Guest Blogger H.P. Oliver: Adding a Little History to Your Mystery

Guest Blogger H.P. Oliver: Adding a Little History to Your Mystery

Before I read my first title by H.P. Oliver, I had not thought of myself as an adventurer in historical fiction. I just assumed that anything I might have read and enjoyed that was flavored historically was probably written waaaaaaaaay back then anyway, such as a Don Quixote. But as I started to consider some of my other favorite classics like The Scarlet Letter and East of Eden, it dawned on me that I had actually experienced historical fiction before. Little did I realize when I read it that Hawthorne was writing about the 1600s in the 1800s, and that Steinbeck was depicting a family across generations that spanned decades and decades far earlier than its 1950s release. Heck, William Shakespeare was the ultimate purveyor of historical fiction, wasn’t he? He just slipped in an anachronism or two or twelve from time to time.


What I appreciate most about today’s guest blogger is that he has discovered an era and a genre for which he has wholeheartedly immersed himself to become knowledgeable and fluent in, and he shares this joy for depicting that timeframe with his readers through his words. From his popular Johnny Spicer capers including his most recent release Tembo to his skillful mastery of weaving mystery throughout the Golden Age of early Hollywood as he does in The Truth Be Told and Winging IT, H.P. Oliver knows how to set the stage with colorful characters, rich detail and historical accuracy. Combined, it makes for intriguing storytelling for readers of all ages.




In today’s guest blog, the writer shares what has made his favorite era so fascinating to him and accessible to readers who share his love for history with their mystery. Be sure to scroll past the blog for all of the links necessary to check out more of his work, including the generous collection of bonus features he provides his readers — everything from an eclectic mix of movies and music from the era to visualizations for each title that help readers experience the sights and locales they’re introduced to in the books. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen on another author’s website. You must check it out!


Thank you, H.P., for being a part of my Summer Blog Takeover. It is with absolute pleasure that I hand over the reins to my weekly blog. And I can’t wait to catch up on your latest caper! ~ Chris




Adding a Little History to Your Mystery by H.P. Oliver


When you get right down to it, most basic storylines or plots can be written to fit almost any historical period.  After all, folks have been wandering around this planet doing what they do for about 200,000 years, so with a few exceptions, we writers have plenty of opportunity to make our stories appealing to new audiences by adding a little history to our mysteries, romances, horror stories, or whatever genre we choose to work in.


In my case, I’ve always been fascinated by the period immediately following the Great War—the 1920s through the 1940s.  It was during this relatively short thirty-year period that our society came of age, experiencing the “Noble Experiment” (prohibition), the “Great Depression,” Hollywood’s glamorous “Golden Era,” and innovations that led to amazing new entertainment media, speedy transportation, instant communication, and much more.  Americans never had it so good . . . or so bad.


It was also during this period that American literature came of age through the works of writers like Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Loos.  The list of literary greats from this time seems almost endless.  Why?  Perhaps because the writers of the day were witnesses to America’s entry into a new age and the social changes they saw challenged fertile imaginations with intriguing possibilities.


There are other aspects of this time that make it appealing to a writer.  For one, the era is still recent enough for most adult readers to remember stories of the times related by their parents or grandparents, giving them a sense of connection through heritage.  I often hear reader comments like, “My grandmother said she learned to drive in a Model A just like the one in your story.”


Another appealing aspect of setting stories in the Jazz Age or Swing Era is that many of the familiar communication and transportation technologies we take for granted were also available to people of the 1920s and ’30s, albeit in more rudimentary forms.  For instance, people in my novels make telephone calls and fly to distant locales, thus speeding the story along while at the same time drawing clear and vivid pictures of how the new technologies of the past century have changed our lives.  I sometimes have a little fun pointing out the irony in this; like the time a character in one of my stories set in the late-1930s longs for the convenience of Dick Tracy’s (then) fictional two-way wrist radio.


For yet another example, consider the celebrities of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.  Their names are still well known today and, in the eyes of many readers, they were fascinating and flamboyant characters.  By doing our homework diligently we can endow stories with some added excitement by slipping in a Clark Gable or an Eleanor Roosevelt and making their involvement both plausible and believable.  The trick to this technique is carrying it off without changing history as we know it today.


That last thought also points out one of the cautions associated with writing historical fiction.  Making a period story believable requires a lot of research.  If, by way of example, you have a character drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the 1930s, how long would that trip have taken?  Today the same drive can be done in six hours or less, but given the routes available and the limitations of automobiles in the 1930s, the same trip would have taken at least nine hours then.  With this in mind, it is important to remember that folks who enjoy reading historical fiction are often very knowledgeable about the eras in which they are interested.  A seemingly small slip-up in accuracy can ruin a story for them and cost you readers.


Historical fiction also requires a lot of attention to dialogue.  We must be very aware of the slang and idioms used during the particular periods in which our stories are set.  Nothing will get you a pile of email faster than including a bit of slang that wasn’t in use until fifty years after the time of your story.


I’ve focused my thoughts in this essay on the period in which I am most interested, but there are still roughly 199,970 years’ worth of history to consider if my particular favorite doesn’t inspire you.  The main point here is you can add considerable color and interest to a story by setting it in a fascinating time period and including sufficient accurate detail to give readers a true sense of “being there.”  Making readers feel they are part of the story is one of the fiction writing craft’s greatest challenges, and also one of its most rewarding.


HPOliver_smallArmed with a journalism degree and a diverse background in entertainment and educational media, H.P. Oliver is an award-winning writer who has transformed his passion for history, West Coast landscapes and vintage cars and pop culture into nine mystery novels. He is working on his 10th book, a sequel to Good Night, San Francisco. To connect with the fedora’d fella, follow him on Twitter at @HP_Oliver and see the latest book release news, reviews, features and visualizations at H.P.’s website




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