Fear in Writing: Detecting Past in the Present

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, January 11, 2010

Detecting Past in the Present

I began reading a true crime-esque book Saturday night titled The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.  I had attempted to read it once before but was so disappointed that I had picked up nonfiction by mistake that I couldn't see past it to the quality of the book.

As I read the preface I was awed by the role this Mr. Whicher and Victorian Englad play in the modern detective novel.  The Road Hill case about which Summerscale writes, "helped shape the fiction of the 1860s and beyond, most obsviously Wilkie Collins' Moonstone, which was described by T.S. Eliot as the first and best of all English detective novels" (Summerscale, p. XI).  She says this case, and Detective-Inspector Whicher inspired "detective-fever" throughout  much of the Western world.

I won't give any more history lessons, but this does push a writer to think of one's roots.  Where are our collective roots?

Here is my question to you: In your writing, how important are those who came before you?  Have you researched the origins of the detective or the psychiatrist/sleuth?  Have you read Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe?  How much do you draw from the past?  And if you haven't, do you feel you should?

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  1. Ooh, what great questions. I guess those ho came before are very important. Maybe I should go find out more :)

  2. I've read this one. Very interesting!

    I've read "Woman in White," Holmes, Dickens, Poe. I'm very influenced by them as a traditional mystery writer.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  3. Deep question! I probably don't go back too far in my genre reading. Probably 40-50 years tops.

  4. Funny that Wilkie Collins comes up in your post today... I just picked up all of her books for a class I'm taking this semester. It is all about Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Braddon. I've never read anything by her, but once the class gets going I'll let ya know what I think of her stuff. But on the questions of past... I think the past comes into play so much more than we realize. Maybe unconciously as first, but I think that the past in novels is a very interesting element to explore :)

  5. My latest WIP depends deeply on the past. I love seeing how it connects and influences the present. So important!

    By the way, I LOVE Poe!

  6. What an interesting question, Michele! From a history of the genre point-of-view, I've read mysteries for many years, so I guess I'm somewhat aware of its evolution. However, since my story takes place 70 years ago, from a history point of view I've read tons. Trying to be accurate!


  7. I've read many sci-fi classics as well as recent books.

  8. I love knowing where we've come from. Because I've read widely for so many years, I feel pretty confident about covering my bases, history-wise - well for the most part. Agatha Christie taught me so much!

  9. Tabitha- I highly recommend it. Even if you don't realize it, it influences your writing in subtle ways.

    Elizabeth- This doesn't surprise me from you!

    Diane- I don't know much about the history of your genre. On first blush I would say it is a fairly new one...but then again, I'm usually surprised by such things!

    Chasing- I hate to break it to you, but Wilkie Collins was a man! But you are absolutely correct about the unconscious aspect of the past in our present. And the more your study the past, the more you realize its presence in your conscience! (Untwist that one!)

  10. Kristen- Poe speaks to me as well. I visited his home in Philly last fall and really felt drawn to it, even though he barely lived there a year (less, I believe). His writing holds up well across the decades.

    Elspeth- I know what you mean about parsing the details. There is a difference between writing about history and being influenced by writers in history. Good point.

    Alex- I have to get to your blog more! Sci-Fi is the one genre in which I am the least literate.

    Jemi- Dame Agatha taught us all! I would imagine you have a unique perspective on history as well, being a teacher.

  11. I think its very important to know something about your roots. I'm dabbling in the mystery genre and have only read a few of the old greats (Poe, Dickens, Christie), but for my main genre areas, Sci-fi and Fantasy, I'm pretty confident in my historical perspective, from Jules Verne and Tolkein to Asimov and Heinlein. The current styles and conventions in a genre are probably the most important, but you may try re-inventing the wheel if you don't understand where it all comes from.

  12. Interesting question. I read widely both within and outside the mystery genre. I've read all the greats, but for pleasure, rather than as preparation for becoming a writer. But now that I look back, I see that's exactly what it was: preparation. I learned so much along the way.

    Michele, I've nominated you for a blog award, you can pick it up on my site. Thank you for your beautiful blog.


  13. Lorel- Good point about the current conventions. I hadn't come around to that yet in my brain! And I love a little Jules Verne. He was very forward thinking.

    VR- I am the same way. When I read them, I read them for pleasure. Now that I write, I see the connection and am amazed! And thank YOU! How kind of you!