For debut historical crime writers

Secondary and Minor Characters in Historical Crime Fictional

Secondary and minor characters help to establish the main character’s personality and develop the storyline in any fiction genre. In historical crime fiction they are also a useful means of conveying information about the epoch and location. This means no matter how lowly your minor characters need to be more than walk-on players in costume. To achieve this, ensure they have identifiable personalities, strengths, foibles or flaws that readers can relate to, so what they say and do is more meaningful.

If you are using a secondary character to provide a motive for a crime or to show what happens to your protagonist(s), that person’s agenda needs to be evident. This means creating a biography or backstory for all your characters at the planning stage, and ensuring they reflect the lifestyle, morals or zeitgeist of the period. Fiction requires readers to suspend disbelief, to engage in another world, to fear for, empathise or sympathise with the protagonist, and this is where your supporting cast play an important role. They not only demonstrate what life was like then, they show what was considered right and wrong, and therefore why your hero is special and the villain so reprehensible.

Golden age crime writers often included the victim’s ill-treatment of relatives and servants to show what may have led to their death, and why there is more than one suspect. This required creating backstories for all the suspects and using those details to feed in clues but without deviating too far from the main thrust of the story. Readers want to know why someone turns a blind eye to the crime; why someone refuse to help the authorities; or why a neighbour, for example, fabricates evidence.

As to the villain – a crime story or thriller becomes a lot deeper when the kindness of strangers highlights the vicious nature of the baddie. Readers turn pages to in crime stories to see how the wicked get caught; they turn them faster in thrillers if they not only fear for the main character but also for the little people caught up in the drama. Very few people in real life are wholly good or bad, though. A fact skilful authors exploit to the maximum. Each suspect, be it cozy crime or a blood bath, should be capable of committing the crime given enough reason.

Whatever the epoch, minor characters’ upbringing and moral codes inform their actions, which can be included in well-chosen cameo scenes. The gentler side of the wrong-doer or the darker side of the victim or detective can be demonstrated by showing how they interact in these situations. Whether you use these scenes as red herrings to mislead readers or to emphasise clues as to who-dunnit, secondary characters should be interesting and complex, and minor characters there in the story for a specific reason. To be sure of this, create mini-biographies at the planning stage. Whether you actually use these backstories (very sparingly) or not, the fact that you have thought about why Milly won’t tell, why Old Tom is digging the master’s garden at eighty, or why a senior officer overlooks a terrible error of judgment, will enrich your tale and leaven the plot.

Here are two examples of how I have used a secondary and minor characters to establish a seventeenth-century anti-hero’s complex identity and to provide information on the setting and location of a twentieth century wartime murder mystery. Each scene is directly relevant to the plot and includes details on the historic background.

The first extract is from Book 1 of The Chosen Man Trilogy. It is 1635, charismatic Genoese merchant Ludovico da Portovenere (Ludo) is engaged in a conspiracy to inflate the tulip market in what became known as tulip fever. At this stage, readers are not sure whether Ludo is to be trusted, whether he’s a goodie or a baddie. How he handles his young Spanish servant Marcos here suggests he exploits people for his own ends. The dialogue also carries vital details about ‘tulipmania’.

Ludo’s lodgings, Amsterdam, 1635

Marcos rubbed at the heel of the shoe (he was cleaning) and without looking up, said, “Is it this selling that’s made you rich?”

“This selling? What selling? What are you saying boy?”

“It’s that I don’t exactly understand what you’re doing, sir.”

“And why do you need to understand? It’s none of your damned business. You only latched onto me as a means of finding your long-lost father, who you seem to have forgotten in the most unfilial manner.”

“That’s not true!” Marcos replied, hurt by the Italian’s tone. “It’s just that I want to learn and go back home with more than I came with – if I can’t find my father – and if what they say in the streets and taverns is true, that’s probably what’s going to happen. I want to go home rich.” He paused, regretting his words, “Richer than when I came,” he held up the shoe and turned it in the air for inspection, “so I was sort of wondering if perhaps you could let me have a loan, and I could buy some of what you have and sell it.”

“At a profit?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I want to do – make a profit, like they talk about with these flowers. There’s hundreds of profit, they say, buying and selling your flowers.”

“‘Hundreds of profit’. Interesting concept. Are you going to embalm that piece of footwear or get my breakfast?”

“Oh, yes, sorry. There’s some bread from yesterday and some ham and some beer. Do you want some of that tea stuff?”

“That ‘tea stuff ’ is very expensive merchandise, show some respect.”

“Sorry. Do you?”

“Tea? No!”

Marcos busied himself in the kitchen area and picked up on the conversation he wanted to continue. “So, what I was thinking was ...”

“You want me to give you some bulbs so you can sell them and make hundreds of profit. And what will you give me in return?”

Marcos put a plate and a tankard down in front of the merchant and looked him in the eye, confused, “I don’t understand? What do I have to give you in return?”

Ludo sighed, looked at the warm, flat beer and settled back in his chair. “I think we had better begin with the basics of commerce. Cut me some of that bread and ham – but wash your hands first.”

(. . .) Marcos listened intently then said, “But why are these Dutchies buying things they’ve never seen and don’t need with money they haven’t got.”

“Explain,” said Ludo.

“Well, last night I was in the Red Cockerel and a lot of odd bods were sneaking into a room at the back, so I sneaked in too. They were having some sort of sale, but there were only a few of those plant things you’ve got in your case. The rest were signing bits of paper for flowers that didn’t exist. Least ways I didn’t see them, I s’pose they might be in people’s gardens.”

Ludo raised an eyebrow, “Well done. And how exactly did you follow these transactions? You said you had no Dutch.”

Marcos lifted one of his master boots and started to shine it with the linen towel. “Numbers are numbers, not difficult to guess. These are the softest boots I’ve ever touched.”

“And these men, who would you say they were?”

“Oh, that’s easy, butchers and bakers, they still had their aprons on. Some toffs as well. I followed one in like his servant. He didn’t notice. There were a couple of gents like the one you were with a few days ago. The man that owns the Cockerel was running the show. They have a special code for when they go into the room – they go ‘cock-a-doodle-do’. Sounds really stupid. I bet if you want to do business in the Golden Lion you have to go ‘grrrrr’.”

Ludo sat and stared at the boy for a moment then said, “The answer is ‘yes’. I will let you have a loan and some goods at rock bottom prices – and you are going to make us hundreds of profit with a cock-a-doodle-do.” Then he got up and went into his room to wash, saying, “And in the meantime I’m going to make thousands of profit with numbers on bits of paper.”


There is a hint here that Ludo is not all bad; he is trying to help Marcos improve his status or at least educate him. From this point on, I wanted readers to have personal opinions on what Ludo is doing and why, for them to be more actively engaged in his wrong-doing and, later, fear for him when he tries to escape his evil antagonist. I was also using a secondary character to show how and why ordinary men and women traded tulip bulbs at outrageous prices, and how some (including the feisty heroine of the story) fell victim to Ludo’s wicked charm, and suffered for it.

The second scene comes from my new Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery, Courting Danger (to be released March, 2021 – this is the working cover only). Here, I am using two minor characters to tell readers about two suspects in a murder enquiry, and show how the wartime restrictions were affecting ordinary people.

Cornwall, England, 1943.

Shem Placket and his wife Violet were obliged to vacate their farmhouse home when the local landowner Charles Kittoe and his sophisticated wife moved to Cornwall during the blitz. The Kittoes have now left. Shem and Violet are discussing how this affects them, and whether the Kittoes are involved in the death of a local young doctor.

“They expect too much of you.” Mrs Placket tipped fluffy white potatoes into a dish and slapped on bright yellow butter.

“It works to our favour, my dear. Gives us more peace than most farm managers get.”

“Do you think we ought to say something?” Mrs Placket asked, removing her pinny before they sat down to eat.

“Say something about what? This smells good, Violet, where’s the meat?”

“Seek and ye shall find.” Violet ladled gravy over three types of root vegetable. “What I’m saying is, should we tell that police detective what we know?”

“If he comes asking, I might mention something. We don’t want to risk our place here, though, do we? Not at our age. You’ll have that fancy big kitchen to cook in again now.”

“Nothing wrong with the old range. Got to learn all new-fangled gas timings and settings and Lor’ knows what.”

Shem Placket looked at his wife: she had been pretty, once upon a time. “No point rockin’ the boat. They might let us have this cottage when I retire. No, if the police come knocking, I’ll tell what needs to be said. If they ask. Nothing more.”

Violet Placket met her husband’s eye, “But you know what’s happenin’ up in that cave.”

“I don’t for sure, Violet. Not for certain. But you know me: I speak when spoken to, and not before.”

“They could be taking pills or magic potions and acting out old rituals then lying spark out in the dark like they said they did when we were young’uns.”

“Far as I know it wasn’t breaking the law then, and if that’s still going on – well, it b’aint killed anyone yet.”

“It might have killed that young doctor. Why didn’t you tell me it was him in the pool?”

“Didn’t know it was. Don’t know as I’ve ever met the boy face to face. And we don’t know he was up to no good in that ol’ cave neither.”

“He spent enough time with Mrs Kittoe . . .”

Shem raised a calloused, warning hand. “That is enough, wife. If they ask . . .” he removed a woody stalk from between his front teeth, “you can tell them about Mrs K and her carryings on, but keep Mr Kittoe out of it or we’ll be looking for a shed to live in. If anyone’s been up to no good it’s her, in my opinion.” Despite his need to protect his family, Shem had a very Wesleyan attitude to life. “You understand what I’m saying?”
The trick in historical crime writing is to maximise the use of secondary and minor characters to provide information on the epoch and details on the crime(s).

Whether you are at the planning stage or into your first draft, write out a cast list and make a note next to each name to say what that character brings to the story.

 

Remember, in e.books it is harder to turn back to remind yourself who’s who, so make sure each person in your story is memorable and there for a reason.

Enjoy your writing! JGH

 

Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried”

vital-sparkIn the opening scene of Vital Spark, Alex Allaway is driving along a coastal road, through a valley of summer corn on Maryland’s eastern shore. She’s thrilled to be returning home. She’s landed a job as a fisheries ecologist at a small marine station in her hometown of River Glen. River Glen is the epicenter of my new Chesapeake Tugboat Murders series. The village is located at the intersection of the fictional Glen River and the real Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading “Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried””