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Monday, May 7, 2012


Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, William and Lois Shepard enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.

Shepard has published several nonfiction books using the new EBook technology, including “Coffee Break Mysteries,” “The Great Detectives (From Vidocq to Sam Spade),” “America’s Unknown Wars,” and “Maryland In The Civil War.” The last three grew out of his lectures under the continuing education program at Chesapeake College. 

Welcome, William!  William is here today to walk you through his process when writing two of his Historical Mysteries, so sit back, grab a notebook, and get ready to learn some tips!

Writing Historical Mysteries – William S. Shepard

            I really enjoy writing historical mysteries. In the context of my diplomatic mysteries, that means stories set in the present time, where something that did or did not take place in the past is the key to understanding a present crime. I use this device in the second and third of my Robbie Cutler diplomatic mystery series, “Murder On The Danube,” and “Murder In Dordogne.” Properly done, the historical portion of the mystery should add interest and texture and be anything but a history lesson!

            In “Murder On The Danube,” I dealt with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Someone in a small group of Freedom Fighters was a traitor. Now he or she has surfaced again, and has murdered another survivor, who had at length figured out the truth of the betrayal. Robbie Cutler, an American diplomat assigned as Political Officer at the Embassy in Budapest, is involved because the victim was a prominent Hungarian-American, well connected politically. This ups the stakes for the murderer, who soon targets Cutler himself.

            This type of historical mystery posed its own set of challenges. I was taking the actual events of the Hungarian Revolution, those 13 heroic days from October 13-November 4, 1956, as the background for the novel. One challenge was – how should I present this background? The novel was not taking place in the past, and I did not want references to the past to interrupt constantly the flow of the story. Furthermore, the period had to be dealt with honestly, without being slighted. I knew that a number of readers would have been participants in the street fighting, and so it had to be accurate to the last detail. (When the manuscript was finished, I had it vetted by a Freedom Fighter who knew what happened day by day.)

            I solved the first problem, after a prologue that introduced main characters from 1956, by writing the novel straightforwardly in the present time. At the conclusion of each chapter, however, I had a short back story from one of the thirteen days of the Hungarian Revolution itself. That narrative proceeded, and provided background and substance to the contemporary narrative, as gradually, the two stories began to merge. When the surviving Freedom Fighters joined the narrative in the final chapters of the book, it all came together.

            I had done a lot of research into the period, and I had been assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest as Political Officer (like Robbie Cutler), and have been trained in Hungarian. Research into this period was impossible when I was assigned to the Embassy, for that was the time of the Communist domination. I did return to Budapest with the assistance of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and our own Embassy in Budapest. It was quite an experience, revisiting the sites of the Revolution, with a knowledgeable guide. I even was locked into a prisoner cell for a few moments – an experience I never want to repeat!

           In “Murder In Dordogne,” again the novel is set in the present time, but concerns also a past crime – the murder of an Englishwoman, a member of the paramilitary Special Operations Executive (SOE) who had parachuted into this remote French region in order to help the French Resistance. Again, what happened in 1944 sets the stage for attempted murder in the here and now. Robbie Cutler and Sylvie are in Dordogne on their honeymoon, and soon find that they are the targets for a determined killer.

            Once again, the research had to be precise. I had to discover how the SOE and the Resistance actually operated, and I incorporated a real mystery – the disappearance of three dozen priceless Impressionist paintings from as the war oin the area ended. They were stolen from the Château de Rastignac, called the “French White House” for its resemblance to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the crime remains unsolved. Weaving together that fact, the Resistance operation, and the activities of the occupiers and their local henchmen, made the plot come alive.

            It helped, I think, that this is an area of France that I know very well, having visited the Dordogne repeatedly. The little towns and historical sites remain vividly in my recollection, and I find that most helpful.

            In one respect this was not as difficult as the earlier book, for there was no need to set forth the prior period day by day. However, it was necessary to get the period right, including the Messages from London that were transmitted on the BBC, and were life’s blood to resistance groups in Occupied France.

            Specialists in both periods, World War II in Occupied France, and Budapest in 1956, have enjoyed these two books. Does an historical novel pose its own difficulties? Well yes, but I found them to be worth it. I wouldn’t make every novel in the series an historical novel (and the first book in the diplomatic mystery series, “Vintage Murder,” is not an historical mystery), but writing them has its own rewards. I hope you’ll give them a try, and let us know whether you enjoyed them!

Thank you, William! Be sure to visit William's web site, Diplomatic Mysteries , where surprisingly enough, you'll find good information on French wine!  You can also friend Robbie Cutler of the Diplomatic Mysteries on Facebook 

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting and informative. Wow!

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  2. William, your knowledge of those events is amazing. Murder on the Danube gave me a much better understand of the Hungarian Revolution. The details and the inside view of what happened were fascinating. Robbie Cutler lives an interesting life!

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