How to Write an Historical Mystery


Writing an historical mystery is easy. Just start with a time and place, add a few interesting characters and culprits, inject a murder, toss in a few clues, and add a twist at the end. Voila, you have an historical mystery!

How hard could it be?

Answer: Very. Not only must you create a compelling, tension-filled mystery, you must build an accurate story world.

Contemporary mysteries require research, too, of course. Murder details must be accurate. The weapon’s action must correspond the the victim’s wounds, for example. So you need to know about firearms–how far does a bullet from a nine-millemeter or a revolver go? Can a bullet hit someone under water? (The answer is no.) How long would it take to die from a drug overdose? And how would you know if it was accidental or murder? From TV we know that COD is cause of death and TOD is time of death. Neither expressions would be used in historicals in the 19th century.

How do you build an accurate story world?

Here are some suggestions:

        Begin with primary sources such as letters, diaries, and photographs. Here’s an example of a letter I found in the Ohio Memory Project, a division of the Ohio Historical Society. Fortunately, the letters were transcribed. See some photos in the Ohio Historical Society collection. Next search for legitimate research sources. I found a dissertation by an Ohio State student  chronicling the life of the Separatists, beginning with their experiences in Germany in the early 1800s. Then I found a book by Kathleen Fernandez titled “A Singular People: Images of Zoar”.

        Travel to the site, if possible. I made several trips to Zoar, Ohio, discovering a research library where I was allowed to copy materials including several masters’ thesis on the community. Take lots of photos. You can see a few of these in the photo album on my website. My files contain 500+ images from the Ohio Historical Society as well as my own. I use them constantly as I write-what did the stove look like? How did a woman dress? Where’s the door into Adelaide’s cabin?

        Create a map of the location if you can. Then, as you write, you’ll be able to imagine your characters as they move about.  Here’s my map of Zoar, accurate for 1830. Town Map of Historic Zoar, Ohio

        Follow up with studying the work and lives of inhabitants. For example, I needed to learn about herbal medicines, midwifery, cabinet making, and blacksmithing along with food preparation, kitchen gardens, and harvesting.

There will be no end to the research you can do so be careful not to be so caught up in it that you forget to write your story!








Come back next week and I’ll share with you some of my favorite historical mystery writers.