Saturday, May 10, 2008

'P.E.O.', Followed by 'Writing Historicals'

I always think I know what I'm going to write about when I sit down to make my weekly contribution, but then I go over my blogmate's previous entries and end up writing about something totally different because my little mind is so engaged by the plethora of interesting ideas that have been put forward.

I was going to write about P.E.O. Know what that is, Dear Reader? I didn't either, until a couple of years ago, when I was asked to go to a P.E.O. meeting and talk about my book, of which I only had one at the time. P.E.O. is a fraternal (or should I say sororital?) philanthropic organization of women from all over the U.S. and Canada which gives out educational loans and grants to women so they can complete their studies or return to school after a gap in their educations. The point, and I do have one, is that I missed my regularly scheduled entry last week because I was up in Carefree, Arizona, attending a P.E.O. convention, which coincidently led to my getting three or four book gigs on the side.

The reason I bring this up is because I'm finding that some of my more successful promotional efforts seem to occur when I'm not preaching to the choir of fellow writers. I have a friend who sells large numbers of books every year at her local zoo fund-raising event. I know of a woman who writes about a cat-loving sleuth and shills shamelessly to cat-fancier organizations. I just got an e-mail from mystery author Larry Karp who told me he does very well with music-box and ragtime music afficianados. I'm fascinated by the original ideas people come up with for marketing themselves. It's very important to be imaginative.

That's what I was going to write. But now I must say a word about writing historicals, doing research, and immersing yourself in your time period. At this point, I'm the only one of the four of us who writes a series of historical mysteries (though I'm intrigued by Charles' upcoming stand-alone). I love to travel, when I get the chance, and I think that the desire to explore the unfamiliar which interests me about exotic locales is the same thing that fascinates me about exotic eras. I can actually go to a foreign place and time and live there for a while.

Writing a historical is a very useful way for an author to comment on current events in a way that is illustrative and non-preachy and won't get you beaten up. A lot of science fiction is used in the same way.

A young lady actually said to me once, "if it happened before I was born, it doesn't interest me." Oh, foolish youth! Don't you know that the past isn't over? If I may wax philosophical, which I often do, Eckhardt Tolle said, "even the past happened in the present." There is no past - just one big now. When I do the research for my early 20th Century-era novels, I am amazed at how the same things keep happening over and over again. Remember the old Pinkerton logo of the open eye with the slogan "We Never Sleep" under it? The logo for the human race should be an eye with an eye-patch over it and the slogan "We Never Learn."

Right now, I'm researching the beginning of World War I in the United States. In the spring of 1917, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to write or say anything in public that could be construed as critical of the war or of the U.S. government, even if it was true. (I'm not making this up.) President Wilson authorized a civilian organization called the "Secret Service", whose members kept tabs on the people in their communities and reported any 'unpatriotic' activities to the Justice Department. Hundreds of people were sentenced to prison, including a U.S. Congressman who was sentenced to ten years for anti-war sentiments.

My joy as a historical novelist is to take those bare facts, apply them to the lives of the characters I've created, and make them real and immediate. I think being a a historical mystery writer, or a historical novelist of any ilk, is like being a Voodoo queen. You get to animate the dead. I'm like Dr. Frankenstein, toiling over my creation and yelling, "Live, damn you, live!"


Charles benoit said...

Everything you wrote about historical novels is what is calling me to head in that direction. The one I'm working on - the first in a series, I hope - is developing at my trademark glacial pace. What is really exciting for me is that I'm feeling just like I felt when I was writing Relative Danger - I don't really know what I'm doing but it feels right and I'm having fun so I carry on. RD turned out pretty good. So Donis, as the book moves on, I'll be turning to you for all sorts of advice - and here's the first question: And historical fiction organizations I should look into?

Vicki Delany said...

Speaking of historicals - I haven't said much yet, because the contract isn't signed, but I expect to have a series set in the Klondike Gold Rush comming out starting in 2009.

Donis Casey said...

Wow, look at you all! (Or as I actually say, 'look at y'all!) Historicals galore! Writing historicals is akin to writing poetry, in my fanciful little mind. The events of the past are used as metaphor for revealing unchanging human nature. I love it. Charles, there is a society of historical writers, the exact name of which escapes me, but I'll look it up. Author Priscilla Royal is quite involved, I believe. If you're doing anything that has to do with WWII and/or especially flying, you have a fantastic audience and enormous numbers of clubs, societies, and organizations to connect with. And as for the Klondike series, Vicki, oh, my! I can't wait. Is there a group in Canada dedicated to the early 20th C gold rush? If so, is Sharon Rowse involved with it?