A while back, I guest-hosted a Regency blog. My choice of topic was how to add a valuable touch of authenticity to a historical novel. Since the current tenets of good writing insist the writer show, not tell, I followed through as best I might, with an abbreviated scene of the writer's creative process at work. Now the original article, which was limited to fit blog space, has expanded, hopefully to entertain my readers and demonstrate for the novice writer a useful trick for writing historicals.
I curl over my keyboard, ignoring the kitchen floor, which has become awfully gray around the edges. A new story is knitting itself together in my head. I have the heroine -- she is young, but like my daughter, she never wanted to be young. She came out of the womb determined to take charge. She needs something big to take charge of. The man who she is going to tie up in knots eludes me, probably because I tend to tailor him to suit the plot, and the plot is still too nebulous to get him revved up.
In other words, I need a mystery for my heroine to solve. So far each of my books has had an element of mystery, some problem that generates clues, an interesting reason for the hero and heroine to fight their way through the story. Whether it is the prime motivator of the heroine -- "Who stole the papers?" -- or the hero's commission -- "What causes those pesky holes?" -- to the simple, supposedly innocuous question, "Why is the gardener acting that way?" I like to add a mystery to my plot. My favorite was "Who stole the papers," so I want to go hardcore and have the mystery dominate the story this time. I need a Regency mystery plot, something that works in that time period. Something unique to the Regency.
Drat, nothing crawls into my head The keyboard is there; the computer is on. Do a Google search for 1820 England. The date is random, but... Aha. Google Books has something promising.
In 1820, Frederick Acum published a Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, which tells us that lead was the most common means of preventing wine from souring. Lead as in lead paint. If you are a landlord, you know the EPA acts like lead paint is the deadliest danger of our time. Maybe they are right. Acum writes, "A gentleman who had never in his life experienced a day's illness, and who was constantly in the habit of drinking half a bottle of Madeira wine after his dinner, was taken ill, three hours after dinner, with a severe pain in the stomach and violent bowel colic... His apothecary becoming suspicious that the wine he had drank might be the cause of the disease, ordered the bottle from which the wine had been decanted to be brought to him, with a view that he might examine the dregs, if any were left. The bottle happening to slip out of the hand of the servant, disclosed a row of shot wedged forcibly into the angular bent-up circumference of it... The wine, therefore, had become contaminated with lead and arsenic, the shot being a compound of these metals, which no doubt had produced the mischief."
This a great who done it plot. Who poisoned my villain with lead infused Port? Never mind that the villain didn't exist until I skimmed through Acum's exceedingly dull book. He doesn't matter as much as the death, which gives my heroine something to sink her teeth into. Better she bite a murder suspect than the hero's thumb.
A plot whirls into my head. Nephew Bloodsucker bribes Susie Suspicious to store the Earl of Nastiness' wine in a bottle filled with lead shot. Don't be surprised when Nasty doubles up in pain in the drawing room after dinner and his ward, Tricia True, wrings her hands. I'll give Nasty a miserable night while Bloodsucker ransacks the mansion looking for the fabulous ruby rumor says Nasty stole from Tricia's brother, the East India nabob. In the morning, Nasty dies, but Bloodsucker doesn't find the ruby because Susie has run off with it. She sells it to Rundell and Bridge, Jewelers, for a cool fifty thousand pounds and using her chance-met fortune wisely, scampers to her hometown of Newark. Susie buys the posting inn there. Now she can thumb her nose at the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who thought she was gutter tripe when she was growing up. Newark gossips are titillated by Susie's rags to riches tale. But...
Acum provides the final plot twist. "On the 17th of January, the passengers by the Highflyer coach, from the north, dined, as usual, at Newark. A bottle of Port wine was ordered; on tasting which, one of the passengers observed that it had an unpleasant flavour, and begged that it might be changed. The waiter took away the bottle, poured into a fresh decanter half the wine which had been objected to, and filled it up from another bottle... The half of the bottle of wine sent out of the passengers' room, was put aside for the purpose of mixing negus. In the evening, Mr. Bland, of Newark, went into the hotel, and drank a glass or two of wine and water. He returned home at his usual hour, and went to bed; in the middle of the night he was taken so ill, as to induce Mrs. Bland to send for his brother, an apothecary in the town; but before that gentleman arrived, he was dead. An inquest was held, and the jury, after the fullest enquiry, and the examination of the surgeons by whom the body was opened, returned a verdict of -- Died by Poison."
That's a meaty mystery. We have people acting in their own best interest, people with secrets to hide, people with motivation galore. Best of all, there's any number of people able and willing to murder the Earl of Nastiness, not to mention poor Mr. Bland. Only I, the author, knows that Nephew Bloodsucker is the prime villain of the piece. Everyone else must wade through the clues I'll write to figure it out.
You have Susie Suspicious selling the ruby and Nephew Bloodsucker, who needs the ruby to pay off his staggering gaming debts. Tricia's so-called nabob brother sent the ruby to Nasty for safekeeping, but now he's back from India with little more than the jewel to show for ten years in Calcutta. He wants the ruby to fund a search for an heiress to finance his future. Nasty claimed he never received a package from India.
Let's find motivations not connected to jewels. Nasty was an earl of incredible wealth; who is his heir? Not Nephew Bloodsucker; second sons go into the church, don't you know. Henry Holy, the downtrodden vicar, doesn't like writing sermons. He's watched his brother, Nasty, cavort all these years. He'd like a chance to do the same and he's earned it. He won't be a blot on the family tree. Henry Holy's wife, Honor, fails to live up to her name. She's not above crowning herself Countess -- she's earned it, puttering around a pokey vicarage all these years. Their precious son, Grubbing George, wants to be the heir. Wait a minute, George is already the heir, since Nasty was too busy being a rake and roue to get around to marrying. All George has to do is wait for Nasty to stick his spoon in the wall and he will inherit kit and caboodle. So maybe George is impatient. Or his sister, Patricia Proud, wants a London season and the chance at an earl of her own. Her chances improve exponentially having a brother who is a peer versus a brother who is heir to a dissolute peer.
Ignoring money entirely, there is the butler - the butler always does it, right? Well, this butler is capable of it. This would not be the first time he committed murder. Proper Peters is the direct ancestor of Jack the Ripper. There is a little matter of three whores found with slit throats of whom Nasty is aware. Peters is tired of licking Nasty's boots because of a few prostitutes.
Eight solid suspects. That is a plot worthy of Agatha Christie.
And there is more than one choice of heroine. Aunt Gossip reminds me of Miss Marple. That might be interesting. Two heroines sharing center stage, one rewarded with the romance of her dreams, the other getting her kicks nabbing Susie Suspicious. Why not? Tricia True needs a chaperone. It's about time the older woman did more than twiddle her thumbs on the dowager's bench.
So, the plot is set. After I set the pages afire with gory murder and rousing investigation, Tricia True, now living with Aunt Gossip, remembers that the owner of the Newark inn was a kitchen maid at the Nastiness mansion. After some hectic detecting, Susie Suspicious is convicted of poisoning both Mr. Bland and the Earl of Nastiness with doctored wine. With the noose around her neck, Susie shouts out the name of the person who set up the plot against Nasty, bringing Nephew Bloodsucker low.
Have you figured it out? If the writer devises a plot with a solid base in the historical period the story is set in -- something like poisoning done in a purely Regency manner, it shades the whole book with that invaluable aura of being true to the time. Half the battle is fought and won in one fell swoop. The reader is sucked into the story; none but the most exacting historian will accuse the author of forcing anachronisms down the reader's throat. And if the author manages to teach that historian something she didn't know about the period she loves, she will be a fan forever.
Now to add a romance for Tricia True...