By Richard Audry
When I first saw the movie adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, I immediately fell in love with the passionate, rebellious Lucy Honeychurch character. At that same time, my wife and I had become big fans of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock Holmes series, with Jeremy Brett playing the coldly logical, unemotional detective. I had been toying with the idea of writing a mystery for a while, and I had an inspiration: What would you get if you mashed up Lucy Honeychurch with Sherlock Holmes? And that is the origin story of Mary MacDougall.
My Mary MacDougall series takes place in the Upper Midwest c. 1900 and stars the eponymous 18-year-old heiress, whose unlikely and socially inappropriate dream is to become a consulting detective. I wrote the first book a number of years ago, in period style. And that’s when I stumbled across my first principle of historical mystery writing:
Begin with primary historical source material, if it’s available.
For that original Mary MacDougall novel, I spent weeks in a university library hunched over a microfilm machine, reading newspapers from that period. I immersed myself in the real news and life of the early 1900s. I learned what people were thinking back then, how they were behaving, what the news of the day was at a granular level. Occasionally, serendipity struck, such as the time I stumbled across a full-page feature story titled “Women As Detectives.” The thousands of advertisements were another valuable window on that era.
I also obtained two sources from the period that have proven to be vital. One, which I found in the back recesses of a used bookstore, is a world almanac from 1904, packed with general information—nearly a thousand tissuey pages. Another is my reproduction copy of the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog, now close to falling to pieces.
(Wishbook Web.com is a great source for writers who need details about clothing and products from the mid-20th century and later. It has every Sears catalog of that era. Even if you don’t need it for research, it can also be nostalgic trip back in time. Project Gutenberg is a great place to find thousands of free public domain books from the 19th and early 20th century, including travelogs and non-fiction.)
Doing research for a historical mytery can actually be quite enjoyable, especially if you’re a history buff. We booked a trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island a couple years ago, to flesh out scenes for Mary’s vacation there in A Daughter’s Doubt (Book 3 in the series). The island was a popular tourist destination at the turn of the 20th century, with notables such as Mark Twain booked in for lectures and presentations.
More difficult than doing the research, I think, is deciding what to use. How much is too much? Some readers love rich immersion in historical detail. This seems especially true if you’re writing straight historical fiction. But I think with the historical mystery genre, readers’ expectations are a bit different. When I decide what to include, I have one clear guideline:
The research has to serve my characters and their stories, not the other way around.
In other words, I don’t want to be showing off my research and bogging down the plot. I’ve seen it happen too often. By oversharing research, you run the risk of boring readers and losing them. But determining what to include and what to exclude isn’t easy. For my mysteries, I find that watercolor brush strokes of history work better than photographic specificity. Still, on my second or third reads through the manuscripts, I’ll end up cutting descriptive sections that I know are slowing down the tempo of the narrative.
When I finished my first Mary MacDougall, I received compliments about its authentic voice but the book failed to sell—to agents, publishers, or readers. Discouraged, I set it aside and concentrated on a couple of new contemporary mysteries and an alternative history sci-fi ghost trilogy. A few years back, I revisited that first Mary MacDougall story. I realized my main character was not very likable—more Sherlock Holmes than Lucy Honeychurch.
I decided to give her a personality makeover. And to loosen the restraints that would have actually been put on a young, wealthy woman back in 1901. Which leads me to my next rule of thumb:
I am willing to fudge some historical outlooks and prejudices for the sake of a good story.
That meant, for example, that Mary’s father, a wealthy businessman, needed to be a bit more accepting than might be expected when his headstrong daughter seeks a career in detecting. True, he disapproves and complains and threatens a lot. But he allows Mary to set up shop with her cousin Jeanette, as secretary/chaperone—trusting that the daily grind of business will wear her down. Then, he hopes, she’ll see the sense in marrying some solid man of business. He even grudgingly tolerates Mary’s infatuation with an unsuitable fellow who happens to be an artist—trusting she’ll grow out of it.
And what about Mary’s corset? Where is the lady’s maid to help her put it on? My heiress/sleuth is no hoity-toity duke’s daughter or snooty Manhattan debutante. She’s a practical Midwestern girl who can take care of herself. And she’s also something else that I think is essential in a historical mystery.
Mary is the modern reader’s agent in a tale from the past. Her point of view is closer to ours than to that of a real heiress of 1902.
I want to be able to identify with any protagonist I write, and I want the reader to feel the same. That requires Mary to be kind of a version of you or me. If you or I were in her shoes, we might attempt the same things, which would be in tune with modern sensibilities.
For instance, in the new book, Mary takes up the cause of a street urchin whose most prized possession, a valuable pocket watch, has been stolen. The matter seems trivial, on its face. But her concern is an expression of her awakening notion that homeless children are deserving of justice just as much as anyone. In fact, it’s this particular epiphany that gets Mary in the gravest peril of her career. I believe it’s that sort of thing that makes her resonate with readers in 2020. She is our champion.
Writing about the bawdy, brilliant historical comedy The Favourite, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put his finger right on it: “…all historical reconstruction is a game, and to pretend otherwise—to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own—is merest folly, so why not relish the sport?”
I certainly have relished putting Mary through her paces in her first four adventures. And I have many more plots in mind than time to write them. I’d love to bring her out to the Carmel/Monterey artist colony to try and talk some sense into Edmond Roy, the man she loves who refuses to follow her advice and stay in Duluth. And then there’s the possibility she may go spying in Europe for the State Department—imagine how much fun that story would be to research. There could even be some cloak and dagger during the Atlantic crossing. (A tip of the hat to Jackie for that idea.)
In closing, I have a request for writers in this group.
I’m starting work on a non-mystery novel about two young nurses who travel from the Midwest to work in California right after WWII. I’m looking for sources that would give me a flavor of what life in Santa Barbara was like in that period. Any suggestions for books (fiction or nonfiction), articles, websites, or libraries would be much appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the Mary MacDougall Mysteries in order, in their Kindle editions. The first three titles are currently available from other booksellers such as Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. A Fatal Fondness will be available in Epub versions later in February.
This article was posted for Richard Audry by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)
For a preview of Richard Audry’s A Fatal Fondness, please check out my FIVE STAR REVIEW on my: Here’s How It Happened – A Fatal Fondness