Rebecca Cantrell: "Crucial. The reason I read historical mysteries is to time travel within the pages of a book. If the detail isn't there, or if it's incorrect, the time machine breaks, and I'm thrown out of the story into my own time. This makes me a cranky reader. So, as a writer, I take great pains to make sure that everything is as accurate as I can make it so that the readers stay safely inside the time capsule. If I must deviate from history for plot reasons, I am always careful to note that in the Author's Notes at the end of the book. That said, don't read those notes before you read the novel, as they sometimes contain spoilers. If you do, don't say you weren't warned."
Gary Corby: "Period detail is essential. Some people read historical mysteries because they like mysteries, and the exotic background is a bonus. There are others who read because they want to be immersed in a different time and place; those people don't really care `who done it.' For them, the puzzle aspect of the story is merely a device to keep the plot moving so they can explore more of the world. I've been surprised and gratified by the number of people who've told me they enjoyed reading my book, and then add that they picked up more ancient Greek history from reading a light whodunit than they ever learned at school."
I.J. Parker: "Very important, provided it doesn’t interfere with the story. The setting in a historical novel takes in much more than the background. It also involves customs and mindset of the time (and place). The author must guess at just how much and what detail the reader needs without knowing his education or experience. Putting in too much will ruin the book."
What kinds of anachronisms can kill a historical mystery?
RC: "Modern attitudes and language."
GC: "There's the classic wristwatch-on-the-chariot-driver type of error. Those are relatively easy to catch. There are anachronistic phrases, and they can be deadly. My characters in 460 BC should not be quoting either Shakespeare or the Bible. You would not believe how many stock modern phrases come from Shakespeare and the Bible. On the plus side, it stops me from using clichés. Finally, there are the more subtle historical errors which only an expert is likely to catch. To prevent those you have to become a pseudo-expert yourself."
IJP: "Factual ones. Here again, the problem of the unknown reader. How much does the reader know? Best not to take any chances and do the research. Historical novel web sites are full of readers mocking authors for making silly mistakes (like having thirteenth century Venetian cooks prepare potato dishes)."
How do you juggle the tasks of portraying a historical period faithfully and making a story inviting and accessible to contemporary readers?
RC: "I research and research until I know the era fairly well and have far more details in my head than I could cram into a novel. Once I know enough to do so, I put myself in Hannah's shoes and see only what she sees and know only what she knows. This means that I cannot have her make comments about events that haven't happened, guess about future events without evidence, or go into long soliloquies about how the Olympic Stadium was constructed (even if the details of the construction are fascinating to me personally)."
GC: "Any detail you mention has to be directly to do with the problems your characters face in the story. Never explain anything, unless it genuinely needs to be explained to a character. Any dialogue that begins, `As you know...' is a red alert.
"For example, I know in classical Athens sewerage pooled in gutters running down the middle of the street. I could write a couple of pages on the drainage system of Athens in 460 BC, but somehow I have a feeling you're not going to read it. Instead, when my hero Nicolaos is dragged off down the street by a couple of thugs, something squishy that doesn't bear thinking about gets caught between his sandal and his foot, and he has to hop on the other foot while shaking the first to get it clear. A whole day's research on drainage has devolved into two lines of book text about a messy foot. That's good, because a foot with poo on it is story and character, a treatise on drainage is not."
IJP: "There’s the trick. The story becomes accessible through the characters, not the other way around. Make your characters fully developed human beings that readers can relate to, and the rest follows. However, modern readers do not relate well to certain historical customs. Those must be handled carefully."
Which authors of historical mysteries do you admire? Why?
RC: "I love Kelli Stanley's Miranda Corbie series. (A City of Dragons is the first; start there.) She has a wonderful voice and a strong sense of the place and time. I also think Laurie King, Anne Perry, and Charles Todd write evocatively of the era between the wars. For a lighter touch, I like Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness books."
GC: "I'm going to cheat by starting with three historical authors who did not write mysteries: The Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser is the gold standard for accuracy in historical novels. Also, his Flashman is hilarious. The Greek novels of Mary Renault, because they're the best novels of ancient Greece ever written. Patrick O'Brian wrote the best sea adventure stories ever, set during the Napoleonic Wars. They're generally known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, after the two heroes.
"There are so many excellent historical mysteries these days, it's hard to know who to include without doing injustice to many others. Ruth Downie writes a series set in Roman Britain, starring a doctor named Ruso. The books are very funny, Ruso is a wonderful character, plus we get to see a Roman doctor at work. Rebecca Cantrell's mysteries are set in Germany at the height of the Nazi party, starring a reporter named Hannah Vogel. A tough subject, and she carries it off brilliantly. The mysteries of John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis were the first to be set in the ancient world. C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake is an investigator in the time of Henry VIII, working for a chap named Cromwell. Very high-quality writing."
IJP: "Robert Van Gulik, of course. To a lesser degree, Lindsey Davis. Both have the trick of drawing the reader into the book. Van Gulik relies more on the exotic setting.
Why did you choose to write about the period you did? If you were to write historical fiction about a period other than the one you do, which period would you choose? Why?
RC: "I've been toying with the idea of writing something set in Berlin during the Cold War, maybe even the 1980s. I lived there then, so I could remember details about popular songs and political events. But the thought of writing about an era of my own life as historical document makes me feel so old that it gives me pause."
GC: "Nicolaos begins his adventures in 460 BC, right at the start of the Golden Age of Athens. Democracy was invented about five days before his first murder investigation begins! It was a period packed with tales of adventure, war, conspiracy, lust, love, corruption, power politics, assassination. . . . you name it, and it happened, all at one of the most critical periods in human history. If he can survive his highly hazardous missions, Nico will live to see the founding of western civilization.
"I can tell you three I definitely would not write: ancient Rome (and Roman Britain), mediaeval England, and Victorian London. All three have been done extensively by many fine writers, and fun as they are, there's no need for me to add to the existing corpus. There are so many fascinating periods. I might be tempted to go further back in history, for example, to somewhere like Mesopotamia. Renaissance Italy would be fun too."
IJP: "I loved Van Gulik’s books and the literature of eleventh-century
© Peter Rozovsky 2011