Guest Post // Eleanor Kuhns, Author of A Circle of Dead Girls
Writing Historical Fiction
Why did I choose to write historical murder mysteries? There is no one reason. In fact, the answer is fairly complicated, with several different parts to it.
When I first began writing fiction back in the day, I wrote science fiction. A huge component of that genre is world building. Historical fiction also requires a different world, different from our contemporary world, that is. The difference is that in historical fiction the world really existed. Real people whose lives have been documented lived in that time. Events happened on real, certifiable dates. People were employed in professions that, although they may not exist anymore, (coppicing, dry-stone walling, bodging) were genuine jobs. All of these facts must be taken into account and provide the structure for the rest of the story.
When I first decided to try my hand at mysteries (which I have always read), I knew I wanted to write about an ordinary, middle class man, not an aristocrat, in the United States. Many of my colleagues have chosen to write about other countries, primarily Great Britain, and they have usually set their mysteries in Victorian times. I feel the history in the United States, although shorter, is just as rich so that is what I wished to focus upon.
I chose a weaver as an amateur detective since hand weaving is a hobby of mine and I know something about the craft. I also wanted a profession undertaken by both genders. And yes, there were male weavers. Women wove at home. But, since looms were expensive and few households could afford one, the male weavers traveled, carrying a loom in their wagon, just as I describe. I wanted to use a traveler as my detective because I did not want to set all of my mysteries in a little town of six hundred people – and a new murder every week. I jokingly call the effect of such a narrow setting the ‘Cabot Cove Curse’ after the Murder, She Wrote series. I hope that adding the option for Will Rees to move around will keep the series from growing stale.
Other authors favor time periods that involve the wars. If one tries to get a sense of American history from reading historical fiction, one could easily believe we bounced from war to war with nothing in between. Not quite true. And frequently the reasons behind these wars stem from decisions made decades in the past. For example, the Fugitive Slave Law was originally adopted in 1793. This law allowed slave owners to recover their property by sending the slave catchers into the Northern States. The law was strengthened at the request of the slave states in 1850. The effects of this law, for several reasons, was a prime inspiration for the increase in the antislavery/abolition movement and the increase in conflict that led to the Civil War in the 1860’s. I touch on the effects of this law, and slavery, in several titles.
I also try to include whenever possible, events that demonstrate how we continue to fight the same battles over and over. Politics provide a rich source for samples. Take, for example, the Jay Treaty. Negotiated by John Jay, an Anglophile, it annoyed the French and caused an undeclared war between the United States and France, and allowed the British to maintain troops in the western forts, on United States territory. George Washington hated it so much he did not bring it for Congress for a vote for months. It was widely unpopular among the people as well. Jay was vilified in the newspapers and, as he traveled from New York to Philadelphia (then the capital of the United States) he saw himself burned in effigy the entire distance.
Or take the election of 1800, a contest between John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (This was the fourth election but since George Washington basically ran unopposed in the first two, in actual fact it was the second contest.) Adams ran as a Federalist, more akin to our current Republican party while Jefferson (who ran as a Republican) was like our modern day Democrats.
For people who believe our current politics are nasty, here are a few examples of what happened at the time of the 1800 presidential election.
Federalists attacked Jefferson for his slaveholding. Alexander Hamilton claimed that if Adams was reelected, Virginians (like Jefferson) would resort to physical force to keep the Federalists out of office. Further, Hamilton tried to persuade John Jay to change the rules so that the legislature would not be able to choose the electoral delegates in favor of Jefferson, saying that doing so would ‘prevent an atheist in Religion and a fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of state.” Jay refused. A pastor claimed that if Jefferson won, he would burn every Bible in the country.
Adams, as one of his last acts as President, chose John Marshall as Chief Justice, thereby giving control of the courts to the Federalists. (Isn’t this familiar?)
Republicans, meanwhile, attacked Adams for perceived abuses of his office. They claimed that Adams and the Federalists would seek to change the laws so that a President could serve for life and be, in effect, a king.
Technology changes but people tend to behave the same, subject to the same passions and fears, prone to lying and greed or to acts of great altruism. And although in just about every faith and every culture in the world murder is taboo, we continue kill each other. One of the first stories in the Bible is about a murder motivated by jealousy.
If Science Fiction asks the question ‘What does it mean to be human’, historical fiction asks ‘How does humanity behave?’ Using historical fiction to inspire an interest in history, as well as do some modest instruction, is only one benefit. For me, it is more important that historical fiction explores the effects of decisions by the movers and shakers on the ‘little guy’ and throws a light on current events through similar events of the past.
This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Eleanor Kuhns. There will be 5 winners of one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card each. The giveaway begins on September 1, 2020, and runs through October 2, 2020. Void where prohibited.a Rafflecopter giveaway
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur First Crime novel competition for A Simple Murder. She lives in upstate New York. A Circle of Death Girls is Will Rees Mystery # 8.
Click here to view A Circle Of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns Participants via Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours.