Writing the Historical Mystery

M. E. Kemp was born in Oxford, MA in 1713 — ooops, that’s when her family settled in Oxford, the first English settlement of the town after a try by the Huguenots (French Protestants fleeing from executions by the French King.)   Kemp’s family still live in the town, where her roots run deep.  The first baby on her great-grandfather’s side was born in Salem in 1636.   Kemp writes historical mysteries about two nosy Puritans.  She lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with hubby Jack and two kitties, Boris and Natasha.

I write historical mysteries, but historical mysteries set in colonial America.  This is partially a reaction from the tons and tons of medieval mysteries written today.  I do enjoy reading them, but I also believe that American history is just as bloody and colorful as medieval England.  My book plots are taken from old American history books — I have a collection found on our many trips to Boston, and all I have to do is open one of them (Samuel Sewall’s Diary or The Memorial History of Boston – 1880,)  to any page, and there’s a plot!  For instance, I noticed that four ministers died within a short period of time and that became the impetus for my first book, MURDER, MATHER AND MAYHEM.  I happened to pick up a biography of NYS’s Founding Father, Robert Livingstone, and read that he committed land fraud on a grand scale.  That brought my nosy Puritans to Albany for my second book, DEATH OF A DUTCH UNCLE.   Since I was writing a series by time, when I came to the  year 1692 I could not ignore the most famous incident in that year, the Salem Witch Trials.  So I have Hetty accused of being  a witch and going into hiding — if you were smart you did just that in 1692.  So begins DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE.    The new book, DEATH OF A FENCING MASTER, is based upon an incident where the magistrates and ministers harassed a dancing master so that he left Boston.  (I thought to myself, what if he was found dead?  There’d be lots of suspects!)

I love history and you have to know your history cold or have access to resources in order to write historical mysteries.  Someone will be sure to take note of any errors.  Besides the usual elements of a mystery; plot, red herrings, suspects, victims; you have to weave in the history without making it sound pedantic, or in my case, “preachy.”  I often use Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan minister, as a comic foil.  I have several books on his life so I know how he would react in that time period if he is faced with solving a huge community problem like murder.  He’d have a nervous breakdown, which gives my detective, his younger cousin Creasy, a chance to take over the investigation.  Creasy was supposed to be the original detective in the series and then I introduced Hetty Henry, the wealthy widow with connections to high and low society.  Hetty is such a pushy broad, she took over the book and the series.  Creasy is susceptible to a pretty woman.  Hetty is down-right lusty.  When she likes a man, she goes to bed with him.  So did our ancestors, who were a lusty people in every sense.  They ate and drank in prodigious quantities; they dressed in colorful clothing — the men wore exquisite laces!  I like to bring the period to life in a truthful way.  The media still characterizes the Puritan as a lean, lank figure in black clothing.  Not true!  Cotton Mather longed out loud for a bright scarlet cloak to keep him warm in winter — he longed so hard and so loud that a parishioner finally gave him one.  It’s hard to dislike a people who wear scarlet cloaks!

While I write short stories and nonfiction articles about mysteries, there is nothing like the long form of the novel to let loose your imagination and to give rein to your fantasies about living in the past!  My husband swears that I am Hetty Henry, but I don’t see it, myself.  She has a heck of a lot more courage than I possess.  About the only thing we  have in common is liking good food!  I like to eat, and so does Hetty.  I never noticed how much I wrote about food in my books until a fan told me about it.  People seem to enjoy learning about the kinds of food our ancestors ate.  It was healthier than our diet, that’s for sure.  I just wrote a short story about Priscilla the pig, a character that people liked from my first novel.  To research Priscilla I actually went to a heritage pig farm, where her particular breed is raised — it’s a descendant of the wild boar — and tromped over the field, interviewing the farmer about the breed, which is known for its intelligence and curiosity.  Don’t worry, though.  Priscilla is a brood sow and she’ll never be turned into pork.  I do try to go on location as much as I can when I write a book.  That means a trip along the Hudson River, touring the back streets of Boston and coming up: a trip to Cape Cod.  It’s a tough life, but somebody has to do it.

Death of a Dancing Master will be released in the fall of 2010.

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