Saturday, February 28, 2015

Using Real People as Characters in Historical Fiction

by Larry Karp

For my first mystery novel, set in present-day New York City, I tried to jump-start the narrative by using real people I knew for some of the characters. As I progressed through the first draft, though, it occurred to me that some of the characters were developing very nicely, but others were not. 

 Without exception, the static characters were the ones based in persons from the real world, and the blocks occurred because my perceptions of the real people censored their fictional counterparts. Fictional Muriel picked up the hammer to brain Sammy, but then stopped cold and just stood there - because Real Muriel would never do a thing like that. On the other hand, Alice, created from scratch, didn't hesitate to crease Sammy's skull. Also, as I was delighted to see, the characters' actions were unfailingly consistent with, and true to, their overall personalities and behaviors. Apparently, my subconscious had no trouble turning a tabula rasa into a organically-developed character, but pre-existing conditions were clearly a problem.

My worst situation involved a murder victim-to-be whom I'd grounded deeply in a real person I despised. But before long, I realized that this character's behavior was every bit as destructive to my story as his real-world behavior was to my life. Serves me right, I thought. Leave him where he belongs. So, rather than putting a fictional hit man on him, I took matters into my own hands and sentenced him to exile from my fictional world. Much more satisfying, much better for the story.

Many fine writers don't seem to have this hangup, but for me, real and fictional worlds need to be kept separate; each person's uniqueness and individuality has to be respected. It seems wrong to try to wrench people out of their own developing life stories to inhabit tales of someone else's making.

After four mysteries populated by fully-fictional characters, I decided to write an historical-mystery trilogy based upon real-life events unexplained by history. These three stories would involve such people as Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, John Stark (Joplin's first publisher), and Sanford Brunson Campbell ("The Ragtime Kid"). The idea of trying to explore holes in history via compatible fiction was intriguing, but the notion of creating fiction involving real persons was daunting. I gave some thought to replacing these people with fictional constructs, but couldn't get the story off the ground. It belonged to the historical persons and no one else.

But once I'd read pertinent personal histories to the point of constant repetition, I felt free to fill in the innumerable blanks from imagination. The book was closed, so to speak, on Berlin, Joplin, and the others; they were no longer of this world. In extending their lives through imagination, I didn't feel I was placing their fictional existence at odds with any real-life stories still under development. If they'd still been alive, well, that would have been another story.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Now Purple Cow--A Bogey Man Mystery

by Marja McGraw

It seems that something unexpected usually inspires a story for me. I won’t go into titles, for the most part, in the interest of space.

In my Sandi Webster series, stories were inspired by (get this) the Red Light District in Old Los Angeles, something that actually happened to me in another book, meeting an elderly female private investigator, a photo of a vintage, abandoned house in Nevada, and an admiration for Humphrey Bogart. Another was inspired by what used to be an ostrich ranch in Arizona. An ostrich ranch? It became a llama ranch in short order and included ghostly sightings and a house with character.

Back to the admiration for Humphrey Bogart, a book titled, The Bogey Man was so well received that I started another series involving a Bogart look-alike who wanted nothing more than to become a private investigator. In his case, not all of his dreams came true, but he, his wife and young son went on to become involved in crimes, although against his better judgment.

Chris Cross, known as the Bogey Man, started a forties-themed restaurant with his wife, Pamela. Right off the bat they discovered a body in a basement. That was the beginning of an interesting life. In one book, some Church Ladies tried his patience and skills when they wanted him to find a missing friend. Some Church Ladies in my own life inspired that one. Chris’s eccentric mother came to town and more adventures followed. Yes, I know a few eccentric people, and I should probably include myself in that category.

However, let me tell you that I never expected ceramic purple cows and a dream to inspire a story, but that’s exactly what happened. Many years ago my grandmother gave me some old ceramic figurines, including two purple cows. There should have been three, but apparently the bull was broken somewhere along the way. They were begging to be included in a book. I can’t explain it, but the idea simply wouldn’t let go of my imagination.

How could a writer use purple cows in a mystery? Well, if you add a dream about two close friends being spies, all kinds of doors can open.

After doing a lot of research about spies and spying, I found that only a minimal part of that research would fit the story. However, it gave me a feel for what things were like during the Cold War and what agents were up against. Maybe I’ve watched too much television, but it all seemed to fit together in a neat little story package.

Purple cows and elderly spies were a natural. Oh, and they needed just a little humor to pull it all together. If you include the young son and two Labrador retrievers in the mix, you’ve got some unusual puzzle pieces to fit together.


What could purple cows and elderly spies possibly have to do with each other?

When young Mikey Cross discovers ceramic purple cows, a ring, and investigative notes left by a mystery writer popular in the 1950s, his parents’ and grandparents’ lives are turned upside down.

Pamela and Chris Cross become involved in vintage intrigue with trepidation and more than a little angst when they find out there’s an elderly assassin on the prowl and the situation isn’t quite as vintage as they thought.

The dead just may come back as the living when it’s least expected.


I’ve tried to write all of my books so they can be read in any order. The only thing you might miss by reading them haphazardly would be the growth of the characters. That’s livable.

I enjoy being entertained when I read, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for readers of my books. I hope I can make you laugh, or at least chuckle, and in addition I hope the puzzles keep you guessing.

Hmm. I did write one book where the killer was fairly easy to spot. Ah, yes, there was an unexpected twist at the end. Always keep the reader guessing.

So, if you’re inspired as a reader, you might try How Now Purple Cow to see how purple cows and elderly spies fit together.

Jean, thank you so much for inviting me in today. I had a wonderful time talking about inspired stories.

Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and most recently for a city building department.  A resident and employee in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, she wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and a little murder! She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries

by Carola Dunn
Bestselling author

I have been writing historical  novels for thirty years. If you count the 1960s as  historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than fifty published. Of these, thirty-two are Regencies.. The other eighteen are mysteries, the seventeen titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, [including] Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to setting a mystery in the past. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about the latest advances in forensic science and technology overtaking the publication of your books. However, obviously, it takes more efforts to find out the methods used to solve crimes in the past.

Where the 1920s are concerned, it's easy to find countless mysteries written at that time which have more or less accurate information about detective techniques. For information about English police techniques, straight from the horses' mouths, the memoirs of Scotland Yard detectives are available, e.g. G.W. Cornish of Scotland Yard, as well as Mostly Murder by the great forensic pathologist Sir Sidney Smith.

The more distant from the present the period you choose to write about, the less accurate information is available. Of course, you don't have to go far back to find that the science of forensics didn't exist. Those responsible for detecting criminals were not expected to provide anything we would call real proof. A book well worth hunting out is Clues! (UK: Written in Blood) A History of Forensic Detection by Colin Watson.

In twenty-first century America, guilty verdicts are quite often proved incorrect when genetic evidence is considered. You can imagine how frequent miscarriages of justice were in the past.

Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer.

Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of eighteen century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances.

The class system was an unavoidable aspect of nineteenth century England that can't be ignored, however little you like it. America in the nineteenth century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.

All these aspects of society influenced the way people thought and behave and have to be a major part of your setting. They will change the motives for and kinds of crimes that are committed. Just consider one example: blackmail. These days, you couldn't blackmail someone for living "in sin." Too many people do it openly!