We love mystery!

Historical Mystery (part 2)

This week, USA Today best selling author Sara Rosett joins Brook and Sarah to discuss historical mystery.

About Sara

Sara Rosett is the USA Today bestselling author of over 30 cozy and historical mysteries as well as books and courses for writers including “How to Write a Series” and “How to Outline a Cozy Mystery”. She also hosts a podcast for readers, Mystery Books Podcast.
Mystery Books Podcast

Cover for Murder at Archly Manor
Sara Rosett

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


Sarah Welcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.

Brook And I’m Brook, and we both love mystery.

Sarah So Brook, we’ve got another very exciting episode today. I’m so thrilled that we are talking with Sara Rosett.

Brook I know! This is going to be so much fun. Somebody we really look up to in the mystery space.

So, I will give just a little background on Sara before we get started today. Sara Rosett is the USA Today bestselling author of over 30 cozy and historical mysteries as well as books and courses for writers, including “How to Write a Series” and “How to Outline a Cozy Mystery”. She also hosts a podcast for readers: Mystery Books Podcast. And Sara doesn’t know this, but I consider her one of my mentors.

Sara Oh!

Brook We live in this great time where it’s possible to learn. It’s possible to learn from people through their podcasts and blogs and books and they become a teacher to us and sometimes they, well most times, they don’t even know it.

And I always find Sara to be so supportive and a positive voice in the mystery space and so, thank you, Sara. And I know that my friend Sarah also feels the same way and we just want to welcome you to the podcast. Welcome to Clued in Mystery.

Sara Oh well. Thank you so much. That’s so sweet of you to say that. And it is interesting because you know you send your books and your stories out in the world, and you just don’t know sometimes if they’re having a big impact or not or small impact. But anyway, I’m so happy to hear that. You made my day.

Brook Good.

Sarah So yeah, thank you for that introduction, Brook and yeah, welcome Sara. Really excited to, to chat with you today. So, let’s get started. You write cozy mysteries travel mysteries and historical mysteries. What if anything are readers looking for in historical mysteries that they don’t find in other types of mysteries?

Sara I think, I think when people read, they generally want an escape, but I think for historical readers, they want to go they want to immerse themselves in this unusual place, like something that they can’t visit today except through movies or books. And so, I think they want to feel like they’re in another time in another place and I think that they just love the details that you can include.

There’s the fine balance between including too much and not enough, but you want enough that the reader gets a sense of what that time was like what it was like you know, just day-to-day living, like what they ate, what kind of cars they drove or carriages they rode in, or whatever, whatever period you’re writing in, and I think that’s what they want they want. They want that escape.

And I think that as our world becomes more technologically immersed, everything we do online or on a screen, I think some people really want that escape to a time when there wasn’t social media, 24-hour news cycles, and all those things like that. I think they want something that’s very different. Sort of like if some people like sci-fi because they want to escape to completely different world. This is kind of the same thing but going back in time.

Sarah Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that connection between sci-fi and historical mystery. But I think you’re right that there’s that just desire to be to be somewhere else for a moment, right?

Sara Yeah, I think so, yeah.

Sarah What do you think is essential to a historical mystery other than historical setting and mystery? You know mentioned in your previous answer about, about detail.

Sara I think that you have to capture the place, like the physical surroundings and then I think you need to also include the dialogue when you’re writing you’ve got to think about like what, how people spoke. A regency mystery probably has a much more formal dialogue than I’m writing 1920s, so, you know 1920s is much more casual, but even that’s more formal than a cozy, a contemporary cozy would be today. So you’ve got to catch that dialogue and those phrases that people use. And kind of the slang of the period if they have it. You know if you can find out what it would be. And then I think people like reading about details. As a historical reader myself, I enjoy reading about things and I learn a little something about the culture of the time.

I think it’s interesting if you go, “Oh I didn’t know that they used this for medicine or that they traveled this way.” I don’t get to travel on trains in the golden age of travel. I would love to do that or a steamship, so you kind of get to vicariously experience that. So, I think that’s important to readers. They want to feel that that uniqueness to that time.

Sarah Can you tell us a little bit about that research process for you? Do you do that research before you start writing the book or the series? And how important is it to you to be historically accurate?

Sara Well, I always try to be historically accurate. But there are a lot of details and sometimes people find something that’s you know, not perfectly right and I have to go fix it. But, I do try to. I love research and so I try to do as much research as I can before I start, but there’s always those things that when you get into the book. You’re like “oh no, did cars have windshield wipers in the 1920s? I think so.” But so you have to go find it, or how they started their cars. A lot of them had cranks. So, the more detail you get into your story the more you’re like, “Oh”. A lot of times, it’s motions and things I have people doing I’m like “Oh, did they have medicine cabinets in the 1920s? I think so, but I don’t know. I better check”.

And you know, just different things like that. So, I do read a lot of books from the 1920s because I love that time period anyway, so just like reading fiction from the 1920s kind of helps you, or helps me see how it was written about then. And so it gives like a cultural kind of overview of what they had back then and how they lived. And then I read lots of biographies. I love to read biographies. And the other thing I’ve found really useful are travel guides that were published in between 1915 to 1925. If I can find something around then, it gives you all these amazing details that I could spend hours searching for on the internet and not be able to find, like train schedules and descriptions of the tours of, like “Oh if you’re going to this city, you probably want to go see these things”. And then it’ll describe and it’ll have maps, which I love. I love maps. It’s another thing I love for research. So yeah, I just I could spend almost all my time researching. So, I kind of have to stop and say. “All right. That’s enough now we need to start actually writing the book.”

Sarah And how do you, you kind of referred to this or alluded to this earlier about balancing how much detail to put in and moving the story along. So how do you, how do you find that balance?

Sara Well, I try to like drop little bits of information in and not put too much in. And sometimes I’ll just have an allusion to something like just a brief mention and then… sometimes I’ll have a character there who doesn’t understand what’s going on or something that’s new and I can… You know, my character can explain it. The main character can explain to the other character thus explaining it to the reader, but I try not to do that because you don’t want to have too many of those “as you know, blah blah blah…” That kind of slows everything down. So I try and figure out if it’s going to slow down the story, I probably need to take it out.

Readers are really smart, and I have a tendency to think like when I’m reading, I get impatient when people start explaining too much. I’m like “I get it I get it. You don’t have to explain, you know. From dialogue I understand what’s going on.” So I try and keep that in mind and just include enough that I give readers a little taste of what the building was like. Or I don’t have to describe the whole art deco building that Olive lives in. I can just say it had a modern elevator and that meant there was no bell boy. That was one of the new things in the 1920s they had the push button elevator thing, and that was… oh some people hated it, some people loved it. So you know, just a little snippet of information like that was enough to help people kind of contextualize what’s going on.

Sarah So, have you seen a shift in terms of what is popular in historical mysteries?

Sara Yeah, I think that there’s like seems like certain time periods kind of go up and down in popularity. So, I think maybe ten, twenty years ago, the Victorian era was really, really popular and almost most of the books that I saw were set, most historical mysteries were set kind of around that time period that time. Now I feel like World War Two and the 1920s are really popular.

Brook Interesting.

Sara Year, and I think the 1920s is kind of on an upswing. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’ve noticed more and more authors are writing in that era and I don’t know if it’s… You know they say the further you get away from a certain time period, then you’re able to write about it and people look back on it. I think that the ‘20s ‘30s ‘40s and ‘50s, we’re kind of in that era right now people are looking back and comparing that to today and there’s a lot of parallels.

The 1920s were like there’s so much going on, so much change, a lot of societal tensions that we kind of see mirrored in our world and so it’s kind of nice to look back to a different time and see how people negotiated that then. It kind of lets you reflect on what’s going on now but in a very subtle way.

Sarah Just thinking about what you were saying about the push button elevators and the no…

Sara Bell boys.

Sarah Sorry, bell boys. In my apartment building, they’re upgrading the elevators and they’re putting in touchscreen elevators and it’s the same thing. The residents are [grumbling]. It’s super interesting.

Sara The more things change the more they stay the same, right?

Sarah Totally, totally. So, a hundred years ago, changes in elevator technology were frustrating residents and it’s still happening today. So, I think that parallel is really interesting. Thinking about one hundred years ago, I guess seems far away. But, maybe not as far away as Victorian, right? You might have a grandparent who was alive in the 1920s. You’re really unlikely to have a grandparent who was alive in Victorian times, right?

Sara I think that there are certain areas that I don’t know that I could write in I don’t think I could do medieval. There’s also mystery novels set in ancient Greece, Rome. And I just I can’t wrap my mind around that time. So it’s easier for me to write about something that’s much closer but some people love going way back.

Sarah And so, what about your reading. Do you prefer to read historical mysteries set in the same time that you write in or do you find yourself reading in other time periods?

Sara I tend to gravitate to the 20s, 30s, 40s time period and I think that started because I started reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. And I think I read a bunch of those books and I was like “oh and there’s all these books by modern writers sit in that same time period.” I kind of bounce back and forth between you know, like classic golden age authors in kind of the modern version of that too. So, that’s what I like and although I am seeing more and more books set in like the 50s and 60s. I’m seeing a couple of those and I’m like maybe that’s where things were going but I’m more drawn to the 20s, 30s 40s.

Sarah Brook and I talked about Golden Age Mysteries and some people referring to them as historical mysteries when you know that really technically wouldn’t be the definition. Like you, I like reading the kind of original source material books that were written in that time period as well as contemporary books that are that are written now that are set in that time period.

When you’re reading those, Sara, do you notice any? Can you tell if you say, were blind reading and you didn’t know who had written the book, do you think you could tell if it was something that was written in the 20s or something that was written now and set in the 20s?

Sara I think the main difference is that the books that were actually written in the 20s and 30s, they really don’t have a whole lot of description about like daily life or, you know, things that we might drop in to clarify for readers. I mean like they don’t really usually mention the cars or the train travel assist.

I would take time to describe like the interior of a train carriage, not in huge detail, but I would mention like the veneer on the wood, because that’s unusual for today. But I don’t think they would do that then. And I don’t see a lot of description about their world whereas I would definitely include some of that because I think that’s what my readers want. So, I think that’s the main difference.

And then character development I think is the other difference. Like you had Poirot, Miss Marple, they’re much more like a flat-arced character where they’re episodic and they don’t change a whole lot. But I think modern readers like more of an arc for their main character. They like their sleuth to gradually change. Maybe not dramatically, but kind of gradually change. I think that’s the other big difference because Miss Marple, she gets older, but she doesn’t have this huge arc where she’s a completely different, you know, gone through a transformation. You know the hero’s journey. She doesn’t do that.

So, I think that’s the other difference is the modern reader likes a little bit more change in the character and a little maybe a little bit more depth and background as well. Because we don’t know a lot about Miss Marple’s background and Poirot’s background.

Sarah Yeah, that’s interesting. I wonder if someone were to really try and mirror that lack of detail lack of character depth, how that would be received now versus how those kind of original stories are received.

Sara I don’t know if it would go over or not. I guess I should say that I think Dorothy Sayers is the exception to the depth of character. Because Wimsey does change throughout the series and he has family and you know all these relatives and a bunch of stuff backstory behind him that you do learn as the series goes on. But I think most readers and I think maybe that’s why I’m drawn to some of the Dorothy Sayers books. With the first one I read, I was like “Oh I have to read the rest of these.” Because this is a little bit different from the other Golden Age books that I had read at that point. So, I think that modern readers prefer a little bit more depth to the character, whereas maybe the Golden Age readers, they really wanted that puzzle and if you had a great puzzle you were set.

Brook I was just going to mention that I think their lack of detail for the story set in that time period is similar to what if you were writing a contemporary mystery set in today. We would do tend to do the same thing right? We’d say you know he went out and he got in his car and we wouldn’t put all those details in because we just take it for granted that everybody understands what we mean but somebody in the future who wants to write historic about 2020 is going to have to throw in that touch screen elevator, Sarah. Or you know some of those things so that someone can place them in the time period. So it’s just it’s fascinating for me to think about the layering that that happens when you when you’re hearkening back and writing historical fiction, the way you have to do that so that everyone gets your drift but that’s fascinating.

Sarah I think that goes back to what Sara started off talking about, that readers are really looking to immerse themselves right? And to really imagine that they’re in this time of the story that they’re that they’re reading about. And so you need to have that, that extra detail to be able to do that, right?

Sara Right? Yeah, and that’s why sometimes when we’re reading books like from another era, we’re just confused we’re like I don’t understand these details that they’re describing like certain things you think “I just don’t know what’s going on here, but you know we’ll keep going.”

It is very interesting to think about someone writing about the 2020s in the future and how they would have to describe social media and, you know, the different aspects of our lives that will probably be totally changed. Very interesting thought.

Brook Yeah I think when somebody writes historical well, it’s almost like going to a theme park. You know when you are at Disneyland and you’re completely enmeshed in you know, whatever world it is. That’s what I love about historical. It’s like you can have that same sensation of being in a theme park where all the visuals are correct and the smells are correct and yeah, I love that about that in the in that subgenre.

Sara Yeah, and that’s a great example, because like a movie or a TV show, you can see it but you’re not able to really live it. Whereas a theme park, you’re walking around and you know, surrounded by buildings and things that, yeah, I love that comparison.

Sarah Yeah, that’s great. So what’s next, Sara? What are you going to? Do you think you would write a series set in the 1960s?

Sara I don’t think so. I’m really enjoying the 20s, so I’m probably going to stay there for a while and my readers really like it, so I’ll probably just keep doing more Olive books. And that’s the other thing I really like about the High Society series and that time period. There’s a lot of different aspects of this, what was going on that you can write about. I have her stay in England, or go to a country house, or I can still have her stay in London or go to a country house or I can have her travel. So, I think she needs to do some international travel so that’ll keep me occupied researching all that.

Sarah We are looking forward to it! Well, thank you so much for joining us, Sara. Is there anything that you would like to close with?

Sara I would just say that if you haven’t found a good historical mystery, just keep looking because there’s all different kinds and varieties and time periods. And I’m sure there’s something out there for most people that they would enjoy. So yeah, keep reading and it was great to talk to y’all.

Brook Thanks for joining us today, Sara, and thank you all for listening to Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.

Sarah And I’m Sarah, and we both love mystery.