture of the period was key for me – the music, the hairstyles, the fashions. That gave me a good overall impression of life during the 1930s, but it didn’t tell me how people actually lived. The next thing I did was find memoirs and first person narratives of those that were living in the 1930s. For example, I found a memoir of a radio actor written only ten years or so after that time period. That gave me mundane details about how shows were produced and simply what it was like to be an actor/actress for the radio in the late 1930s. It was invaluable since most information about radio in the era has more of a history text book feel – focused on dates, and names and events. History books, in general, don’t usually document the average details of people’s daily lives, and it’s those details that will bring your historical fiction to life. Diaries and letters can be helpful – especially if you’re dealing with a time period pre-mass media. And if you’re lucky enough to be writing a time period in the not so distant past there are probably people all around you that actually lived it. They’re likely more than happy to share what high school was like in 1963, or how they started and drove a car in 1980.

My two main characters, Vivian and Charlie, are fictional but they are products of a very specific time in history. They were born in the early 1910s and came of age in the late 1920s. Vivian, especially, was formed by the devil-may-care atmosphere of 1920s. Their speech, their interests, their references need to be firmly rooted in that time. My only advice for getting something like that right is to immerse yourself in the time period so that it becomes second nature to you to write in that “voice”. Luckily for me, a lot of pop culture source material of the late 1930s still exists – magazines, movies, old radio shows themselves. I’ve watched countless old movies and listening to hundreds of hours of period radio broadcasts. It’s become second nature to me to know when what’s “period” 1930s or 1940s speech, and I can tell in a heartbeat if something is off or anachronistic (just ask my husband who has to suffer through my pointing them out if we’re watching anything set prior to 1950). Still, it’s difficult to get everything right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled “First usage of <insert word here>”. Words have a way of worming their way into the language and acting like they’ve always been there.

Having said all of that, I think it’s also important to remember that people are people. Human beings’ main motivations remain the same no matter the time period. Love, hate, jealousy – that’s what makes the world go round. It’s the way your characters go about expressing those motivations, however, that may be a bit different depending on your time period. Vivian’s arch rival, Frances, can’t start name-calling on social media in 1938, for example, but she can wage a gossip war behind the scenes at the radio station that’s just as effective in undermining Vivian’s reputation. As long as you are true to your characters base emotions and motivations the historical voice is something that will fall into place if you’ve done your research.”

An excellent journey into writing historical fiction, thank you so much Cheryl!

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