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August 6, 2014

The Mystery of History: Inspired by the Deadly Ink Conference

I spent the weekend at the Deadly Ink mystery conference, in New Brunswick, NJ. The programs at mystery conferences tend to revolve around panel discussions, and all too often these discussions take the form of very thinly disguised sales pitches. Not my idea of a good time. (On the other hand, I used to go to a lot of financial-services conferences, and the panel discussions there suffered from the same problem. I’d rather listen to people pitch mystery novels than mutual funds, any day.)

To my delighted astonishment, the panels at DInk (hee! Dink!) actually featured thoughtful discussion, with a minimum of And then I wrote… I was only able to attend two, but they were both remarkably interesting. The first was on historical mysteries, and historical fiction in general, and much of the conversation concerned the problem of what moderator Roberta Rogow calls “writing foresoothly” – using language that may in fact be accurate to the period in question, but sounds awkward to the modern ear. That awkwardness may simply sound like the author is trying too hard (I remember tossing a book in disgust when the opening sentence read “It was eleven of the clock…”). It may also sound, or read, like an anachronism: One of the examples given concerned the phrase “I got the drop on him.” It almost certainly referred, originally, to dueling or gunfights: If you drop your weapon (aim it) before your opponent drops his, you can get off the first shot. More generally, it has come to mean an advantage, and though the phrase certainly dates back to the 19th century, at the very least, something about its staccato rhythm, its easy fit as a rap-lyric, makes it sound considerably more contemporary. If you’re writing a novel set in the 19th century, having your protagonist say “I got the drop on him” may in fact be accurate, but it will sound like you haven’t done your research.

Another question that came up was the extent to which it is cricket to play fast and loose with historical facts. The response to this question really ran the gamut, with some writers (Richard Belsky, I’m looking at you!) claiming “It’s fiction, so everything’s fair game,” and others staking out a radically different position (Roberta Rogow says she feels “a little guilty” about changing the day of the week on which a labor riot actually occurred in 1886). (I should note that she feels this way even thought she writes “speculative fiction,” or “alternative history,” with her current series predicated on the premise that the Moors retained control of Spain.)

For what it’s worth, and without having devoted a great deal of thought to the topic, it seems to me that there’s a difference between messing with historical events, and messing with the people who actually lived through them. It’s one thing, for example, to create a world in which Germany won the First World War, and something very different to create a world in which movie star Mary Pickford was acting as a spy for the Kaiser. Events, wars, don’t have feelings to be hurt, they don’t have descendants to be distressed by the false notion that Great-Grandma was a German spy. I think if your World War I novel needs a spying movie star, you should call her Mary Bickford or Phyllis McGillicuddy, and then make her as evil and duplicitous as you want. To insist on the Mary Pickford moniker, it seems to me, is nothing but a marketing gimmick, deployed at the expense of an actual person. While libel laws may say otherwise, I don’t believe that celebrity – one’s status as a “public figure” – requires one to forfeit the rights to decency that, in my world (speculative or otherwise), humanity inherently confers. What do you think?



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