History in Mystery (part two)
I love reading mysteries. As with so many of us mystery lovers, I started with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, continued with Perry Mason, James Bond, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and on and on to Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.
So when it came time for me to write fiction, it was natural that I would write mysteries. However, that I would write an historical mystery was somewhat less obvious.
When I considered a mystery featuring a judge in an historical mystery, I was uncertain how to proceed. I did not detect a mystery plot when reading the memoir of the real judge on which I wanted to base my story. Also, how could a judge be involved in solving a mystery? He is required to be objective and deliver verdicts based on facts presented to him—not solve the crime itself.
When I write my current-day mysteries, I start with my protagonist, setting, and mystery plot almost simultaneously. I base my puzzles on real California cases and fictionalize them with red herrings, villains, and amateur sleuths.
With my historical mystery, I focused initially on understanding my protagonist, the Judge, and his environment. In a previous article on this blog, I explained how I applied the values, beliefs, and emotions of a real judge to create my fictional judge.
Once I understood my fictional Judge’s persona, I narrowed down the setting to include the town where the real judge practiced law and lived, Ventura, Calif., and the year 1939. I chose this particular year because it offered a turbulent time for a background to accompany a mystery. I could exploit the scarcities of the Great Depression and the potential U.S. entry into the war in Europe to magnify my characters’ back-story in an interesting and credible way—using history to do so.
Choosing a real town provided the opportunity to research events there to develop a believable micro-world for my mystery, the Judge, and his supporters—and their antagonists. Again, I used history to make the story both more interesting and credible.
Unlike my current-day mysteries, the last element I created was the mystery plot itself, which I pulled from a few sentences in my real Judge’s memoir about two different juvenile criminals and how rehabilitation helped one but not the other. This created the theme of juvenile crime and the debate over rehabilitation versus punishment. I hasten to add, however, that the actual case on which the mystery is based is fiction.