Historical Mysteries — A New and Growing Niche
Mystery fiction represents 11 % of the market for all books of fiction, far behind the leading genre—children’s fiction, that commands nearly 40% of the market. However, 11% of the 2.6 billion books is still a big piece of the pie.
A much smaller, but growing genre niche is historical fiction—now claiming about 3% of the market. Books like Ellis Peter’s Cadfael Chronicles opened the door to a genre that combines historical fiction and mystery -- adding new depth and richness to the story.
I write Sherlock Holmes historical mysteries. While I stay true to the central characters—Holmes and Watson, I part ways from the Holmes canon in that I include detailed and accurate historical backgrounds, and sometimes real historical characters. In Sherlock Holmes - The Golden Years, Holmes and Watson have G.K. Chesterton as a client, and meet Harry Houdini, President Theodore Roosevelt, and even Arthur Conan Doyle himself. And so, while a well-developed imagination is essential for writers of historical mysteries, authors must also possess a deep love of research.
Some research can be conducted on line. But much of my historical research comes from books. For example, in researching Doyle as a character, I read three biographies of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. I also do some research (not as much as I would like) on-location. When writing the intertwined novellas that comprise Sherlock Holmes - The Golden Years, I traveled to Aviemore Scotland, and traveled on the train Holmes and Watson would have taken in the mystery called: The Bonnie Bag of Bones. And, while all these kinds of research are common to historical fiction, there is one aspect that is unique to historical mysteries.
Mysteries involve a crime -- usually murder, because it’s the granddaddy of crimes. So my mysteries require that I do significant research around historic crimes. For example, in Irregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street Irregulars, each story revolves around a crime that actually took place around 1919. This is where truth proves to be stranger (and better) than fiction. For, I discovered a story about a man who was brutally executed by being strapped to the barrel of a cannon, and learned of another killed by far eastern assassins for stealing from an Indian temple. In this way, even the crimes around which my historical mysteries revolve come from the same time and place.
All this being said, I would be quick to add that the historic backgrounds for any story are just that—background. They should not dominate or distract from the story and plot. Like all good writer of mysteries, I endeavor to keep my readers continually flipping pages.
I hope you read some of my historical mysteries and, if you do, let me know what you think.