Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Mystery of History

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Funny, the things we remember. A million years ago, when I was, maybe, nine? A history teacher explained to me that it was called history because the events were actually stories. 

(I remember, back then, even funnier, thinking why is it HIS story? I probably didn’t say so.)  

But the teacher’s basic point was consciousness-raising to a little kid—that history is a series of fabulous fascinating stories. So no wonder historical fiction is so riveting—it takes us back and puts us in another time. Into what was a real story. What IS a real story.

I have to admit, before I read Jeannette’s essay, I never thought of it as…well, let her tell it. 

And she found an incredible—true--story along the way. 

Incorporating History into Mystery

I’ll confess from the start: I’m lazy. I sometimes think that I wrote nothing but historical fiction for a while because a) I’d studied history and b) the stories were already there, just waiting to be plucked.

Okay, so I’m being a little factious, but not too much. I wrote about past events and eras for a long time, and then, for various reasons, left that kind of writing behind. When I started doing mysteries, I created protagonists who traveled, protagonists with interesting backgrounds, protagonists who stayed firmly in the present… and found my own attention waning. The thing is, I really like history. Not as merely an academic endeavor, but as a conduit, a way to help us explore our own humanity.

Which is what the best writing is all about, anyway, isn’t it?

I was doing a talk recently about my new novel, Asylum, which incorporates a great deal of the past into the protagonist’s present, and a participant asked, “How important is it to get the history right when you’re writing fiction?”

It’s a good question, but I’m not sure it’s the right question. Does any fiction get the past exactly right? Of course not: the reality is that no two historians would even agree on nonfiction getting the past exactly right—the moment that history is recorded, it becomes a point of view. And, of course, a mystery.

For me, the question is more about how the backdrop of the past is used to address questions about the human condition.

Look at it this way: any writing that incorporates history is, essentially, a conversation between the past and the present. But readers and writers alike sometimes forget that a conversation is two-sided, that you have to listen as well as speak. And when you’re bringing your knowledge and experience of one era and looking through that lens at another one, you’re doing most of the speaking.

Mystery writing that incorporates history, to me, is absolutely the best way for that conversation in general—and for listening in particular—to take place. Mysteries are all about asking questions, after all, and listening very hard to the answers.

Using history as a backdrop to mystery allows for suppressed voices to be heard. In the case of Asylum, it’s the suppressed stories of the “Duplessis orphans,” children falsely certified insane and locked into mental institutions where they were abused and often killed. The mystery is intrinsic to their voices: Why were they there? Who stood to gain? How did their stories get buried? Who needed to keep their fate sealed?

I didn’t have to look far to uncover these secrets: I spend a lot of time every year in MontrĂ©al, but anyone with access to Wikipedia could have found out about the Duplessis Orphans and the even more terrible activities of the CIA’s MK-Ultra program around the same time.

The point is that the stories are out there, amazing stories, baffling stories, strange stories, and every one of them represents a mystery of some sort. Every one of them is ready to start a conversation with the present.

What I’ve found works best for me is to enable that conversation by choosing a modern-day protagonist with a modern-day mystery that can only be solved by questioning the past. Through the protagonist, the reader is then able to ask some of those same questions.

Let’s face it: humanity is all about secrets. We have them in our personal lives and in the lives of our families, our communities, our countries. They’re secrets for a reason: most of us don’t want them revealed. To what lengths would we go to keep them hidden? The expression of the past coming back to haunt one is very real. In some cases, it’s not just real, but dangerous as well.

And that’s where mysteries come in.

Is it important to get the backbone right, the history correct? I think so, insofar as it’s even possible: at the end of the day, the conversation needs to have a foundation in facts. But conversations are often filled with lies; does that make them any less real, any less meaningful?

Every book we read makes us richer in some way. Allowing mysteries to open a window on the past also allows them to open a window on the human heart. And that’s the greatest mystery of them all!

What do you think? Do you like reading about the past in the midst of a modern mystery? Or do you prefer mysteries that are set firmly in a prior time? (I’m thinking, for example, of Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael)? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and will select one commentator at random to receive a copy of Asylum!

HANK: Oh, with Rhys and Susan here--that'll be interesting to hear!And Hallie's new book is an historical, really--right? (And Jeannette--will you tell us more about the Duplessis orphans?)

About Asylum: Women are being murdered in MontrĂ©al’s summer tourist season, and everything points to random acts of a serial killer—but it’s publicity director Martine LeDuc who discovers that the deaths reflect a darker past that someone wants desperately to keep hidden.
About the author: Jeannette de Beauvoir grew up in Angers, France, but now lives on Cape Cod—as well as spending as much time as she can traveling, reading history, and listening to the voices of other times and other places. Read more about her at


  1. Thanks so much for your insightful comments, Jeannette. I’d never thought of it quite in the context of a conversation between the past and the present, but that is such a marvelous description.
    I appreciate finding a component of the past in a modern mystery and I enjoy historical tales. In either case, I find that as long as the historical perspective is compelling and the story is wrapped around it in a believable way, I’m a happy reader. “Asylum” sounds like just the sort of book I need to add to my teetering to-be-read pile.

  2. I think that there are a lot of these conversations going on at once, Joan. Conversations between the past and the present, conversations between places and the people who inhabit them, conversations even between our inner selves and our everyday ones. And mysteries abound in all of them! I'd be honored to have Asylum added to your TBR stack! (Mine teeters, too...!)

  3. Some of the Duplessis Orphans are still alive, but aging. Thanks to the valiant efforts of Roy Vienneau, who married one of the orphans, they eventually received a settlement out of court... though the Church has yet to admit to any wrongdoing. You can read more about them here:

  4. I look forward to reading Asylum, having spent a good deal of time in Quebec, myself. I like to read historicals set in the era, and one of my series is that way (a Quaker midwife solving mysteries in an 1888 northeastern Massachusetts mill town). But a modern mystery with roots in the past is also so intriguing. One of Julia's books is that way, as are local author Tempa Pagel's. I've never heard of those orphans, but I'll bet my Canadian sister has!

  5. Edith, you might be surprised. A lot of folks in Canada don't know about the orphans... a new generation has grown up, and there are few places, I think, that want to dwell on dark pasts. I hope that you'll enjoy the book; I do think it's helpful to look at the past in a way that will at the very least make us hopeful about the future.

  6. looking forward to reading your book. I write cozy mysteries set in a small town, where everything sordid about the place and its residents has roots in the past.

  7. Hey, Jeannette! So happy to see you with this new book out!!

    My new book is set in the 60s and 80s and it's weird to think of that as "historical" but I suppose it is. Like Jeannette I'm lazy, sort of, and good thing I had my memory and Google images to rely on.

    The hard part for me is handling multiple timelines. I remember reading Julia's Out of the Deep I Cried (isn't that the one that seesaws between past and present?) and thinking: How does she do that? For my book I had to map out each character's time line in the past and the present in order to feel I was in enough control to write.

  8. Margaret, thank you, and I hope you'll enjoy Asylum.

    And Hallie, thank you for your forever support! I agree about timelines. I had lists of dates next to me when writing, making sure I was getting the "factual" parts of the novel right. The sequel, which I'm working on now, has even more complicated timelines... and, honestly, sometimes I think that my head is going to explode!

  9. I love mysteries that have storylines with roots in the past. I also love books about cold cases and that's somewhat the same thing. I saw a review of ASYLUM recently and was quite intrigued. And I've got it in my pile (or virtual pile on my Kindle) to read soon. I think that books such as this one are one way that lets history not be forgotten. People are interested and then hopefully will go do additional research. Enjoyed hearing about the process, Jeannette. Best of luck on this book!

  10. Wow, Jeannette, what a tragic story. I'd never heard of the Duplessis Orphans, but it is certainly a cautionary tale about misplaced trust. The old saw about learning from history so as not to repeat it certainly applies here.

    I am anxious to read Asylum. I like a story that moves back and forth in time and am a big fan of episodic or experimental structures.

  11. Kay, thanks for downloading Asylum! I'm not convinced that knowing our collective history keeps us from repeating it—-I'm a little more pessimistic than that—-but it does hopefully keep us sensitive. And maybe more willing to speak out against current injustices.

    Plus I like the idea of secrets. Everyone has them (people, countries, etc.) and many would like to keep them buried. It's a grand background for a mystery when something or someone threatens to unbury those secrets!

  12. I often 'live' in the far past, as an archaeologist, and I've found that there is nothing new under the sun in modern human behavior--good, bad, and downright ugly. But it's important to shine a light on the human condition, and this is what history does--tells those stories so that we acknowledge them, we strive not to repeat the bad and ugly--or at least recognize when they are about to happen, or attempt redress of past transgressions of society.

    There's that popular PBS series: History's Mysteries, right? So, yes, history is full of mysteries and I love it when those stories are tied to mystery reading--I'm a big Ellis Peters fan and adore those kinds of mysteries when they are well done, but I am equally intrigued by a modern mystery that delves into the past. Asylum sounds like my kind of story!

  13. Welcome, Jeannette! And I can't wait to read Asylum. I must confess I've never heard of the Duplessis Orphans, but wow. (Off to read more now....)

  14. Yes, I love the idea of the "conversation" ANd what does "History" mean? It's essentially what happened yesterday..

    ne editor told me the difficulty of historicals with a modern sleuth is that the real story is in the past--not in the present, and that's very difficult to create.

    Is it pronounced Du-ples-sees?

  15. In multiple timelines, Stan Trollip has a great method--and and his writing partner map out what they call "The God View, " which is simply a narrative of what happened in the past. MOst of it never gets into the book, in that form at least, but it's just so they know what happened, and than can go from there.

  16. Secrets, of course. It's what makes fiction go 'round I think. Not much story if everybody is being 100% honest, is there?

    I loved the Cadfael books. For me, it's less that you get every last historical fact right and more that you accurately capture the feeling of the age (watched a TV show last night set in the 40s where the woman knew she was six weeks pregnant - I'm not sure that was even possible to know in 1942).

    And I like both kids - present day mysteries that are rooted in the past and mysteries set in the past.

  17. Oh, FChurch! When I was eight years old I wanted to be an archaeologist more than anything in the world! (I later discovered the level of patience required, and that I didn't have it.) I agree about the past shining a light on the human condition.

    Ramona, thanks so much for your comments. There definitely is a lot to be learned here ...

  18. Hank, you're close: Du-play-see is the closest I can get to writing the pronunciation.

    And history is indeed as recent or as far-away as we want it to be. Before I got to crunch time with my current work, I started re-reading some of the Greek tragedies... and believe me, there is nothing new under the sun!

  19. Mary, spot-on about the "feeling." I liked the Foyle's War series fort hat reason: historical milestones were moving by, but what you really were seeing was the one egg in the larder, the rationing tickets, the astonishment over possessing an onion. As Josephine Tey wrote, history is less in accounts andm ore in account-books.

  20. wonderful discussion! Oh, yes, secrets. That's a great way to think about a mystery as I am writing--who has secrets they don't want revealed, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with the murder.

    And I was taught when learning to be a psychologist, that knowing and facing the past helped keep a patient from repeating the terrible old patterns. I think it was a good mantra...

  21. Wow, Jeannette, what an amazing subject. Of course I immediately Googled Duplessis Orphans. As a writer of historical fiction (with a mystery element), I find that the conversation between past and present exists, even if the story is firmly rooted in the past with no modern elements. My novel takes place in Indochina in the 1920s, the time of colonialism and rampant art theft. I was constantly aware of how ethics have changed since then, and I find that this is one of the top issues readers want to discuss once they've read the book - many are furious that my characters are so ruthless, but to give them modern ethics would be cheating. I can't wait to read Asylum with the questions you've raised in mind.

  22. I love historical mysteries, as well as those that alternate between one time period and another.

    I love the concept of the conversation and how some parties involved may be lying (intentionally or not), but that the history is no less "accurate" because of these lies. After all, any story told is really only the reality for certain folks - it is very difficult (maybe impossible) to tell a tale that satisfies ALL those involved.

    One of my favorite authors who does this mixture well is Katherine Neville. The Eight is a gripping story with more than enough historical information to please a scholar, but also enough intrigue to keep thriller fans turning the page.

    Diana Gabaldon is another who nails this concept. I'll let Kathy B. weigh in later on Diana - as I know she is a huge fan as well.

    Thanks for stopping by Jeannette. Asylum is going on my list of future reads.

  23. Hi, Lucy and Kim, and thanks for joining the conversation!

    It's true that we sometimes don't realize how much of a lens the 21st century provides us when we look at the past. Every age thinks that the ones which went before are barbaric, in a way. Look at the history of mental health treatment: every age was probably doing the best it could, but we find the practices (lobotomies, freezing baths, electroshock, etc.) horrifying. Now we treat mental illness with drugs, but in another 80 years that will probably be considered horrifying, too. It's all a matter of perspective.

    The issue of secrets is one of the most fascinating anyone can explore, I think. Who doesn't have them? Who doesn't guard them?

  24. Kristopher, thanks for your comments. Actually, lies can sometimes tell us more about the truth of something than not lying would have done, though I'd have to think about that some... the things we choose to lie about are possibly the most telling of all.

  25. Oh ho, Kim, "modern ethics." Very interesting concept.
    Remember in the TV showThe Newsroom--where they treated year-oldnews stores as if they were now--Asif the news department was just hearing about, say, a scandal. And they dealt with it as if they weren' Monday morning quarterbacking. It drove me crazy, because of COURSE, if an event happened now it's be handled differently through the benefit of experience.

    So how do you handle/know/decide how someone would have *thought* in the past? What moral compass they would have used?

    And of course, that's how we learn from history, as Lucy/Roberta says.

  26. Hank, I think that's the hardest part. You can immerse yourself in reading about the period, and—-I think this part is important—-in reading fiction dating *from* the period, but at the end of the day it's still tricky. And I don't know that I always get it right, though I do try!

  27. I so look forward to reading this book, and love when a novel's story visits a time in history.

    History was never my favorite topic in school, but I think being able to focus on what I want (as opposed to someone telling me that I had to focus on what was on the school curriculum list) helps.

  28. Becky, spot-on. History's filled with stories, great stories, you just have to find the era and place and stories that resonate with you!

    (Of course, I'm the only person I know who reads nonfiction history for fun....!)

  29. What an interesting post, I never thought in the context of conversations either. I guess I would have to answer the question by saying I like both. With a story set in a specific time and place I feel immersed in that time and learn and experience from the perspective of that time. When I mystery set in the now looks back there is still the learning but with hindsight. Would it still be the same? Could it happen now? What has changed, etc. As for the accuracy, as long as it's believable for me it's a pointer to something I can research on my own; I'm not looking for my mysteries to be history books. This sounds like a book I need to read, it's now on my TBR stack, and I want to know more about the Duplessis Orphans. Never even imagined something like this would be done.

  30. Hello, Grandma, and thanks for your interesting response. Indeed, it's often hard to imagine some of the things that people do to each other in the present ... much less in the past.

  31. re: pronunciation of Duplessis. In Baton Rouge, where I lived for a decade, there is a big car dealership called Duplessis Cadillac. There, it's pronounced do-ples-is. That sounds very Anglican to me.

  32. What a wonderful topic for discussion. I love the idea of it being a conversation between the past and the present. Yes, if we wrote historicals acurate to the letter (if that was even possible), we probably wouldn't understand most of it. We need modern references in order to relate. I love historicals, especially mysteries. I don't care if they are set completely in another time or if the mystery is from the past. "Asylum" sounds facinating.
    Kathleen Adey

  33. Oh, so interesting, and I'm fascinated by that, Kathleen. is there even a way for contemporary writers not to filter the past through the present?

  34. Filters will always be there.

    They might come from our own era, or our political beliefs, or our religious ones, or our personal issues.

    Historians talk about that all the time. Remember that history is always written by the winners, the people in power, who have their own filters as well.

    See for example the ongoing controversy over Richard III and the princes in the tower. Respected historians have made the case for both sides (yes he killed them, no he didn't kill them). The extant material can "prove" both arguments. So when even historians cannot get it "right" one has to understand that there probably is no such thing as getting it "right."

  35. Jeanette, what a fascinating story. So eager to hear how you've worked it into a mystery. I love both entirely historical and contemporary/historical novels and, having written several of the latter, can sympathize over the timeline issues!

    I read non-fiction history, too, and particularly like diaries and letters. So very useful if you're trying to get an authentic feel for the period. "Few Eggs and No Oranges: Vere Hodson's Diary 1940-1945", was my favorite source when I was writing Where Memories Lie, part of which takes place in London during that period.

  36. I love both - novels set in the past and novels that need to dig into the past to solve the present. I wish I read my historical fiction, in fact, because history fascinates me.

    (And Hank, I learned that it was history because it was His story, meaning God's story. Granted, I learned this in a Christian school, so I don't know if that is why it is called history or not, but that is the only explanation I've ever heard for why it is called history.)

  37. Hank, that's why I get so many complaints about my book. I tried so hard to be true to the time period, and it really offended a lot of readers - the way my characters are so ruthless when it comes to appropriating Cambodian culture. I hate it when writers impose their modern morality on their historical characters! Even if a historical figure was an exception to the rule, they were still of their time period, and being an exception during that time period is very different from having the hindsight of modern life.

  38. Deborah, thanks for commenting... and I agree. Letters are extraordinarily interesting, once you can step beyond the differences of how people expressed themselves in past eras.

  39. Mark, that's what a lot of people seem to think. Actually, the word history comes from the Old French "estoire," from Latin "historia," and from Greek "historia," all of which have slightly different meanings but which work together to give the English *its* meaning of a collection of past events.

  40. Jeanette, looking forward to reading this. I did a lot of research on the New York asylum for one of the Molly books and found it took only the signature of a husband and one doctor to have a woman committed for life. Such an easy way to get rid of an unwanted wife and acquire her fortune.

    That's why I enjoy writing historicals. So many deliciously evil motives.

  41. My favorite line from your piece is "any writing that incorporates history is, essentially, a conversation between the past and the present." As Joan pointed out, it's a "marvelous description." (I stopped here to read through the rest of the comments, and, apparently, that line resonated with everyone.) Allowing the voices of the past to make themselves known in the present makes for fascinating writing, and while I enjoy both period stories and stories encompassing the present and the past, I delight in the secrets of a long ago past coming to light and affecting the present. Of course, even in a period mystery, those secrets that are so essential to solving the puzzle are in the past, albeit recent past. Kristopher mentioned Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and my love of it. This series attacks the mysteries of the past by time travel, my favorite method of bringing past and present together. Although not mysteries, the Outlander series does bring that modern knowledge to the events of the past, which is so delicious. And, there's the whole issue of not doing anything to change history in time travel.

    One area of history offering answers for the present that I've come to really enjoy is anthropological forensics. Elly Griffiths in her Ruth Galloway mystery series with Ruth being an archeologist intrigues me, as well as newer authors Jen J. Danna and Ann Vaderlaan in their Abbott and Lowell mystery series, which has a forensic anthropologist as a main character. The secrets that old bones hold set me all a tingle.

    Of course, Rhys and Susan are masters at historical fiction mystery with the characters set in the period of examination. As Hank's teacher stated that history is stories, I feel I learn so much history from these amazing stories, and I get my love of mysteries satisfied, too. Talk about the complete package!

    Jeannette, in reading your piece here, I kept thinking that I would love to sit in on a writing course taught by you. I'm not an author, but I do play one on TV. Sorry, I couldn't resist that line. Seriously, I'm not an author, but I do write a blog and reviews, and I've worked with students on writing, so I found everything (not an exaggeration) you said so relevant to writing, not just historical mysteries, but writing in general. I'm set to talk to some 8th graders about writing soon, and your post gave me some ideas about point of view to jot down. Do you have a blog or more articles that I could access?

    You have hooked me on your musings and your new book. I will be reading Asylum! It appeals to me on the historical fiction and mystery levels, but it also appeals to me in the subject matter. Insane asylums of the past are horrifyingly interesting, and the placement of perfectly sane people in them is worth reflection. I just finished a book by Anna Lee Huber, Mortal Arts, in which a man spent ten years in an asylum in the early 1800s because of war trauma, not insanity, and it was his father who put him there. The Vanishing of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell is set in the 1930s and present, and it addresses the power of one's family over admitting females who didn't conform to such terrible institutions. A nonfiction book that I have only spot read is The Lives They Left Behind in which suitcases of residents left in the attic of the New York’s 120-plus-year-old mental institution Willard State Hospital were examined after the institution was closed down in 1995.

    Thank you for visiting Jungle Reds today, Jeannette, and providing such an interesting post. As I sit here listening to my bathroom renovator sledgehammering the walls, your post was a most welcome respite.

  42. Bathroom renovations! Eek! Poor Kathy!

    I do teach writing via workshops, both here on Cape Cod and online; and I have long-delayed plans to start a blog on my website. I promise to do in in two and a half weeks (when my current manuscript is due at St. Martin's and I have a chance to breathe!)

    So glad to hear about other series and authors ... I can't imagine anything I'd rather do than delve into them!

  43. (And Rhys, so right about the evil motives! I love it...)

  44. Kathy, we have construction guys, too, ripping down our ice-soaked ceiling in the entry way. I'll be glad when that is..history.

    (And I have to give a high school writing class soon..I am terrified. Any ideas?)

  45. When you're teaching kids, try and think less about "writing" and more about "storytelling." Writing sounds scary: it has rules, there are great writers to live up to, etc. Whereas everyone can tell a story. Make it about the stories and kids generally respond.

  46. Great idea…I need to find out what they're reading now, too..

  47. Love to know more about your workshops!But you can tell us in two and a half weeks. Good luck--PLENTY of time, right?

    (My copyedits are due TOMORROW. I am now having fun with hyphens.)

    Okay, back to our original programming…

    Kristopher--The Eight! I haven't thought about that for a while--briliant. And Name of the Rose.

  48. Loved Name of the Rose.

    And I still have a plot hole to fill! Promise I'll come back and chat more, though, when it's in!

  49. I've enjoyed reading everyone's posts so much. We all enjoy a lot of authors in common. Do you find it difficult to walk the tightrope between being PC (a term and condition I am starting to hate) and historically accurate though possibly distasteful?

  50. For me, at least, it comes back to the story. If the story is entertaining enough, and the characters are interesting enough, then I think readers will stick through historical details they'd rather in the normal course of events not know about.

  51. Jeannette, you are so brave to be here on a work day!

    Crossing fingers for the plot hole--it is so rewarding to figure it out!

    Oh, that's a great question, Pat D. More to come..xoxo

  52. Oh, what a smart way to think about history in a novel -- that the challenge isn't "getting it right" but in triggering a conversation between past and present.

    Loving the glimpses of the past in the comments -- in personal stories and in novels in progress!

  53. Leslie, Hank, me, too! I'm loving this conversation... thanks to everyone for sharing!

  54. And yes, they don't feel like "historical details," right? They're simply the story.

  55. Hank, the teacher is sending me an email this week, and I'm hoping he'll advise me as to what the students are currently working on and reading. It's my granddaughter's class, and they were recently working on a short story, but I'm not sure if they still are. One of the points I want to make is to know what the purpose of your writing is, really basic, but having worked with teens before, it's an aspect of writing that they can become confused over. Writing a persuasive piece has a different purpose than a fiction piece. If the teacher doesn't have a specific type of writing or area of writing he wants me to address, I'm just going to talk about such basics as organization, word choice (words to avoid, confusing words, descriptive words), point of view, and some essential punctuation. It's an honors class, so I can expect a certain level of comparable skill, which helps.

    Oh, and Kristopher, I bought Eight ages ago, and I've never gotten around to reading it. I guess it needs to get back on my TBR list.

  56. Jeannette--you are fabulous..what a wonderful day. Come back and tell us about your new book, okay?

    See you all tomorrow..oxo

  57. Oh my gosh. I'm sorry to admit I hadn't heard of this, yet another dark chapter in the government- and church-sanctiioned wars against the powerless in Canada. But as soon as I read the words Duplessis and Orphans together, I got a chill within me.

    I've got a bit of reading to do. Thanks, Jeannette.