One of the criticisms often leveled at historical mystery fiction writers is that we emphasize the history rather than the mystery in our books. Not so, in my less than humble opinion. Several historical mystery writers do very well with both, a conclusion that is probably shared by most of us. That said, I freely admit that my series tends to be very character driven with a background of, I hope, historical surprises. So when I came to write The Proud Sinner, my thirteenth book coming out this month, I challenged myself to be more devious in plotting.
Learning to develop my inner obfuscation should come naturally. After all, I was a bureaucrat for over thirty years. Trouble is that my job for much of that time was making legalese understandable. Being clear may be a virtue in government but not so much as a mystery writer. Yet isn’t the fun of craft trying to improve on the things one doesn’t do well?
Try is the operative word!
While I was mulling the plot of The Proud Sinner, I happened to watch Dame Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians on TV. Then I reread the book. This master of plotting said it was the hardest book she ever had to write. I didn’t like how she ended it, but I loved that everyone was a suspect. Talk about a barrel of red herrings! There is no way I could ever match the skill of Christie, but I had fun coming up with my own ways to do in one suspect after another in a party of rather obnoxious abbots. Instead of being confined on a remote island, these men were trapped at Prioress Eleanor’s priory during one of the worst winters on record in 13th century East Anglia. As a backdrop, instead of the increasingly sparse meals served on Agatha’s island, I included what I thought were interesting historical details about the variety in monastic diet whether following or ignoring the Benedictine Rule.
So how successful was my effort? One reviewer, who hasn’t liked my books at all, praised me for the first time. Another reviewer, who usually likes the series, said the plotting would please fans of whodunits but thought it odd I hadn’t included much history.
As usual, I leave it up to each reader to decide whether the story pleases or not!
Priscilla Royal, February 13, 2014