This week’s blog comes courtesy of novelist Kim Krisco. I hope you’ll be as fascinated by his insights into historical mysteries as I was.–G.
Mystery fiction represents 11 % of the market for all books of fiction, far behind the leading genre—children’s fiction, that commands nearly 40% of the market. However, 11% of the 2.6 billion books is still a big piece of the pie.
A much smaller, but growing niche genre is historical fiction—now claiming about 3% of the market. In the past, historical fiction was represented by such classics as Gone with the Wind, or The Eagle has Landed. But more recently, books like Ellis Peter’s Cadfael Chronicles, opened the door to a new genre of fiction that combines historical fiction and mystery. I’m doing my best to grow and evolve this niche. And, while it represents only a small portion of the market, this hybrid genre is growing in popularity because readers are finding that a mystery takes on a new depth and richness when it is set in an actual historical setting. That’s what my readers are telling me, at any rate.
I write Sherlock Holmes historical mysteries. While I stay true to the central characters—Holmes and Watson, I part ways with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in that I fashion highly detailed, and accurate, historical backgrounds, and often include real historical characters. In Sherlock Holmes – The Golden Years, Holmes and Watson have G.K. Chesterton as a client, and meet Harry Houdini, President Theodore Roosevelt, and even Arthur Conan Doyle himself. And, when they decide to dine at Rules in Covent Garden, what Holmes has for dinner was actually on Rules’ 1913 menu. Those are the kind of characters, and detail, I strive to provide for my readers. And so, while a well-developed imagination is essential for novelists, writers of historical mysteries must also possess an almost fanatical devotion to, and love of, research.
Some research can be conducted on line. However, much of my historical research takes the form of books—this is particularly true of historical characters. For example, in researching Doyle as a character, I read, and made detailed notes, from five biographies of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In addition, some research (not as much as I would like) takes the form of on-location visits. When writing the intertwined novellas that comprise Sherlock Holmes – The Golden Years, I traveled to Aviemore Scotland, making a point to take the train Holmes and Watson would have taken in the mystery called: The Bonnie Bag of Bones. And, while all these modes of research are common to historical fiction, there is one aspect of inquiry that is unique to historical mysteries.
Mysteries involve a crime — usually murder, because it’s the granddaddy of crimes. So my mysteries require that I do significant research around historic crimes. For example, my newest novel: Irregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street Irregulars, includes five stories about key members of Holmes’s street-Arab allies. Each story revolves around a crime that, in one form or another, took place around 1919. This is where truth proves to be stranger (and better) than fiction. For, in the exploration of circa 1919 crimes for Irregular Lives, I discovered a story about a man who was brutally executed by being strapped to the barrel of a cannon. I learned of another killed by far eastern assassins for stealing from a temple, etc. I adopted and adapted these real life crime accounts to make them my own. In this way, even the crimes about which my historical mysteries revolve often come from the same time and place.
Because it takes an inordinate amount of time and organization, it is fortunate that I find historical research fascinating and fun. When I am not reading, I am writing notes on my laptop and placing page after page into a set of binders on my desk. These ring binders are not simply collections of facts, people and places, but also words and phrases. Historical mysteries must not only possess the proper characters and locations, but must capture the mood and atmosphere of the time and place. Nothing creates that ambiance like historically precise words and phrases. For example, in the present time I might describe a character stepping into the room as “a elusive fellow who seemed to possess a fearless demeanor.” However, that same man, entering a room in 1900, would more accurately be described as “a protean creation, bound to the heroic past.”
Having said this about historical mysteries, I would be quick to add that the historic backgrounds within any story are just that—background. They should not dominate or distract from the story and plot. This can easily happen when a writer is in possession of a monumental collection of facts and information. However, I have always followed the advice of one of my mentors who continually admonished me saying: “kill all your darlings.” What he meant was, that in the process of re-writing, remove all the unnecessary descriptions, fanciful or poetic phrases, and anything that disrupts the flow of the story. A good writer of mysteries endeavors to keep their reader moving continually in the current of the story, flipping pages as if they were measured steps toward a secret room that holds all the answers.
It closing let me suggest that, if you read my historical mysteries Sherlock Holmes – The Golden Years, or Irregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street Irregulars, forget everything I just said. Enjoy the story!
About the Author:
KIM KRISCO, author of Sherlock Holmes—The Golden Years, and three non-fiction books on leadership, continues in the footsteps of the master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by adding another, Sherlock Holmes novel to the canon.
In Irregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes the Golden Years, Kim tells the untold story of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, and his amazing relationship, with the Baker-street irregulars. Holmes employed this tribe of street urchins in some of his better-known cases—and also, in some unpublished cases contained in this new novel.
Meticulously researched, Krisco’s stories read as mini historical novels. His attention to detail adds a welcome richness to his exciting stories.
Prior to writing full-time, Kim served as a consultant, trainer, and coach for business and non-profit organizations, and their leaders. You can find out more about Kim and his current activities at: www. kimkrisco.com.
He and his partner, Sara Rose, live in south-central Colorado (USA) in a home that they built themselves on the North Fork of the Purgatory River.