So much for the Glory Days

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Just a short blog today as I’m on the road – the railroad that is. My family and I are riding the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Denver for Spring Break (who knew preschools had Spring Break?!) While jostling along enjoying the magnificent scenery I couldn’t help but reflect that the glory days of the American railroad are well and truly gone. Though I could just about pretend at night in the sleeper (when I closed my eyes) what it must have been like in the 19th century to travel this way (in much more luxurious surroundings – sigh!) the pathetic ‘amenities’ and airline quality food soon dispelled any imaginings I may have had. So this got me wondering – how does a writer successfully evoke the past when so much today has abandoned any notion of respect for it? This then led (as my muse often does) to more immediate issues at hand as I write the third Ursula Marlow book – how does an author balance action and atmosphere when the book must get people turning the pages as well as evoking the past?

It’s a tough balance to achieve – especially when I want to utilize all the senses to help modern readers get a whiff of how Edwardian London must have smelled, sounded and felt. It’s easy when I’m in London where the past shadows every footfall down the streets and alleyways – but here in America? – in some of the towns I passed on the train? – how to make the past accessible to them? How to recreate life as it then was while also telling a thumping good story?

Who do you think achieves this balance successfully?

I can tell you one thing – I won’t be using Amtrak as my guide…

10 thoughts on “So much for the Glory Days

  1. Clare, despite the lack of amenities, it still sounds like a cool experience. I was thinking about taking Amtrak to NYC for ThrillerFest just for something different to experience. Then I did a comparison. The cost is almost identical but the time is 48 hours vs. 3 hours. I’ll be flying in. Hope to see you there.

  2. Like everything else in America Clare, you have to pick your spots! My Dad and his significant other took a train tour of the west on a special train, which hit magnificent photographic spots and historic sites. Very expensive, of course. But it was designed to capture the appeal and perhaps even exceed the expectations of train travel of yesteryear. And it did!

  3. Trains were once such great settings for suspense. I’m thinking The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest and The Narrow Margin, for starters.

    Re: how to balance, I always try to think “double duty” descriptions–describe and set tone at the same time. It doesn’t take but one or two such images to do a lot of heavy thriller lifting. I’ve been teaching some newbies this week, and some write wonderfully, but lard on the description, and that does precisely the opposite of what they intend. It dilutes the overall effect. Gilding the lily, as they say. So we killed a few “darlings” and that did the trick.

  4. Thanks all – James I agree the ‘gilding the lily’ is one to avoid – tricky though sometimes and I have to confess to editing pretty hard to avoid that! The train was great Joe and Kathryn and even if the inside didn’t exactly evoke the past, the scenery was stunning. We did it for the experience because as you say Joe – the cost isn’t cheap and it takes much longer – 48 hours to Denver versus 2 and a half on the plane or so!

  5. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but two excellent examples come to mind that put me in the time and place. Martin Cruz Smith’s ROSE takes place in a 19th Century Irish coal town. The ending kind of killed the book for me, but the evocations of the time and living conditions were wonderful.

    Dennis Lehane’s latest, THE GIVEN DAY, does an outstanding job of dropping the reader into Boston of 90 years ago. Highly recommended.

    Be careful none of the kids overindulges at a juice bar and ends up on one of those TOTS GONE WILD videos they advertise on lat night TV. Disgusting.

  6. Clare,

    The “good old days” of train travel were about un-airconditioned cars drawn by engines that spewed black smoke and cinders that made everyone near an open window filthy. The toilets (such as they were) dumped their contents directly onto the tracks. People didn’t bathe, but they smoked and chewed tobacco.

    I used to volunteer as the medical attendant on steam train excursions through the Blue Ridge mountains. I thought it would be a cushy gig, but there were an astonishing number of eye injuries from the flying cinders.

    Recreating the past in the U.S. is like recreating the past anywhere. Go to the oldest part of the city and imagine a dead horse on the street corner, and ankle-deep mud that is equal parts earth and excrement. Enter the ugliest tenement you can find and imagine it with five times the number of people in every room, with at least a couple carrying a communicable disease.

    I think there’s a reason why I was born into modernity . . .

  7. I think you hit it right on the head John. In Alaska about half of our population still lives pretty close to the way it was a hundred years ago. While urban life in the “Glory Days” was as John described it country life had its own hardships.
    Until 8 years ago I heated my house with wood. That took fifteen cord a winter, a stack 8 feet high, 12 feet deep and twenty feet wide. We hunted and fished for meat. Farmed chickens for eggs. Grew potatoes, beets, peas and lettuce. And so on and so on.
    You have no idea what its like to use an outhouse at -50f, and I tremble thinking about it.
    Living Anchorage now, I have all the urban amenities and yet get to go out onto the trails or spend a day camping in the mountains.
    But I have to admit, I do like coming back to civilization and knowing my house will be warm without have to build a fire.

  8. John and Basil – you’re too funny! Nothing like being brought back to earth:) You’re right of course – but I like to romanticize some aspects of it – the rich bits rather than the poor bits of course! Though John I have to confess some of the smells indicated that many of our modern passengers didn’t bathe either…

  9. Hi Clare,
    Oh, this takes me back to when I and the kids took Amtrak from CA to Denver about three years ago. In short: A nightmare.
    I remember taking trains to Denver as a kid. An entirely different experience!
    The kids still talk about the “train trip from heck.” Yes, it was an experience not to be repeated.
    Kinda makes me also think how tough folks were “back then” as opposed to now!

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