On Writing a Historical Mystery Novel

Okay, I thought writing a contemporary mystery was difficult…little did I know what I was getting into when I decided to write a historical mystery novel!

Since it’s a work in progress, I won’t reveal much about the book except to say it’s set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1880’s. I hope to end up with an entertaining and intriguing story, but also to convey what life was like in those times and at that place in American history. In doing so, I’m trying for as much authenticity as possible. I started out knowing almost nothing about that era and have since spent a lot of hours on researching photos, maps and old newspapers. The internet has been an invaluable source of information and I can’t imagine writing this book without it.

It’s difficult not to get distracted or sidetracked with the research. For instance, one of my peripheral characters spent the year 1864-65 as a Union POW in the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. I wanted to get an idea of what he went through so started doing some research. Now I find myself reading the amazing first hand account Andersonville Diary by John Ransom. What does it have to do with my book? Almost nothing, but it’s fascinating nonetheless and what I learn from that account may influence my character’s role and behavior later. Who knows?

I’ve also read old articles by Bat Masterson and others who lived in that era and gotten some good insights into life back then. It’s much more interesting and dynamic than I ever imagined. The growth of west coast cities was astounding. And so was the technology. I had no idea of the extent of telephone exchanges and electrical grids during that era, not to mention the complex transportation networks of railroads, steamboats and steamships, roads and coach routes.

Contemporary newspapers from the 1880’s reveal the news of the day and the ads reveal much about the culture. Bogus medical cures and fantastic claims for products are common in the advertising. There are also ads for livery services, carriages, clothing, department stores, eateries, jobs and much more. News stories are often heavily laden with opinion and innuendo, making for entertaining reading, but not very reassuring as to the accuracy of reporting. It makes the modern mainstream media look pretty good by comparison.

As I progress with the book, it’ll be a challenge to include only those details needed to give it authenticity and help move the story along. There’s a temptation to include all the cool stuff I’m learning and I’ll try to resist that. I’m sure I’ll be cutting out some of the detail later, but for now it’s fun to learn about those times and to write about them too.

My home town in earlier times, when the coal mines were going full tilt. After the mines shut down, the town slept peacefully for a number of years before being discovered by the production crew of “Northern Exposure”. That event, and what has followed, is another story.

3 thoughts on “On Writing a Historical Mystery Novel

  1. Pick the type of community you want, small town, middle size town, company mill town, rural farm. Seattle quadrupled population in the 1880s so 1881 would be different than 1889 (great fire). Washington was a territory with its own legislature. Why not a state? There were political machinations in DC that delayed that. Transportation was water based, that is, everyone moved by steamer or schooner and even by canoe. Go to http://www.historylink.org and you can do a chronological look at events.

    Who is your protagonist. How does he or she fit into society and the mystery? The newspapers are a good source and many are now digitized. You can browse from your home office.

    I have written several books about PNW history and can help. I write historical novels too.


    1. Thanks Dave! Yes, I’ve been reading a lot at historylink, old newspapers and many other sites. The internet is a fantastic source. My story takes the protagonists to Seattle, Portland, San Franscisco, Dodge City, Massachusetts, Ellensburg, Goldendale, Ritzville and Spokane. So lots of research. I managed to dig up a railway schedule, a stagecoach route and schedule, rail maps, steamboat names and schedules, names of individuals. I even worked in a meeting between my protagonist and the photographer that accompanied John Muir up Mt. Rainier in 1888. It’s a lot to coordinate. I appreciate your offer of help and will let you know if I have any questions. Best Wishes.


      1. Jon

        That’s a lot of geography to cram into one story. Consider each location as a character. You can over-populate a story with characters and so too with locations. It sounds like a sweeping novel, ala, James Mitchener. All the online resources are wonderful and there are even images online to help you craft a scene and the setting, e.g., sidewalks, streets, signs.

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