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Choosing A Setting For A Historical Novel Series, by DE Johnson

Choosing a compelling setting for a historical novel can be challenging, particularly for a series. An author intending to write a series has to be sure the setting is enough to carry more than a single book. Each new book must illuminate new events, people or places. (Given that most publishers want a series to remain pretty stationary in terms of locale, that means new places within the overall setting.)

I should note that not all historical novels use events the way I do. I suppose it’s the teacher in me that wants to illuminate a bit of history along with an entertaining story, but many historical novels are more about the feel of the era, rather than the events.

As for me, here’s how it worked:

When I started researching The Detroit Electric Scheme, I was pretty sure I wanted to use the early automotive industry as the major backdrop for the book, but as I came across more and more information on the early electric car, I decided to focus the story there. My protagonist became Will Anderson, the son of William C. Anderson, the real president of Detroit Electric, America’s most successful electric car company. DE made electric cars from 1907 to 1939 and became the number one manufacturer of electrics in 1910. I discovered that the tipping point from success to eventual failure for electrics came in early 1911, so I set the book to end at that point.

I also looked for mileposts to use in future books. Fortunately, Detroit has a colorful history that provided me with lots of options. (Back to my point about publishers and locales – I wanted Will to chase the antagonist of the second book to Panama, where the building of the canal would serve as Backdrop II. St. Martin’s Press wanted Will to stay in Detroit, so that book never got written.) Book two, Motor City Shakedown, was originally planned as the third book in the series, and takes Will through the first mob war in Detroit history, a real bloodbath between the Adamo and Gianolla gangs.

I kept my eyes and ears open while I was writing those two, looking for a compelling setting within the Detroit of 1912. I kept hearing about this place called Eloise Hospital, which served, among other things, as the Detroit area’s insane asylum for nearly a century and a half. Every other person I talked to around Detroit had some memory of Eloise – usually a relative they had to visit. The memories were uniformly frightening to the individual, with the exception of one man who fondly remembered Sunday picnics on the lawn. (He didn’t have a relative on the inside.)

Eloise became the setting for a significant part of Detroit Breakdown, which focuses on mental health treatment a hundred years ago. This was a tipping point from containment to treatment, as psychoanalysis started to come into its own.

Eloise Hospital stretched over 900+ acres, with seventy-five buildings and over 10,000 patients and inmates at one time! It was a city unto itself, with farms, bakeries, canneries, sixteen kitchens, a fire department, police department, and a cemetery (which today holds over 7,000 graves, none of which are marked other than with a number, and no index or map has survived). Now I just had to figure out how to get Will inside Eloise. (It wasn’t too challenging, given his lack of stability.)

When I finished that book, my options were feeling limited. There was the massive salt mine under the city, which I thought would be interesting, but not enough to carry a book. I could go back to the underworld, but I felt I got enough of that in the second book. Then I realized I had never taken a good look at Detroit politics of the day, and I hit on two major scandals. In the summer of 1912, all but one Detroit aldermen were caught in a bribery sting, elaborately planned and carried out by the detective agency of William Burns, known at the time as “America’s Sherlock Holmes”. At the same time, campaigning was in full swing for the presidential election as well as for a amendment to the Michigan constitution to allow women the vote. (Can you imagine it? Women voting? Many – including many women – couldn’t.) The election was peppered with the kind of voter fraud that can only be found in the Third World these days, and in the end the amendment was defeated. Michigan women had to wait seven more years before they could vote. As I had set up Will’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Elizabeth Hume, as a suffragist, I was able to fit them into this story as well.

So, four books covering the rise and fall of the early electric car, Detroit’s first mob war, a huge insane asylum, and political corruption, all taking place between 1910 and 1912. All events and/or places I find compelling.

“Now what?” you may ask.

The answer – a book set in Chicago.


DE Johnson’s author website:

DE Johnson’s bio page


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Motor City Shakedown     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels


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