Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Mystery of Writing History by Donna Fletcher Crow

There are many challenges to including a significant historical background when writing mysteries: getting the details accurate, making the history an integral part of the story, not an add-on, and allowing the reader to experience the historical as well as the contemporary parts of the story are some of my major concerns.

Most often, my stories start with the setting— either a place I have long loved or someplace I’m longing to visit. One of my goals as a writer is to give my readers a “You are there” experience so I try never to write about a place I haven’t actually been to myself. And the more ancient and crumbling the location the better for my purposes. This sometimes presents an extraordinary logistics challenge since I live in Idaho— 7000 miles away from the settings of most of my books in Great Britain.

I begin my research with the widest reading I can do at home and keep narrowing it until I have a good grip on my setting, characters, major plot points and theme. Then the real fun starts— planning the on-site research. I make a list of everything I need to know to fill in all the gaps in my outline and work out on a map just exactly where I need to go to get that information or have those experiences. Next is setting up the interviews, travel arrangements, etc. Of course, this is much easier now with the Internet at my fingertips. It used to take me three months to set up a trip with snail mail creeping back and forth over the water. Now I can do it in a few weeks.

One of the most important things to remember on a research trip is to keep my mind open. I focus so intently on getting answers to my questions that I’m in danger of missing the surprises that can add wonderful life to my stories. More and more I am learning to let my story be shaped by my research experiences. I love to stand on an historic site and ask myself, what could have happened here? How would that affect my story?

And then, once I’m home I have the fun of reliving the whole wonderful adventure all over again as I recreate it for my readers. I replay each scene in my head, experiencing it all through the senses of my hero and heroine.

For me (and hopefully for my readers) the history and the mystery augment each other. I hope the history gives depth and meaning to the setting and provides clues to the mystery and to understanding the characters, and I hope the mystery provides a strong story question to keep the pages turning.

Here are a few shots of research sites that have been instrumental in shaping some of my Monastery Murders:

Ruins of St. Mary’s church, Holy Island, in A Very Private Grave

Gatehouse of St. Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk Broads, in A Darkly Hidden Truth

Bishop’s Palace, St. David’s, Wales, in An Unholy Communion
St. Frideswide’s Well, Binsey nr. Oxford, in A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 43 books, mostly novels of British history.  The award-winning Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England, an epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work.  She also authors The Lord Danvers Mysteries. A Tincture of Murder is her latest in these Victorian true-crime novels. The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries are a literary suspense series of which A Jane Austen Encounter is the latest.   A Newly Crimsoned Reliqury is the fourth of Felicity and Antony’s adventures in the Monastery Murders. Donna and her husband of 51 years live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 13 1/2 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener.
To read more about all of Donna’s books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: 
You can follow her on Facebook at:


  1. What fun to be on the ACW blog! As always, I am honoured and delighted to be part of this group. I just wish I could see you all more often in person--but virtual reality is pretty good.

  2. What a wonderful vocation, Donna. I was wondering if you took photographs to remind you of the details. There's nothing quite like visiting a place is there? As you know, having so kindly reviewed my latest book, Time to Shine, I had to keep going back to Exeter (a Roman city) to check on things, even though I once lived there. Keep up the good work dear friend. Those 7,000 miles are only a handshake away.

  3. Thank you for saying "vocation," Mel. That is exactly the way I feel about my work. My English son-in-law tells me it's 4,800 miles Boise-London. Not being very good with numbers, I think, "7 time zones, about a thousand miles a zone. . ." After all, what's 2000 miles between friends?
    I've become fanatical about taking pictures since my husband bought me a digital camera in 2008. Before then I relied on my notes and an occasional disposable camera. You can see pictures from my research trips here: