History in Mystery (part one)
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” Mark Twain
When I decided to write The Judge’s Story set in 1939, I intended to highlight the principles and ethics of a real judge by intertwining them in my favorite genre—a fictional mystery. I realized that the real judge lived primarily in the first half of the twentieth century and that his actions and ideals were shaped by the events of the time, including, World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the technological growth of automobiles, telephones, and air travel.
Therefore, to tell his story—even if the mystery is fiction—I had to relate him to what he was experiencing in his life. And what fun that turned out to be!
To begin, I read his memoir, dated 1941. [Louis C. Drapeau, Senior; Autobiography of a Country Lawyer; available at the Museum of Ventura County/Library, 100 E. Main St., Ventura CA 93001). He filled the pages with stories about his early life when he was rejected both by his step-father and his biological father and as a teenager managed to find odd jobs as a cowboy, mule skinner, Borax 20 mule team driver and dockhand. Eventually he met and worked for a Senator, earned a law degree from Georgetown Law School, settled in Ventura, Calif., practiced law (with law partner Erle Stanley Gardner, for you Perry Mason fans), and became a Superior Court Judge by the late 1930s.
His memoir gave me insight into the man himself—what he valued, how he responded to problems, and how he reached decisions. From it, I determined that, as a judge, he focused on juvenile crime and basically supported the concept of rehabilitation over punishment—although he delivered some stiff penalties in some of his cases. He also chastised the bigoted—particularly those in his community who looked down on the Mexican-American population.
Now that I had an idea about the man, I needed to choose the best time in his life to set the story. I have always been a student of history, so I was familiar with the first half of the twentieth century. I considered the 1920s following the passage of the women’s right to vote, the flappers, and the issues of prohibition—but eventually opted for 1939, largely because the backdrop of the Great Depression and the looming potential entry of the U.S. into World War II gave me a more supportive back-story in which to display the Judge and his friends in the telling of the mystery—which did not involve alcohol or women’s rights.
My third line of research concerned the immediate world around the Judge to understand where he fit. Were his principles and ideals about juvenile crime and its punishment with or against the current thinking in the law enforcement world? What kind of life did he live in 1939—were cars plentiful? How would he travel? What kind of cases would he hear? What kind of sentences would he hand down? In what kind of courthouse would he listen to cases?
To answer these questions, I visited the Ventura County Museum / Library. The actual judge lived in Ventura and served as a judge in the Ventura County Courthouse. With help from the librarians, I uncovered sources, such as, the Ventura County Peach Officers’ Training School Ventura 1939-1940—that provided answers. Then I read the daily paper on micro-fiche for the entire year of 1939—I learned that my judge was well respected and his cases were frequently reported. The pages in the second half of the year, by the way, were filled with Hitler’s exploits and the reactions in Europe.
Of course, I ended with far more information than I could possibly use, but I felt like I had entered the Judge’s time period and could better anticipate his reactions to the exploits of the fictional mystery.
I definitely plan to write more historical mysteries based on real characters. I will follow a similar pattern: (1) read something written by the protagonist (2) check out the period in which the protagonist lived to see where he/she fits, and (3) after selecting the time for the story, explore the lives of others and how they lived.
The next step in writing The Judge’s Story was to create the elements of the mystery in the context of a Superior Court Judge in a small California town in 1939. I describe that process in part 2: “Mystery in History” to be posted on this blog next week.
Thank you, Joyce. That was really interesting and we do absolutely need to get our facts right but it’s fun making everything else however we like it. I look forward to reading part 2.
Mystery author Joyce T. Strand, much like her fictional character, Jillian Hillcrest, served as head of corporate communications at several biotech and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Unlike Jillian, however, she did not encounter murder. Rather, she focused on publicizing her companies and their products. She is the author of the Jillian Hillcrest mysteries ON MESSAGE, OPEN MEETINGS, and FAIR DISCLOSURE and the Brynn Bancroft mystery HILLTOP SUNSET. Strand received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. She currently lives in Southern California with her two cats, a collection of cow statuary and art, and her muse, the roadrunner.
About The Judge’s Story
A Superior Court Judge with a passion for social justice as well as the law strives to discover the truth behind the mystery of a robbery-murder in a small California town in 1939.
When the Judge hears testimony against a 14-year-old teenager, he realizes that the boy participated in a robbery-murder. However, the accused did not actually pull the trigger. But unless the boy identifies his partner, the Judge must sentence him as a murderer, which would result in prolonged jail time. The Judge’s investigator, along with the precocious 16-year-old girl who identified the boy as one of the thieves, explore different approaches to uncover the murderer. In the backdrop of escalating war in Europe, the financial scarcities of the Great Depression, and the Judge’s caseload, their attempts to find justice for the accused boy and unmask the killer lure the Judge and his friends into sordid criminal activities.
You can find out more about Joyce and her writing from the following links:
- Webpage: http://joycestrand.com
- Blog: http://strandssimplytips.blogspot.com
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JoyceTStrandAuthor
- Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5385246.Joyce_T_Strand
- Twitter: @joycetstrand
Where to Purchase:
The Judge’s Story Paperback and Kindle Editions – June 23, 2015: http://www.amazon.com/Judges-Story-Joyce-T-Strand/dp/0996145400
- 1st Prize: Kindle Fire HD 7 or Kindle Paperwhite
- 2nd Prize: $50 Amazon Gift Card and ebook or paperback copy of The Judge’s Story
- 3rd Prize: $25 Amazon Gift Card and ebook or paperback copy of The Judge’s Story
More details from http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/cfd1de2822.
and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic are…
- mystery: Connie Knight, Graham Smith 1, Graham Smith 2, DJ Swykert, Jim Webster, Marietta Miemietz, Marla Madison, Quentin Bates, Warren Bull, and Wayne Zurl;
- historical: Alison Bruce, Connie Knight, Lou Allin, Margaret Muir, Phoebe Matthews, and William S Shepard.
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