Monday, 20 June 2011

Time and Place

The ubiquitous “they” contend writers should stick to what they know; a place with which they are familiar, and a time period to which they can readily refer. So what about all those historical mystery writers who choose to set their work during medieval times, during wars and battles long past? Or place their work in eras where details can be tricky to find and references to politics, daily life and livelihood are crucial to the story?

Ellis Peters did it beautifully; Michael Jecks, P.C. Doherty, Charles Todd and Peter Tremayne all do it, too. Doherty and Tremayne have academic backgrounds, perhaps making their chosen time periods a natural choice.

The rest of us? I’d have to reach into the 6th century were I to try and base a mystery on what I really know and have studied. Written documentation about life among everyday folk is pretty thin on the ground, most of it coming from monastic sources, and would probably not be truly reflective of the lives of those who had neither the means nor knowledge to record their lives. Feeling truly immersed and comfortable with the customs and way of life would surely be a daunting task for a writer.

Getting the writing done can be a challenge in itself. But worrying about niggling details, precise facts and the exact atmosphere of the place you’re writing about can make the work a real adventure.

Is historical accuracy important? I’d say so. I’ve heard academic historians say they couldn’t read certain mystery authors due to flawed details and facts. But while accuracy is key, so is atmosphere, the place where the tale is set.

Two recently read books stand out as examples that nail time and place: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ book, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ evokes the place; “As the mail boat lurched into the harbor, I saw St. Peter Port rising up from the sea on terraces, with a church on the top like a cake decoration ….’ And the book doesn’t neglect time, either: “Hitler was fanatic about fortifying these islands – and England was never to get them back,” writes one of the book’s characters.

Anne Perry’s latest mystery offering, ‘Treason At Lisson Grove’ continues with the author’s excellent knowledge of the Victorian era and its societal restrictions and proprieties. She has also written a series of World War I novels that slides readers into the horror of the conflict and its trench warfare.

For anyone interested in the hows and whys of historical or other mysteries, Mystery Readers Journal, edited by Janet Rudolph, would be very helpful. Back issues include African Mysteries, Island Mysteries, Scandinavian Mysteries, History Mysteries, Mysteries Set in Italy – and many other locales. The current issue deals with London Mysteries I. It, along with some back issues of the journal can be downloaded as a PDF for a $6.50. See

Or, for $39, North American readers may subscribe: See