Friday, January 03, 2014

How do authors keep history fresh? How about bloggers and old posts?


Damn me, but has it really been three years since this post first appeared? Must be; Blogger doesn't lie. Anyhow, I've been thinking so much about fiction and history recently that I thought I'd bring back this post on that stimulating subject.
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 Authors of historical fiction have a problem: Readers know how the story ends, at least the historical part, but the writer still has to keep them reading.

How do they do this?

Here's what John Lawton does in A Little White Death, third of his novels about Frederick Troy. A physician has come to the United States to treat John F. Kennedy for Addison's disease and has met up with a fellow Brit just before returning to England. Here's how the doctor who has just treated Kennedy ends the meeting with his friend:
"`Fine. I understand. Now why don't you hop in a cab. We can have one last drinkie before I dash to Idlewild.'"
That's a powerful little chapter-ender. The speaker of that line carries the weight of the history that the reader already knows about. And he does this without ever ruining the illusion that he exists in a world innocent of that history, which had not yet occurred at the time Lawton portrays. At the very least, that's a neat bit of fun on Lawton's part.

He does something similar in Black Out, the first novel in the series. I won't give that example because it's a bit spoilerish, coming as it does near the end of the book. I will reveal, for those who have not read the novel, that it reinforces the series' status as a social history of mid-twentieth-century England, critical, personal and unsparing.

In other words, you should read the book. Until you do, ponder this question: How do historical novelists get around the annoying fact that the reader knows how the history turns out?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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32 Comments:

Anonymous Adrian said...

Two things I dont like about the world pre 1950. No antibiotics and people said "drinkie".

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't you have even a shred of nostalgia for a time when people had to take responsibility for their own infections?

And that guy is supposed to have said "drinkie" in 1963. Typo on your part, or anachronism on Lawton's?

July 21, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Adrian

Oh, I see... I thought we were still in the realm of WW2 but I suppose there wouldnt have been an Ildewild then would there? Where was it that the Hindenburg met with its unfortunate accident?

Hmmm drinkie in 1963? I'm a little skeptical but who knows? Also how come this mysterious physician didnt appear in American Tabloid? I though James Ellroy owned the whole JFK thing.

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I suppose that a writer can have a character say anything they wish, within reason?

Nursery slang was general in the 1960s and is only now found recorded in dictionaries.

Also, Australians put "-ie" onto many words and have being doing so for a long time.

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I think providing some additional, previously unknown (or even fictional) information that is peripheral to the known fact can help a lot. James Ellroy isn't everyone's cup of tea, but he writes nothing but (recent) historical stories, and you have to pay attention to keep what's real and what's fictional straight in his conspiracy-based world. A lot of it seems outrageous on the surface, then you think about similarly outrageous stuff you later learned to be true and you have to wonder.

Also, making characters bit players in the actual events can go a long way. For example, what if a character happened to be someone Officer Tippett asked, "Which way did he go?" while chasing Oswald, and became involved in the story through it? (That's a weak example off the top of me head, but I think it makes the point.)

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the Tippett example may not be as weak as you think. It seems comparable to Lawton's invocation of Idlewild -- a reference that the reader recognizes as momentous but the characters necessarily do not.

Yep, I'd say Ellroy integrates the historical and the outrageous pretty seamlessly. It helps that he has his historical characters act so outrageously, at least Howard Hughes.

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Idlewild's first commercial flight was in 1948, and the Hindenburg caught fire over Lakehurst, New Jersey. And now I'm going to check Ellroy's dates of publication and also A Little White Death's.

A Little White Death: 1998.
The Cold Six Thousand: 2001.

Did Ellroy use the Kennedy assassination in American Tabloid?

And could drinkie have been a rakish allusion to hostess bars?

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

AMERICAN TABLOID ends minutes before the Kennedy assassination; THE COLD SIX THOUSAND begins minutes after it.

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D, my quick search found no etymology for the -ie ending. I suppose I'd assumed nursery slang had been aroudn forever but then, I was an infant and then a child in the 1960s, so I'd have heard it all my life.

I had noticed lots 0f brekky and such in Australian crime novels and, I think, New Zealand ones as well.

July 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Dana. I knew The Cold Six Thousand begins with a cleanup following the Kennedy assassination. I didn't know American Tabloid's plot.

July 21, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

A physician has come to the United States to treat John F. Kennedy for Addison's disease

I've only read one of Lawton's books but I was impressed by the quality of his writing and his humour, although not so much by his narrative skills.

I don't know who the doctor was who treated Kennedy for Addison's disease but I think Lawton has missed a trick in not featuring another of Kennedy's doctors, a man far more dramatically interesting: Max Jacobson (Dr Feelgood, Miracle Max) who treated his patients with his own concoction, the main ingrediant of which was amphetamine. There's an interesting article on the good doctor here.

July 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lawton's doctor was just a minor figure, and my example is from a prologue.

I think Lawton is at his best as a social commentator, as in this bit from Second Violin. I liked both that book and Black Out better than I did A Little White Dearh. Perhaps wartime is a better setting for examining national character.

July 22, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I haven't read any Stieg Larsson but I've noticed the amusement of some commenters at how frequently the women end up in bed with the male character in Larsson's books.

I can't say Lawton's Blue Rondo was much different. The word incontinent originally referred to sexual appetites and in that sense most of the characters in Lawton's books seem to suffer from incontinence to an unusual degree, even for the 60s. Still, I suppose a writer has to amuse himself somehow.

July 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I have also noticed Lawton's tendency to hop Frederick Troy in and out of various beds. I haven't noticed a similar tendency with other characters except in A Little White Death. But then, that book revolves in large measure around a Profumo/Keeler-like affair.

July 22, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

A search for "drinkies nursery slang" leads to quite a few international usages. It seems to be a banal word, with none of the exciting connotations that you indicated.

One of the earliest written appearances of "drinkies" was in 1982.

The only way to be certain is to contact the author.

It's worth nothing that the word is usually plural and this is an interesting occurrence.

July 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never been a fan of the -ie suffix. Among other things, it points up English's poverty when it comes to diminutives.

Italian has -ino and -ina, Yiddish has -nik, -chik and -ikl, Dutch has the ubiquitous -je, and English makes do with a stinking -ie?

But I'm not going to get on Lawton's case over one lousy little syllable.

July 23, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

You may be right to ignore this little matter, but it set me thinking and I posted about what I found.

I was subjected to a rigid classical education which encouraged us to leave no stone unturned.
It passed the time nicely in the 1960's and, unlike the misfortunate participants in the story here, kept us off the streets.

I remember the Christine Keeler story very well as it ran for weeks on TV.
I felt really sorry for her, as the men round her seemed so very strange.

July 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, your comments are of great interest. I like the idea of Petronius, Juvenal and Aristophanes keeping your mind off scandals.

I'm from the wrong country and not quite the right time to have experienced news coverage of the Keeler/Profumo affair. I also don't know how much use John Lawton made of the affair in his novel. But A Little White Death surprised me with its sympathetic treatment of the young women at the heart of its own scandal -- two sisters, one of whom is touchingly protective of the other.

July 24, 2010  
Blogger Timothy Hallinan said...

So glad to see someone talking about Lawton, one of my all-time favorites. One thing I love about him is that the mystery that would normally be the novel's core is often shunted into a corner so Lawton can explore a much broader canvas - this is especially true of the Troy books.

Great writer, and a really interesting take, Peter.

July 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There can't be too many better social historians of mid-twentieth-century England than Lawton. The bit with the "Cockney" tailor Billy Jacks in the internment camp in Second Violin must be the funniest, most touching look at national character ever set to paper.

July 25, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

English writers are still fascinated with the early 1960's. I have never lived in England and it is probably as mysterious to me as to you. The French find the sexual mores of "les anglo-saxons" bewildering in the extreme and are amazed at the lack of chivalry that often seems to characterise life in the British Isles.

The one thing that is not surprising (though you say it surprised you) is the solidarity between women in Europe.
I have noticed how competetive American women can be, especially in the workplace.

We ladies have to stick together...

July 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, I was less surprised by the solidarity between the women than I was by the involvement of two women in the affair rather than just one. I don't know if the protective sister is meant to evoke Mandy Rhys-Davies.

The other thing that surprised me was the extend to which the vulnerability of the character presumably based on Christine Keeler. But that aspect talled with the account to which you linked

Have you read A Little White Death? Lawton appears to have based a character closely on Stephen Ward. But I assume it's easier to base minor and supporting characters closely on real people than it is major characters.

July 26, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Considering that this post is gradually moving down your blog page and is unlikely to be read by many, I answered you question on "Writing in a Twist".

The whole question of creating a character is one that will occupy me for the rest of the day as I hack my way through the jungle in my back garden.

July 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Libel would be especilly close to a British writer's mind, since British libel law places notorious burdens on the defendant, from what I understand, as opposed to U.S. law. As I recall, Lawton goes out of his way to play down similarities between A Little White Death and the Keeler-Profumo affair.

July 28, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I'll post my Top Ten reads of 2013 on MOnday; five are historical fiction. I'm now so enamored of the the idea I'm thinking of writing a Penns River/Pittsburgh book that takes place 40 years ago, based on what was up with organized crime in Pittsburgh in the late 60s and early 70s. With so many models for how to do it well (Ellroy, McKinty, McFetridge, Neville) it seems like a great way to establish backstory for the entire series, if nothing else.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll look for your list and for your thoughts on this fascinating subject. I read that Ellroy's next novel will be set in L.A. during World War II, so perhaps this history thing is catching on.

I notice, naturally, that all the examples you cite take place not in the remote past, but in the decades when the cultures in question arguably built up the strongest images of themselves that the present to the world. I don't those books try to overturn received history (other than maybe Ellroy). They just seek to reexamine them.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The strongest images, that is, with which the authors grew up and with which they were saturated, not to say indoctrinated.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Sandra and I just finished watching the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire, a show set in the Prohibition era. The cast is filled with both historical and fictional characters. Generally I like the show (though it is problematic).

There are times when the historical characters are put in dangerous situations and I know that no serious harm will come to them because that's not how they really died. I know that Myer Lansky isn't going to die in Chalky White's garage.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Oh, and the second season of Boardwalk Empire features a Jewish gangster (something the show does well) who uses "boychik" ALOT.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Speaking of historical characters who you know when they will and when they won't come to harm, I've just finished reading Blood's A Rover and American Tabloid. You just know that motorcade in Miami won't spell the end of JFK.

Speaking of gangsters who pepper their conversation with Yiddish, I've just finished reading Blood's A Rover and American Tabloid.

I wonder to what extend Boardwalk Empire depends in its viewers' knowing some of the characters are real people. That's probably no issue with Ellroy, even in this degenerate age.

January 04, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
You're right about the images the writers grew up with; I see it in my interest. I enjoy recent historical fiction more than that of more distant periods for a couple of reasons. A lot of this happened when I was of an age to understand it, but not to place it into context. To me, growing up, it was natural for mills to close and for one or two American cities a year to burn with riots; it's what I knew. These books help me to re-examine these periods and events with some context.

They also allow me to see how the roots of today's problems were always there; many things have changed at their core very little, though they look different now. I remember how upset people were in the 80s and 90s when it was reported the black drug gangs were killing innocents with drive-by shootings, and recruiting grade school kids as runners, as they'd do no time. It wasn't like they thought of the idea; organized crime had done both for years.

I've also come to realize people my age (late 50s) grew up, and had our opinions formed, during a period of comity and ethics in both journalism and politics. Not perfect, certainly, but the history of American journalism and politics more closely resembles what we have now than did the 60s and 70s.

January 06, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As it happens, my copy of McFetridge's Black Rock arrived today, so the question has been much on my mind for the last twenty minutes or so.

January 06, 2014  

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