My latest mystery, Deadly Occupation, is set during a true historical event: the bloodless British occupation of Wilmington, North Carolina in January 1781.
Bloodless—wait, do I mean that civilians surrendered peacefully to redcoats?
Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.
Briefly, here’s the historical background. Patriots had controlled North Carolina since 1776 and grown complacent because the fighting was in other colonies. When militia and government leaders first heard that the 82nd Regiment had sailed from Charleston for Wilmington, they disregarded the report. As a result, the British were one day’s march away from Wilmington when patriots realized the invasion was real. High-profile leaders like William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, fled—some with just the shirts on their backs. The militia garrisoned in Wilmington, low on supplies, abandoned the city. On the afternoon that the British arrived, about two hundred civilian merchants, artisans, and dockworkers marched out, met the regiment, and laid their firearms at the feet of the redcoats.
Several years ago, the editor of a medium-sized, traditional publishing house rejected Deadly Occupation because, in the editor’s opinion, a bloodless occupation wasn’t believable. The editor was certain the civilians would have taken up arms against the redcoats a la “Red Dawn.” Likely most of them would have died, but every last able-bodied man would have fought for glorious freedom. Surely they wouldn’t have surrendered? And surely none of them would have cooperated with the enemy? After all, these were patriots. And that was the story the editor wanted.
However it wasn’t the story I’d written. The problem with the editor’s opinion, aside from it being historically inaccurate, is that history is complex because human beings are complex. In a situation like an occupation, you cannot tell which affected civilians will wind up in the Good Guys Camp or the Bad Guys Camp. Furthermore, many of Wilmington’s civilians were neutral. They didn’t care who was in charge as long as their lives weren’t interrupted. We never hear about neutrals, however they tend to comprise between a third to a half of a civilian population during a war.
Here are two reasons why I resist tampering with true historical events for the sake of a mystery plot.
Reason #1: I’ve found that the actual history provides far richer ground for digging up reasons for murder than any fictional backstory. In occupied Wilmington, the civilians who remained in town and surrendered were paroled to not take up arms against King George—but how many of them resented that or were shamed by it? How many lost business because some of their clientele had been patriots, or because a competitor outbid them for a contract job with the British? How many found the normal flow of their business restricted by rules and regulations imposed by the regiment? Or were involved in activities on the sly that they might not want the redcoats to know about? Or got swindled by the British? Or were secretly patriot sympathizers? You see what I mean? Allowing the real history to dictate a fictional character’s motivation for criminal activity confers period authenticity upon your mystery by making the crime an organic result of actual events.
Reason #2: A few months ago, the South Dakota legislature announced that the state’s high school history teachers are no longer required to teach about American history. Many other states have adopted a “squeeze it in where you can” approach to history (and science). Increasingly Americans aren’t learning about history in high school, but through reading works of historical fiction. In fact, readers have informed me that they’ve learned about history from my books. Some have gotten so excited by the history there that they research it themselves. So I make my books as historically accurate as possible.
Mystery, like history, is all about understanding the wants and needs of people today. Real history provides plenty of motivations for murder. Fake history takes the punch out of your historical mystery. So when you’re writing historical mystery, tell it like it was. Or better, show it like it was.
Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mysteries transport readers to the Southern theater of the American Revolution, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family.
Buy links for Deadly Occupation:
Kindle US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B016FJNWA4
Kindle UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B016FJNWA4
Social media links:
Web site and blog: http://www.SuzanneAdair.com
Quarterly electronic newsletter: http://tinyletter.com/Suzanne-Adair-News