Friday, May 23, 2014

Thinking Backward

In gift shops and dollar stores here in the States, one can buy a slender booklet about the year one was  born. These booklets have information such as the most popular songs that year and the cost of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas. I have one for the year I was born. I bought it when I was picking up booklets for my series characters, Lizzie Stuart and John Quinn. Undoubtedly, I will buy one for my new series character, Hannah McCabe. I thought having these booklets on display would help to "ground" me because I am here in the present and the characters in my two series are in the recent past and the near future, respectively. I am constantly zipping back and forth between past and near future, and sometimes I don't know when anything happened. This is getting particularly complicated because my near-future series exist in a parallel universe and so some real life events in that past happened differently. For example, in The Red Queen Dies, the first book in the series, set in 2019, Elvis gave a farewell concert in Central Park in 2000. 

But the most intriguing aspect of all of this time-traveling was brought home to me earlier this week. I'm working on bios for the characters of my historical thriller set in 1939. What has become quite clear is that I can't simply begin with who these people are in 1939. They, like my characters in the two series, grew up in a world that shaped who they are at the moment when my story began. The difference is that with the characters in my series, I know their worlds. I have experienced or can imagine what they have seen or done. What I need to keep in mind about my series characters is when they were born and how that affects what they experienced. This is exactly what I need to do with the characters in the 1939 book, but it is an entirely different matter. Even though I think of myself as time-traveling, the closest I can come to experiencing what they experienced is to draw on the historical sources available to me.

To see snippets of life in 1939, I can watch feature films and newsreels and vintage film clips available on Youtube (e.g., a drive around New York City). I can even go to the New York World's Fair with the fictional Middleton Family, the stars of a movie – with an amusing and thought-provoking political slant – produced by Westinghouse. Here's "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair":

I can watch this movie and get some sense of what it was like to attend the fair in 1939. I can find other video of the crowds attending the fair and see the World's Fair buildings that are no longer there.

But what I can't do when I'm creating my characters is feel and see and taste and touch what they did. I'm finding this incredibly frustrating, much more so then when I try to imagine the lives of my characters in my series. I think this is because I'm a crime historian. I occasionally teach a course on historical research methods. I know how to access archival sources. I know how to search for the museums and historical societies and other places that might have exhibits that will allow me to see the material objects that people made, bought, and used during this era. But what I'm encountering now in my fiction writing is the same yearning to step back in time that I always feel in my academic research and teaching. I'd like to walk down a street in 1900, attend Harry Thaw's trial for murdering Stanford White a few years later, be there in the streets of New York City as the troops are coming home at the end of World War I. In 1918, when the flu pandemic began, my character, Ella, who was born in Virginia in 1913, was five years old.

I know how and when the flu pandemic came to Virginia:

I can go to my hometown in Virginia, the real place on which Gallagher, the town that Ella was born in (and that my series character, Lizzie Stuart and John Quinn live in nine decades later) is based. I can go through the public records and the local histories about the town. I can find letters and scrapbooks. I can talk to people who had relatives who lived through the pandemic. I can find out what it was like to be an adult or a child in Gallagher in 1918-1919. I can get some sense of what happened when Ella's baby brother became ill with the flu and died.

I have no desire to live through the pandemic.Or the "Palmer Raids" in 1919, when the government was rounding up alleged radicals and anarchists. I don't want to be caught up in the race riots of that year. But -- as a historian observed about the New York City draft riots of 1863 -- to have only a few minutes to experience the sights and sounds and know what it was like. . . and then, of course, be snatched back to my comfortable armchair. 

My character, the FBI agent, gets his orders from J. Edgar Hoover in 1939. Hoover has a few conversations with FDR about political enemies and non-interventionists. I don't need to be there for that. But I would like to have been there when my FBI agent was growing up in the 1920s, when he was riding along in the truck with his older brother who had been hired by some bootleggers. I wish I could follow him into a speakeasy.

And then there is Ella, my young African American schoolteacher. I can imagine her schoolroom on a winter day, with one of the boys bringing in coal for the potbellied stove in the middle of the room. I can imagine her emotions as she has her students recite from their battered, hand-me down textbooks. I can imagine her trepidation and her excitement as she buys a train ticket, setting off on her journey to see her twin brother who lives in NYC. I can imagine some of this, but I am still struggling to get into her skin -- her brown skin in 1939. A different experience at a visceral level from mine of being African American and middle-class in 2014.

I need to spend a day listening to 1939 radio instead of searching on the internet. I need to step away from my devices and imagine myself into the worlds of Ella and my sleeping car porter protagonist and my wealthy villain and co-conspirators.

This is why I have a plot outline, but I am not ready to write. This summer, I am into immersion -- going as deep as I can into the era from 1900-1939. Luckily, this is my historical era in my academic research. But writing an academic book about crime and justice during the Prohibition requires "sociological imagination" rather than the neurons than one uses in writing fiction. Right about now, I'd would really love to be sitting at a table in the Cotton Club. Of course, if I said that to my black poet-radical in 1939, he would remind me with a look of disdain that I would not have been allowed to sit at a table in the Cotton Club. Black performers at that club in Harlem, yes. Black patrons sitting at the tables, no.

Race/ethnicity, gender, class -- what happens when my young black woman from Gallagher, Virginia gets off the train in New York City? How does she get where she needs to go? Who tells her where to find a room? My wealthy white male industrialist travels by train from Georgia to New York City. He makes the trip often during the months leading up to the World's Fair. I need to experience riding a train, arriving in New York, and moving about the city from these very different points of view.

I need to think and imagine a whole lot more before I can start writing. I need to step back into 1939. I need to see 1939 through the eyes of these diverse characters who were coming of age as the world was changing more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.

Like my Ella, my character, I am experiencing both trepidation and excitement. Can I do it? Got to try. But it's going to be the most challenging assignment I have ever given myself.


Donis Casey said...

Wow, this sounds like a fascinating work! I have the same problems when doing research--how did it feel/smell/sound? I can read 1910s newspapers and get a sense of the mores of the times and what people were thinking about, but seeing a movie made at the time would be great. Fortunately I'm old enough that I remember my grandparents' lifestyle on the farm--which hadn't changed much from the turn of the 20th century. Good luck. Can't wait to read it.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Donis!
I love newspapers, too. I'm working my way through the New York Times. I've already done my hometown newspapers for that period.

Eileen Goudge said...

Anachronisms are the bane of my writing. Need to get hold of those pamphlets so I can keep my dates straight. Thanks for the suggestion.