Friday, March 21, 2014

Shame On You.

I'm writing about shame as a factor in characterization. Although the Lottie Albright series is a contemporary mystery series, when my protagonist rummages around in old mysteries and murders, her delving into the past causes new murders. And presenting the past is where it gets tricky.

The past must be presented accurately, that's a research challenge, but it's not the main problem. The problem is making past morality and customs seem understandable. Recently I posted on the Poison Pen Press blog about an ritual that emerged yearly in Lone Elm grade school, when all the kids made a paper chain in February that went clear around the school. We would finally troop out with our creation which had been achieved by cutting the ruled strips on Big Chief tablets and pasting them into circles.

Every year one a certain boy always stood outside and would run in from afar and bust this chain. A mighty howl of collective anguish arose.

Nowadays he would be diagnosed as having aggressive tendencies, sent for a psyche evaluation and probably prescribed a medication. Hard telling what would happen to any teacher who went along with the useless activity of making a paper chain.

In fact, for  the most part, children were free to roam, and indulge in activities that would be considered dangerous in this century. For instance, in small towns, kids could ride their bikes all day long, and swim unsupervised in old ponds.

Developing motivation is a critical part of characterization. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries shame played an enormous part in shaping people's actions.

For a good part of the 20th century there were no welfare and social networks provided for people who had fallen into hard times. It's very difficult to convey to contemporary readers the shame a man felt when he couldn't provide for his family. During the Great Depression that meant kids went hungry. The Poor Farm was a literal  place. It was where people went as a last resort.

Sheriff's sale bills for unpaid taxes list every fence post, every pot and pan, every single dish towel, doilies,  and even hair combs. Unwed mothers were shunned, and women too lazy (or sick) to get their washing on the line Monday morning were gossiped about. And heaven forbid that they would be so slothful as to leave it out over night.

Judgment was swift and savage. Unless a true misfortune had befallen, such as an disabling accident, or an act of God, the chain went something like this: poverty was surely your own fault because if you worked hard enough, and was thrifty, honest and trustworthy, and managed your time and assets well,  you wouldn't be poor.

The deep shame came from screwing up and not honoring these virtues. Slothfulness was one of the most flagrant sins of all.

I wouldn't have fared very well in years gone by.

In my next post I will give some tips for working with nostalgia.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

Goody! Goody! I enjoyed this post and can hardly wait for the next. Was Lone Tree a one-tree town? I love your Lone Elm stories, the details.

Charlotte Hinger said...

No, we had other trees and I never did figure which Elm the town was named for. I really ought to write a blog on all the things we kids did that could have gotten us killed.

Donis Casey said...

All I can say is do I ever relate to this! If it weren't for my (and every relative's) free range childhood in small town Oklahoma, I would have had to actually make up all the stories in my books instead of simply report things the kids did.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis, I don't know how we survived, but it seems to me we had a great sense of self-confidence that we could take care of ourselves.