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Thread: Researching Historical Mysteries

  1. #1
    figuring it all out ConnieBDowell's Avatar
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    Researching Historical Mysteries

    Hi all:

    I'm researching and plotting out my first historical mystery and I'm wondering if there are other historical mystery writers out there on this forum. While I'm thoroughly enjoying the research process and have found a lot of good material, one aspect of the research seems most challenging: learning how criminal investigation would have been done at the time. I've turned up a couple of treatises on policework and fingerprinting from the period (one of which I've been able to access so far) but I still feel like this type of resource won't really ground me in the experience. I could try finding records from period crimes, but would that be much better? What I think I really want (and am trying furiously to find though I doubt such a thing exists or if it does it's in someone's attic somewhere not in a library where I could see it) is a diary or a memoir of a law enforcement officer working during the period (and if possible in the same state as my novel).

    I know recommending resources is difficult when you don't know the period and location well (in my case late 1910's Georgia), but if there are others on this forum who have conducted this type of research, it might be beneficial to hear about the types of sources you consulted, the general research path that you took and what was most helpful.

    Of course as the story takes place nearly a hundred years ago (so there's no one with first hand knowledge) and I imagine that criminal investigation methods varied widely from one county to the next, I could probably get away with guessing on some details, but I prefer to be as accurate as possible, something I'm sure folks on this subforum can understand. I'd really appreciate any advice or just stories from the research trenches!
    I chat about writing and freelance edit at Book Echoes Media.
    My nonfiction: YOU CAN LOVE WRITING: A GUIDE TO GET THROUGH YOUR COLLEGE PAPERS AND LIKE IT is now available at Amazon.

  2. #2
    Dull Old Person Flicka's Avatar
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    I have written a historical mystery that took place in Sweden in, I think, the 1890s. I spent a lot of time researching exactly those aspects because starting out I had no idea.

    My main sources were a) legislation (it spelled out the responsibilities of various officials and how a death was to be processed through the "system", including when you needed to perform an autopsy and who could do it and answered quite a lot of my questions) b) manuals for officials (I read a very detailed one meant for the "lšnsman", which I suppose could be translated to "sheriff" and one for how to perform an autopsy) c) memoirs and biographies of of people with that kind of job (doctors, policemen etc).

    I don't know if that helps, but I'm generally into the period around 1900 (I have a blog about it - see my signature) so I'd be interested to know what you discover.
    The Rags of Time | Twitter | The Fear of the Blank Page

    "She had not character enough to take to drinking, and moaned about, slipshod and in curl-papers all day"

    Currently working on:A Candle to the Devil (mystery; set in 1628)
    Perfect Shadows (mystery; set in 1920)

  3. #3
    figuring it all out ConnieBDowell's Avatar
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    Thanks, Flicka. That does help some. I'll keep searching for memoirs or biographies. (There are are some diary/memoir/biography bibliographies I haven't consulted yet.) But, boy I never would have thought it would be so hard to find information for the U.S. at that time. In comparison, there's tons out there about British, Canadian, or Australian law enforcement. There also seems to be boatloads of information for the U.S. for the twenty or thirty year periods just before and just after the setting of my novel. Oh well. At least I can cobble together what I can learn from what's out there, trying to compare to out of country sources to keep as period-appropriate as possible.

    If I might ask one more question: I've heard when researching for historical mysteries, reading mystery novels and stories of the period helps. While one can't depend on them for complete accuracy, at least they indicate how the general public believed investigations were conducted. What are your thoughts on this?

    By the way, I like your blog. I'm a new subscriber.
    I chat about writing and freelance edit at Book Echoes Media.
    My nonfiction: YOU CAN LOVE WRITING: A GUIDE TO GET THROUGH YOUR COLLEGE PAPERS AND LIKE IT is now available at Amazon.

  4. #4
    Dull Old Person Flicka's Avatar
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    Oh, you mentioning detective stories reminded me: one of the best sources was true crime books. There were a few famous murders in "my period" here that there were entire books dedicated to and in which every step of the investigation was described in detail, from the first alerting of the authorities to conviction (or, in some cases, until the investigation was considered fruitless and abandoned). It really helped me with certain details and taught me that not two investigations were even remotely alike. I bet you can find some (in)famous murders in the US (possibly even in the US south) from around 1910 that there are plenty of sources on.

    But yes, both period detective fiction and modern books taking place in the period can help you with what you should look for (and period fiction is great for atmosphere).

    Anyway, in general, for my place and period (I checked, and it was Sweden in the year 1900), they virtually didn't apply any forensics beyond a rudimentary autopsy (that was often conducted almost on site; I had mine in an outhouse on the manor where it took place and that was in line with how it was done in real cases). They basically just said "oh, so-and-so has been bumped on the head" or "so-and-so was poisoned with arsenic". The rest was all legwork, and they relied on local gossip to an astonishing level. I don't know if Georgia ten years later was all that different, but I wouldn't think so. And forensics were more or less the same all over the world, although I think you can safely assume that your location is a few years behind, say, London and Paris. If your officials were middle-aged in 1910, they were trained some 20-30 years before and unlikely to jump at every new-fangled scientific method. Change came slow in those days.

    Case in point: there was a murder of a prostitute here in the late 1920s, which was never solved (popularly known as the "Vampire-murder"). They found "blood" on certain objects, but the truth is they never tested if it actually was blood or something else and if I remember correctly, the modern guess is that it wasn't. That was in our capital with our top detective force, almost 20 years after your setting. Forensics took a really long time to catch on...

    Hope that helps!
    The Rags of Time | Twitter | The Fear of the Blank Page

    "She had not character enough to take to drinking, and moaned about, slipshod and in curl-papers all day"

    Currently working on:A Candle to the Devil (mystery; set in 1628)
    Perfect Shadows (mystery; set in 1920)

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