Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sizzle & Spice: Historic Detail To Make a Plot Dance

When you finally decide to write a novel set in another time-period, there is always this shivery little "AGH" feeling that means: I Have To Be Historically Accurate, Heaven Help Us. Fantasy writers run into this only so far as they fear being upbraided by a historian of their fantastical world. Futuristic writers run into this only so far as they fear being upbraided by other futuristic writers who don't like the technology or advancements they made. But historical-fiction writers...ahhhhh. We've got actual-factual historians on our cases.

In writing Fly Away Home, I intentionally didn't deal terribly much with historical events because this was more a story about the characters than the times. In a way, though, it was still very much about the times...opportunities for women were opening up in the 1950's and a glitzy career was quite attractive to a great many young people. On the one hand you've got Callie with a starry sky of dreams and on the other you have Wade Barnett who made his career as a journalist during the war years and is quite level-headed about fame and fortune. So though this isn't a war book or something of that nature, it is quite tied in on every corner to the pop-culture, times, and customs of the 1950's.

How did I go about making sure this was all correct? First of all, I sent the manuscript to my grandmother. Grandmama was born in 1934 and went to finishing school in NYC just about the time of Fly Away Home. This makes her an excellent fact-checker: I have close access to a person who lived in The City during that time-period! Not many writers have that hands-on benefit! Once the manuscript had gone through Grandmama's cautious eye, I went on with other things. I knew I wanted to add more historic detail and things that would make the era "pop" in my readers' heads. But where to fit it in so it doesn't sound awkward? I began to look for places where general detail could be specialized. At the beginning of the story, Callie is dissatisfied with her job and mention is made of the "other kids" getting all the good assignments. But what good assignments? Here was a clear chance to add detail. I did a quick Google search on what was going on for America in July of 1952.

The summer Olympics? Yeah, I could do this

I added that bit and made a few more references to Helsinki. Historic/cultural detail? Check. I looked at old pictures of The City to get a general feel for the place in that era. Cafes, newsstands, City Hall Park...At one point, Callie and Mr. Barnett attend a swanky night-club for an interview with an Italian opera-star. Wanting a real-life club to exploit, I did another search and soon came up with the Stork Club.

Further research on this place revealed tons of details I was able to incorporate into the scenes in the club and beyond. I found a YouTube video of a tour of the club in the early 1950's and was able to see the interior set-up, design, and even the sort of clothing the club-goers wore. (treasure-trove!) You would be surprised at how much inspiration you can get from one source like the Stork Club. Callie wears a "mask" most of the a conversation with one of her colleagues they are discussing a masquerade ball and Mr. Barnett mentions that there is going to be a masquerade at the Stork Club in a couple of weeks. Where did I get that idea? A quick search on Pinterest revealed this old photo from a masquerade at The Stork Club in 1941:

Why not add one in 1952? But without having gone researching for a particular club, I would never have come up with the idea at all. This is what I began to learn while trying for historical accuracy: rather than making my job tougher, it actually released me with a flurry of new ideas and potent details. Later in the book, Mr. Barnett is hosting a yachting party and I knew I wanted some celebrities. I researched the ones whose personal histories I was interested in, and chose those who fit the timeline. The history of Newspaper Row, the Prohibition-era...all this comes into the plot of Fly Away Home in a way that got richer and richer the deeper I looked. These are a few examples of the ways I was able to bring the spice of NYC into my novel; I have to was pretty fun to research.

I so much admire the writers whose stories center around strictly historical is pretty hard to fudge an actual time-line to better fit your story when you are working with only historical events. These writers deserve respect for the hours and hours of work they put into piecing together a seamless story from the choppy pile of battle-dates history hands them. For Fly Away Home, I decided the story demanded more historic flavor, less historic events--the fictional events themselves are quite enough to keep the story floating without tying it down to a war, a political upheaval, or anything else--but I know a great many authors who deal with the nitty-gritty time periods and for that, I give them great respect.

I think many people put limits on historical fiction. It is a broad, beautiful genre and, as you can see, spans anything from the use of a vibrant setting to the telling of an epic tale. I am proud to have added one more title to the glad, glamorous era of the 1950's.

Today on the Blog Party Tour, I'm over at:

See you there and don't forget to enter the giveaway for a chance to win copies of Fly Away Home.


Grace said...

I love period dramas, fashions, and the over all romantic feeling a historical setting can give a modern girl. As I writer, I like to take my limited knowledge of various times from the past and incorporate it into my own stories.

I'm currently working on a Beauty and the Beast book set after the Civil War. Though its about a southern girl, like me, it mostly takes place up north- somewhere I've never been. I'm not a big fan of the idea of detailed research, but you've made it sound fun, and I know my story won't flourish until I get the minor details for it to make it shine. I see research in my near future, for sure.

- Grace

Anne-girl said...

She's also got an interview over at my blog! Scribblings of My Pen