#5onFri: Five Tips for Writing a Historical Mystery

I love a good mystery! And I especially love a good historical mystery. 

Who killed the Princes in the Tower? (Hint: It was not Richard III.) 

Did Princess Anastasia survive the murder of her family? 

Was Elizabeth I really a virgin Queen, or did she allow herself to be seduced by the dashing Robert Dudley?

There’s one caveat to my love of historical mysteries, and that’s that I don’t want them to contradict known facts. Elizabeth I could not have borne a love child; she was never out of sight long enough. Anne and Mary Boleyn could never have been rivals for the dubious attentions of King Henry VIII, as they were never at court at the same time.

Thus, writing a historical mystery is an act of both discipline and fancy. The discipline is cold hard research, so that my story is not absurd in light of known facts. And the fancy lies in taking off from those facts, to weave a web of imagination and reality together in such a way that I forget which is which.

Solving the mystery, of course, requires a Big Reveal scene, which should make you shiver with pleasure, and resonate perfectly with every other tiny piece of the puzzle. 

Tread Carefully when Writing a Historical Mystery

When my eldest son was about eight, he and my husband had The Talk. My son apparently puzzled over their conversation for a few days, then came back to my husband with two follow-up questions. “So you and Mom did that three times?” My husband: “Er, yes, son. That’s exactly right. Three times.” (We had three children at the time.) Second question: “How do porcupines do it?” My husband: “Very, very carefully.”

I thought of that when I was puzzling over how to plan the Big Reveal for my historical mystery, The Long-Lost Jules. As an avid mystery reader, I always resent it when an author presents a Big Reveal at the very end, drawing on information that the reader never had. No fair! I want to shout. 

But I also get cranky when I nail the whole plot on page 3. (Oh I see, it’s the husband and the nanny; and the parrot saw them getting it on…)

When I wrote Jules, I knew I had to plan the Reveal very, very carefully. Drop bread crumbs along the way, but not so many that the reader susses it out before Chapter Three. 

For those of you who may be strategizing around a historical mystery and a climactic reveal, here are my Top Five Tips:

1. Do your homework! 

Good solid research into the facts surrounding your mystery will pay off in spades. 

When I was researching Queen Katherine Parr for The Long-Lost Jules, I decided that I had to walk in her steps; so I wrote to the curator of her own Sudeley Castle and he invited me for a personal, behind-the-scenes tour! The high point was when he agreed with me that her baby, Lady Mary Seymour, might have survived infancy (which is at the core of the mystery in Jules). “I always thought the babe didn’t die,” he said in this wonderful British accent and I almost hugged him.

2. Consider your placement.

Figure out where in the book you want the Reveal to occur. Last page? Middle of the book? First third? 

In my upcoming book, The Spy’s Wife, the major Reveal occurs on page one when the heroine discovers that her husband is not a dull consultant but a high-level CIA officer. There are no right-and-wrong rules here; it just has to be right for your book. 

3. Decide how many Reveals you want. 

One huge lightbulb moment, or a bunch of smaller Ahas! along the way. 

Which approach works for your book?

4. Do you want to shock the reader?

Do you want to really shock your readers with the solution to your mystery? If so, I suggest doing this early-ish in the book so they don’t get that resentful, you-should-have-given-a-few-hints feeling. 

5. Or do you want the reader to figure it out?

Or do you want to give readers enough clues to pretty much figure it out by themselves, so they can take pride in their smarts when the Reveal comes? 

Reading is an intuitive, interactive experience; readers like to think and speculate throughout the book, and sometimes it’s a gift to let them get it right.

Most important: Feel free to ignore any and all Tips! 

Always remember that you’re the writer, so you’re in charge—this is your world to create, to toy with, to manipulate, as long as you don’t contradict the known facts of the case. There are no absolute rules (otherwise my page one Big Reveal would violate all of them); or if there are, they’re made to be broken. 

As the author, have faith in your instincts; that’s the only Golden Rule that matters. 

historical mystery

Jane Elizabeth Hughes is an obsessive reader with two fully-loaded Kindles; she buys so many books that Amazon would probably like to send her a gift every year for the holidays.  

Unfortunately, reading novels all day is not an easy career path, so Jane has a day job as a professor of international finance at Simmons College School of Business in Boston. She has also consulted with multinational corporations and governments for nearly three decades, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Inter-American Development Bank, and Asian Development Bank. An engaging and accomplished public speaker, Professor Hughes has written and lectured widely about international finance throughout the world.

She began to pursue her life’s dream of seriously writing fiction during an academic sabbatical. With the help of her brilliant agent, Marcy Posner, she published her first novel, Nannyland, with Simon & Schuster Pocket Star Books in 2016 and joined the SparkPress family in 2021 with the upcoming publication of The Long-Lost Jules. A mother of four and granny of eight (the eldest is only seven, so she’s a very busy granny), she is fortunate enough to live on beautiful Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Jane graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in French Literature. She earned a master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and an MBA from New York University. 

You can find Jane on her website or follow her on Facebook.

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