Crafting a Historical Thriller Tribute in Blood
Horror Tree asked me to submit an article targeting writers; terror sets in. Can I succeed in satisfying their insatiable hunger for novel ideas, their thirst for a gold nugget they may claim and remold as their own, or will I be dragged into the depths of a cobweb-infested chasm of doom by my inadequate words and phrases, never to surface again? Choosing the right topic and crafting witty quips and insightful nuances for regular people is one thing, but geared toward other authors—the horror! And so, I set out on my quest to inform and entertain the most discerning of audiences: you.
The genre I have chosen to focus on under the penname Melodie Romeo (my actual name) is the historical thriller. I’ve done a bit of supernatural and straight horror, but I prefer suspense to gore, an unexpected twist to a predictable slaughter. With my academic background, it feels more natural to place my tale somewhere in the past. I was always told, “Write what you know;” I know history, or at least how to research and excavate the information I require for a story.
I have been writing stories, poems, songs, and novels since I was six years old, but never had anything published until 2002. It is a dicey and difficult business, fraught with pitfalls and dangers, risks and obstacles, and seemingly unsurmountable challenges—especially when raising two children on a teacher’s salary. I had just completed an exciting historical fantasy manuscript, Viking Quest, with a female protagonist, mystery, high seas adventure, epic battles, and the inner struggles of the characters; no one wanted to publish it. Only a handful even bothered to send a rejection letter. I tried agents. They weren’t interested in me or my book. It was a frustrating blow as this was my first novel that I deemed worthy to put into print. So, I consulted writer’s resources, mostly in hard-copy because the internet was not as developed as it is today, and concluded that I may need to gear my next work toward what was selling at the time, to write for the market instead of myself if I ever wished to be published. Topping the best-seller lists were books like Hannibal, disturbing serial killers who would chill you to the bone with just one look.
I needed an idea for a thriller with a super-villain, one as shocking and intriguing as Hannibal Lector, but I wrote historical fiction (don’t want to waste the money I spent on that MA), so who could I find? Research led me to several possibilities, but the malefactor who fit the bill was Vlad the Impaler. There was enough factual information about him to prove he was just as sadistic as any fictional human monster, and ample missing from the accounts to allow me leeway to craft a story about the protagonists who face and ultimately defeat him.
Composing a historical thriller requires the investigative skills of a Ken Burns and the writing instincts of a Stephen King; throw in romance and you need the talent of a Nora Roberts to complete the triangle. Therefore, if I was to craft a piece worthy, I would have to be at the top of my game.
This blending of genres adds a realism element to the horror novel that supernatural and fantasy tales can’t produce. Sure, they can be vastly suspenseful and infinitely chilling, keep you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails, afraid to turn the next page, but at the end of the day you know it will never happen in real life. With a story based on terrors that actually occurred, you can’t get off that easy. Hence, the historical thriller has the potential to be even more unsettling.
How did I mix all the ingredients into Tribute in Blood, you may ask? I began with an examination of the primary subject, Prince Vlad III Dracula. The internet had a few little articles, but not the reliable sources I required, so I ordered scholarly books on his life and times, scoured libraries for period background information, dug up photographs and artists’ renderings of the places I would be writing about. I longed to hop a plane and fly to Romania to experience the mystique of the Carpathian Mountains for myself, but that was not possible. I did my best to get inside Vlad’s psyche—a very scary place to be indeed. I also studied other real-life personalities, such as King Mathias of Hungary, Stephen the Great of Moldavia, Prince Basarab of Walachia, and Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire.
But I was including fictional characters as well, so I set out to form them into believable individuals with backstories, motivations for their attitudes and actions and dropped them into the setting of Curtea de Arges, a small town near Poenari Castle. Chief among them are the two protagonists, Nicolae and Maria.
Next came hammering out the plot, fitting it into the accumulated accounts, and making room for romance to bloom amid a barrage of life and death situations. As is typical of me, the outline metamorphosed as the writing process proceeded and I reached for more intrigue and excitement. I deliberately determined to utilize cliffhangers at the end of chapters to create a sense of urgency and prompt the story to be a quick read. I hope I have succeeded.
The sub-genre of historical thriller is one that is wide open for authors to explore as it has not yet become saturated with an immense volume of novels. Some writers may prefer fantasy or straight fiction, fearing that the constraints of facts would bind their creativity; I find it to be the opposite. Coloring inside the lines of the chronicles is a discipline akin to composing music within the rules of classical style. It preserves focus and prevents me from straying too far from the core of the tale. Fully developed characters placed in moral dilemmas can be accomplished just as easily, and isn’t that the true crux of storytelling?
If you are considering delving into the inky waters of historical thriller writing, then I encourage you to take the plunge. A word of advice, though: dig deeper than Wikipedia for your biographies. Look at your subjects from all angles and present them as they were—real people who lived real lives, be they saint or sinner, or perhaps a bit of both.