Thursday, June 25, 2020

Writing Historical Novels in a Turbulent Time

I, Donis, write historical novels set in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. This has always been a little bit problematic since the type of novels I write are a bit of a fantasy about what life was really like at that time in that place. I have tried to avoid getting too deeply into the ugly parts, though I've always made at least some reference to reality in every book. That's all very well and good, but the world has exploded and suddenly I feel that writing a historical novel is like tiptoeing through a mine field. I've dealt with this problem before. Below is an updated version of an entry I wrote for this blog in 2011, but it seems particularly appropriate now.

Photo from the Dallas Morning News.

I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad, bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why? Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about. In 1910s Oklahoma and 1920s Hollywood, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1915, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just racial epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.


Anna said...

Donis, every bit of history, however presented, and whether or not relevant, is valuable. Write on!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis, I think figuring all of this out is tedious and a bit scary