Writing a historical novel is a balancing act of the modern and the ancient, from current and past ethical boundaries to a balance of the literary styles of two different eras.
On the first topic, I have a friend, Albert A Bell, who writes ancient Roman mysteries, and his protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is a slave-owner. Part of Albert’s task is to include in Pliny the attitudes of a wealthy Roman toward those slaves, while still keeping him a sympathetic character to the reader. It’s a definite balancing act. I don’t know what Pliny really thought about his slaves or how he treated them but Albert keeps him distanced yet reasonably compassionate and makes it believable. I doubt many Roman slave-owners thought much about their slaves as people but to the modern mind it’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to a character who treats people as inferior. Modern readers, for the most part, want a protagonist they can see as a good guy, which sometimes blurs the line of historical accuracy.
In my novels, set in 1910s Detroit, many people with social status would have been raised with very definite opinions regarding people of color, the poor, and the ‘insane’ – which would have included gay people, who were considered sexual deviants. My protagonist, Will Anderson, was raised in that type of household, and when an openly (or as openly as was possible) gay man tries to befriend him, Will rebuffs him again and again. He accepts the man’s help only when he has exhausted all his alternatives. I felt like I was walking the line there. I wanted to include a historical perspective on homosexuality but I also wanted this character to be significant in the book. The only way I could do that was to box Will in enough that he had no choice. From there it felt right.
On the second topic, writing style has obviously changed a great deal over the years. Even though my books take place only a hundred years ago, if I wrote in the style of the early 20th century most readers would yawn and put down the book halfway through the first chapter. (That’s not strictly true. If I wrote a book in the style of the day no publisher would touch it, so no one would read it at all.)
Our goal as historical fiction writers needs to be to create the impression of the historical style. Our books are not written in the verbiage, syntax or particularly the style of the time period we write but are instead our approximation of that language – to create the feeling of authenticity to the reader while keeping the book moving along.
The most common method employed is to use loftier language for the well-to-do. With most historical novels set in the US, I tend to read with an English accent. There is a definite reality to that. Depending on time and place, it wasn’t unusual to hear educated Americans speaking much more like Brits.
However, poor people did not speak that way – in America or anywhere else. They used terrible grammar and had horrible vocabularies, and many of them swore like stevedores. (How’s that for a historical word?) I personally get suspicious when I’m reading a book in which the peasants speak like nobility. Okay, there probably were a few – somewhere – but the other millions of poor folks didn’t even know anyone who talked like that. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t read. Heck, they didn’t bathe. When survival is the rule of the day language tends to be left behind.
I imagine this is a somewhat contentious issue, so what do you think? Should historical writers strive for absolute historical accuracy or should they write in a way that readers will find more accessible? You’ve seen which side I come down on. How about you?
I'm really excited. I've been researching a new time, location, and set of characters for a new series. Starting a book is an amazing time. My mind swarms with ideas. Some prove to be good, others not so much.
Starting off on a completely new project is freeing for me. Harlen Coben once said that writing a series was like painting pictures in which part is already painted for you. Every successive novel fills in more of the painting for the next. Eventually there's not much more to be painted.
It makes writing the next book both easier and harder, in that you don't have to decide who the characters will be, you already know everything you need to about the setting, and the structure of the novel is going to be based on the previous ones. I have to admit that after four Will Anderson books, I need a fresh slate for the next book. While finishing Detroit Shuffle (out in the fall on St. Martin's Minotaur Books), I spent my "downtime" looking for the idea for the next project.
I found it in Chicago. The time frame will be very close to what I've been writing - somewhere between 1900 and 1912. The most famous gambler in the city at the time was a big man with a big personality. He made his bones betting on Jim Corbett to beat John L. Sullivan at 4-1 odds. He owned the most famous betting parlor in Chicago and rubbed shoulders with everyone from the worst dregs of organized crime to the highest stations in society and took bets from all of them. Every reform administration that came along made his saloon a target, and he fought them all off, making millions in the process. Still, when he died in 1925, his estate was worth only $10,000.
Best of all, he was Catherine O'Leary's son. Mrs. O'Leary, as you may recall, was the woman whose cow allegedly kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Big Jim was only two then. He's a fascinating character and was surrounded by people more colorful than I could ever make up.
So ... back to the adventure!
Next Friday from 4:00 - 6:00 PM, I am going to be on reddit.com for one of their "Ask me anything" posts. Reddit gets literally billions of visits per month, so it should be interesting. If you've got something to ask me, hit Reddit Friday, 2/15 from 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. I'll be there.
And tell your friends. You don't want me to be lonely, do you?
Got my all-time favorite email this morning. My goal is to write books that are, to use a "word" I sometimes see in reviews, unputdownable.
Toward the end of my books, I try to keep ratcheting up the tension, not giving the reader a place to jump off, where they can assume the protagonist will be okay until the next day. It's a fine line to walk. A writer can't just throw in cliffhanger after cliffhanger, because it will wear the reader down. Mix in a few teases with the cliffhangers, though, and you just might keep the reader going all night.
Here's the email:
"A pox on you, DE Johnson! Another school night up until 1:30am -- had to finish Det Breakdown -- and missed the Y this morning. If the Mr. mentions something about fat and lazy at least I can say I am well-read. OK, so now I am destitute. When will there be another? I want them to get married and somehow have children."
If my skin starts breaking out, I'll be worried. Otherwise I'll just enjoy the thought of another exhausted reader ...
Suspense Magazine will be publishing the following review in their October issue. Another good one!
“Detroit Breakdown” by D. E. Johnson
“Detroit Breakdown” is the third book in a mystery series set in Detroit in the 1910s. Johnson makes good use of period details, especially the little-known nuggets, like the popularity of electric cars at the time. Lead characters Will Anderson and his fiancée Elizabeth Hume each carry some baggage; sometimes the references to past events is interruptive, but overall their back stories drive them in compelling directions. The novel alternates between first-person narration from Will and Elizabeth, an effective technique giving insight to both, although there is some repetition early in the book. The format is most effective when the two are separated.
The title is a play on words, evocative of automotive breakdowns in the Motor City but really referring to mental breakdowns. As the novel opens, Elizabeth’s cousin Robert, a resident at the Eloise insane asylum, is accused of murder. Between terrible childhood memories of visiting the asylum and her mother developing dementia, Elizabeth is concerned about her own mental health. When the hospital’s doctors and police force seem happy to sweep the murder—which some claim is the latest in a series—under the rug, Will feigns amnesia to get committed to the asylum and investigate what’s going on himself. He questions the patients, some of whom, of course, have a shaky sense of reality. Meanwhile, Elizabeth volunteers at Eloise under an assumed name.
False names, fake amnesia, real insanity, and a killer right out of “The Phantom of the Opera” blend together to keep the reader guessing. Johnson also makes great use of the asylum setting, exploiting the often atrocious treatment of the mentally ill in the time period, both through abuse and ill-conceived therapies, to ramp up the danger at Eloise. By the end, many of the characters have had to face their deepest fears, which gets them through the current situation while also developing the characters across the larger story of the series.
Enjoyable on its own, but the close connections to continuing story arcs from the first two books would make it better when read in its proper order.
Reviewed by Scott Pearson, author of “Star Trek: Honor in the Night,” for Suspense Magazine
Library Journal will be publishing this in their Sept. 1 issue. I especially loved this line: "Johnson’s spooky third series entry (after Motor City Shakedown) ensures its place among hot new historicals."
But Will, foolish? Say it ain't so!
Johnson, D.E. Detroit Breakdown:
A Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9781250006622. $25.99. M
"Someone has taken the plot of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera to heart and is terrorizing the denizens of Detroit’s Eloise Insane Asylum. Unexplained deaths are not being reported to the police, and no one believes the protesting patients. Elizabeth Hume is frantic to get her hospitalized cousin, Robert, out before any harm comes to him. So Will Anderson foolishly institutionalizes himself so that he can work undercover, while Elizabeth comes on board as a hospital volunteer. They must find Robert and nab the killer before the murderer catches up with Will.
VERDICT Johnson’s spooky third series entry (after Motor City Shakedown) ensures its place among hot new historicals. His unique take on Detroit in the early 20th century and its burgeoning automotive culture make this entry a perfect crossover selection for historical fiction buffs. The lead characters—chapters alternate between the two narrators—have a checkered and violent past that Johnson fills in nicely for new readers. Recommend for Stefanie Pintoff and Caleb Carr devotees."
There is still time to register for the Blood & Tea mystery writing conference in Ludington, MI on September 21 - 22. See the link here. This will be a very useful conference at an incredibly low price - only $150 if you register before the end of August!
What's better, there is going to be a very high faculty to student ratio, so you are sure to get individual attention. (And what's best of all, I'll be there!)
If you are a mystery/thriller/crime/suspense writer in Michigan or nearby, this will be a very worthwhile conference for you! And it doesn't hurt that it's in beautiful Ludington. Register now!
In the September 1st edition of Booklist, they are going to run the following review of Detroit Breakdown (Yay!):
"Building on his two previous titles set in the early 1900s (The Detroit Electric Scheme, 2010, and Motor City Shakedown, 2011), Johnson’s latest suspense novel finds maimed Will Anderson and his lover and former opiate addict, Elizabeth Hume, facing their personal nightmares as they track a strangler known as the Phantom.
The trail leads to Eloise Hospital, an asylum for the insane, the tubercular, and the inconvenient, where Elizabeth’s cousin, Robert, is a patient. After Robert is falsely accused of the Phantom’s latest murder, Will and Elizabeth hatch an elaborate plan to infiltrate the asylum, nab the Phantom, and release Robert from the “Hole” (solitary confinement). While exposing his characters to sadistic doctors, violent orderlies, and chaotic, frightening madness, Johnson ratchets up the tension as the killer repeatedly eludes capture.
The Phantom’s unmasking is such a shock that readers will wonder if Elizabeth and Will can ever recover. As suspenseful and twisted as Lehane’s Shutter Island (2003) and Lavalle’s The Devil in Silver (2012), this taut historical thriller is a definite winner."
Sweet article in the Detroit News, with their "Suspenseful Summer" reads. In addition to recommending new books by Gillian Flynn, James Lee Burke, Alexander McCall Smith, and others, they included Detroit Breakdown! (Read the rest of the article at the URL below.) Here's what they said:
"Summer book lists usually proliferate when the lilacs are still in bloom, giving readers a chance to pile up books for the Fourth of July and early summer getaways. But for many of us, it's the dog days of summer when there is finally time to rack up some serious reading hours. . . . Right now, fans of the mystery/thriller genre have a bumper crop of new (and newer) books to consider. . . .
"Readers who like Caleb Carr-style historical mysteries only have a few weeks to wait for Michigan author D.E. Johnson's ("The Detroit Electric Scheme) latest, "Detroit Breakdown: A Mystery" (Minotaur Books), out in September. Set in Detroit in 1912, the mystery involves a series of "opera ghost" murders (the Phantom of the Opera figures heavily) at the Eloise Hospital, Wayne County's insane asylum. One such murder involves the cousin of a young Detroiter, Elizabeth Hume, whose fiance, Will, has himself committed to Eloise in order to investigate. Will is already mixed up with some gangsters by the name of Bernstein, and other historic figures are in the mix — Edsel Ford makes a brief appearance, giving Will a reference."
From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120731/ENT05/207310305#ixzz22IhdxO3V
Great news today! Publishers Weekly has given Detroit Breakdown a starred review (defined as "Outstanding in its genre").
Here's the review:
D.E. Johnson. Minotaur, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-00662-2
"Set in 1912, Johnson’s excellent third mystery featuring auto mechanic Will Anderson (after 2011’s Motor City Shakedown) effectively employs parallel first-person narratives to advance an investigation into a creepy murder.
Elizabeth Hume, an affluent woman with some skeletons in her closet, gets a late-night phone call that sends her and more-than-friend Will racing to Eloise Hospital, a sinister insane asylum in Wayne County, Mich. The anonymous caller has claimed that an inmate there, Robert Clarke, who’s a cousin of Elizabeth, has murdered a fellow patient and is threatening suicide.
Elizabeth deftly defuses the situation when she arrives, but can’t persuade those in charge of Robert’s innocence. To clear his name, Elizabeth and Will both go undercover at the hospital—she as a volunteer, he as an amnesiac admitted for treatment. The authorities discount reports of other victims and that “the Opera Ghost” (aka “the Phantom”) was responsible.
Johnson makes the most of the spooky setting. Agent: Alex Glass, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)"