Why I Love Going Back in Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m about to begin a series of short stories featuring a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s, as part of my Patreon project (see “Escapism Rocks!” from a couple of weeks ago). Technically, this qualifies as historical fiction, and I find something very comforting about the genre, namely: things don’t change!

With contemporary thrillers, you have to keep up with technology, forensics, communications, law, weapons and so on—knowing there’s always the possibility that some radical innovation that would solve one of your plot problems may occur between the time you finish your manuscript and when it hits a bookstore shelf!

Further, a reference you make to contemporary culture might be turned on its head shortly after your book appears. I recall a thriller from the mid-90s that made favorable references to one O. J. Simpson. The book had been out only a few months when Simpson was arrested for those brutal murders.

With historical fiction, everything like that is frozen. You can concentrate on the story. And best of all, you’re free to choose a period you love. Which is what I did twenty years ago.

Contemporary legal thrillers were hot then, and it seemed like every lawyer and retired judge was writing one. I’d done a couple myself, but wanted to find a market distinction. So I came up with the idea of mixing legal thriller with historical. And I had the perfect setting, too, one virtually unexplored in fiction—turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. (For you youngsters out there, “turn-of-the-century” refers to 1900, not 2000!) L.A. was in transition then, growing up into a major city. It was an exciting time for the practice of law. The man whom many consider the greatest trial lawyer of all time—Earl Rogers—had recently hung his shingle. And women were just beginning to be allowed in the courtroom.

So, I thought, what if we went back to 1903 and a young woman arrives in Los Angeles determined to become a trial lawyer? That became the genesis of a six-book series called The Trials of Kit Shannon.

I loved doing the research for that series, most of it in the bowels of the downtown Los Angeles library going over microfiche of the Times and the Hearst-owned Examiner. I got so into the research that I began to have dreams I was walking along on the sidewalks of 1903 L.A., passing women in their dresses and hats, hearing the ding of a trolley bell, catching a whiff of the corner cigar stand.

Another L.A. period I love is 1945 to 1955, the classic decade of film noir. America had won the war and was strutting her stuff, building the most powerful nation on Earth. Babies were booming. But the criminal element, always crawling along the underbelly of society, was also hard at work in areas like vice, bunco, murder, and police and political corruption. What’s not to like?

My folks had a family friend who was one of the steady pulp writers for Black Mask, W. T. Ballard (I profiled him for TKZ here). He had a series character named Bill Lennox, a “Hollywood troubleshooter” who worked for a studio getting stars and other associated folk out of sticky situations—like murder raps.

So I decided to create my own series featuring a Hollywood troubleshooter, written in the classic hardboiled style I love (Chandler, Hammett, etc.) The first story in this series, “Blonde Bombshell,” is set to appear on June 1. These stories are exclusively for my patrons on Patreon. (The details can be found here.)

Here’s a preview:

So…for you historical fiction authors out there, why did you select the particular period of which you write?  

For the rest of you, if you were ever to write a historical, what period would you choose, and why?

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30 thoughts on “Why I Love Going Back in Time

  1. I have a WIP set in early 40’s Miami for many of the reasons you listed for LA, plus the fact the war was right off the coast – U-boats were sinking all manner of shipping within sight of Miami Beach.

    Another period I’m holding for a story is mid-thirties Atlanta. Several of the locations still stand, though they have been “gentrified” and/or “repurposed” – nursing dorms are offices, the Landmark Status hospital is now HR for that same hospital, the sprawling bag-mill and its mill-town community of Cabbagetown has become condos and fixer-uppers. I can “see” the history, hear the whistle at the mill… What I’m looking for is the “What if…” to step into that world…

    • I can “see” the history, hear the whistle at the mill… What I’m looking for is the “What if…” to step into that world…

      That’s really a great formula for the historical fiction writer, George. You’re not ready to write about it until you can “see” it, hear it, feel it. That’s your love of the period manifesting itself.

      Now the great “What if…” comes alongside to help you find the plot. Keep looking!

  2. Good points about how quickly everything changes, especially in technology. Had a great line when a female character was going to give the hero some computer files, and she asked if he had a floppy in his pocket.
    Heck, even restaurants close between writing and publication (but the research was great.) In the current WIP, I was going to have a character ask who a kid’s favorite Cincinnati Bengal was, but decided that would date the book, not to mention falling into the OJ trap.
    I think I’d be most comfortable writing about things that happened during my lifetime, preferably recent enough so I have memories of the culture, fads, some language. Which would mean some time between the mid-50s and the early 2000s.

  3. When I first started writing, I liked the 1970-80s and stories of how the cold war—communism or the fear of communism—and the scramble for natural resources factored into the corrupt interference in African countries. However, those stories were hard to pitch. Publishers (plural) said, “No one is interested in the 1980s, and no one cares about Africa.” Ouch.

    So now I’m back to the current moment, and, as you say, fearing new technology will solve my crime before the book is published.

    • Nancy, I’ve heard editors say that “historical fiction” is the which occurs before 1900. Maybe it’s a sliding scale. Dennis Lehane’s novel The Given Day and my own Glimpses of Paradise are WWI and a few years thereafter, and are labeled historical. But what about a novel about the 1950s?

  4. I am having to re-construct a little bit of Little Tokyo for my WWII story–primarily Third Street where the Tokyo Club was located.

    (A Japanese general, distant kin of the Imperial family, comes to Los Angeles via train from New York, to speak to the Japanese citizens of Los Angeles, to give them broad instructions about what to do in case war should break out between the United States and Nihon. (Such a speech actually happened.) He is arrogant, commanding and demanding because he believes that the Issei and Nisei, the first and second generation of Japanese who live in America, should remember that they are, first, citizens of Nihon, and that they must be willing to do their duty for the Emperor if and when called upon. The Tanaka family, riding in two old heater-less pickup trucks that usually haul produce and are used for farm chores for Tanaka Farms of Orange County, come to hear the speech. The speech splits the family because the Tanaka family is divided into three factions: Mom and Dad, the three older Tanaka offspring, and the three younger Tanakas, one of whom is a young physician practicing at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, and the two youngest Tanaka sister, twins who are USC cheerleaders and honor students and who are hardly ever voluntarily included by their schoolmates and friends in the parties and picnics and fun.)

    The Tokyo Club is also fictionally reconstructed for the 1990 movie, Come See the Paradise, where the Japanese touring theater company puts on their play and a social including American dancing and music and food are rolled out for the Japanese. That night causes the Kawamura family many problems. Mr. Kawamura is a member of a literary society that sponsors the Japanese entertainment. Because he is a member of the literary club, the FBI determines that Mr. Kawamura is an enemy alien citizen who has had direct contact with the enemy, in the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The club is also where Jack McGurn, played by Dennis Quaid, goes to when he pleads with Mr. Kawamura for the privilege of seeing his daughter, Lilly, played by Tamlyn Tomita.

    It is more fun than work to do the research, to read old newspaper articles on the internet and look at pictures, and wonder if the parents of James Scott Bell ever went to Little Tokyo for dinner and shopping.

    • Jim, you’ve got a great idea, setting, and details, and an obvious love for the material. Keep after it!

      My mom grew up in Puerto Rico (her father was with the Roosevelt administration), but my dad grew up in Hollywood, and his mother (my grandmother) used to take him all over downtown L.A., and for rides on Angels Flight (which my dad, as an L.A. lawyer, would later help save from destruction).

      • I was excited by your reference to Angels Flight. For me, it is the first thing you see in The Glenn Miller Story, because around the corner from Angels Flight is a pawn shop frequented by Glenn Miller, where he is picking up his trombone.

        (The Glenn Miller Story is one of my five favorite movies of all time.)

  5. I particularly enjoy the period between the 1890s and 1940. There were so many things happening in America then — the advent of automobiles (and the concurrent decline of railroads), mass communication via radio, the rise of the national parks movement, the list goes on and on.

    I have written two books that took place in this golden age — Blazing Ahead, the story of how the Appalachian Trail was conceived and built, and my new book Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte, a “based on a true story” account of a man who showed up in rural Maine in 1895 with sacks full of money, a determination to “hide in plain sight” and lived a secret double life involving illicit and frequent trips to NYC, where he continued to reap the rewards of illegal activity until shortly before he died in 1933.

    The more we dig, the more we find.

    • I agree with you about that 50-year span, Jeff. The movie business from about 1905 to 1914 is largely untapped. Some fascinating people caught on film–like Jack Johnson and Sarah Bernhardt. Not to mention the first movie star–Florence Lawrence, the “Biograph Gril.”

  6. For my Sumerian trilogy I went back as far as one can go without reprising Jean Auel’s prehistoric gig. My reason was simply a fascination with a civilization that lasted 2,000 years and was gone by the time of the Biblical Flood (ca. 1800 BC). The research was immersive and my library swelled with obscure reference books. Since that time (1990s) the web has become stuffed with Sumerian references and anthropological discoveries, a few of which call into question methods and assumptions by the early Sumerologists (100-150 years ago). Still, it’s a pretty stable setting allowing for a lot of interpretation.

    Jim Porter’s book plans remind me of my own youth growing up in the 1940s and early 50s in a small ag community in San Diego county. Classmates were Japanese and Mexican extraction, and we kids had a very integrated upbringing. My best buddy’s sister married a guy from a Japanese farm family. His older brothers had fought the Germans in WWII. It would be interesting to investigate.

    I, too, love the hard-boiled detective era. I’ve created a character and concept for a series centered on a former USC wide receiver paired with a psychic. It would be fun, but I think Jim Bell will beat me to it.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. I love the old west, 1860 to 1900ish. Most of my short stories, my first (as yet unpublished novel) and my current WIP are set in that period. Even there technology can trip you up. For instance, Deadwood was one of the first western towns to invest in electricity and Cheyenne, according to the insurance maps I found, had electric service in the early 1880’s. It’s a blast doing the research and the internet gives us access to all sorts or resources without travel expense (the above mentioned insurance maps came from the Library of Congress).

    • Fascinating about Deadwood, Douglas. I never would have guessed that. (FWIW, I never watched the show. Five minutes into the first episode and the language was a complete turnoff. Besides, the “Tourettic frequency” of certain words was not even accurate.

  8. With historical fiction, everything like that is frozen. You can concentrate on the story.

    Well, yes and no. If you go back far enough, things are just not that well known, or are known erroneously. Take the legendary 1626 purchase of Manhattan for “$24 worth of beads and baubles.” Not really. But the historical documentation is so scarce (one casual mention by a guy noting the arrival of a ship in Amsterdam later that same year), that one could make up a pretty good story about the transaction. Which I did in “NEW YORK 1609.”

    So…for you historical fiction authors out there, why did you select the particular period of which you write?

    I selected early 17th century New York City because, surprisingly, no one had ever done it before me (excepting Washington Irving and his 1809 “Knickbocker” satire). Add that to my personal connection to NYC (immigrated through it, swam around it, et al.) and I couldn’t refuse the call.

    Now I’m going *a lot* further back in time. Not quite as far as Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. but getting closer.

    NOTE: am trying out some HTML coding here in my comment. Did it work? 😉

  9. Yes, your blockquotes worked fine.

    Re: Raquel Welch’s bikini…at least now we know it was authentic, due to recently discovered photographs from that period.

    • Funny you should mention that (about recently discovered photographs). One of my shelved concepts involves the birth of photography. Need to get a camera back to the Pleistocene!

  10. If I were to write historical fiction, I think I’d like to have my stories set somewhere between early Anglo-Saxon Britain and end of Edward I’s reign. The politics of the time was brutal and treachery the norm. A character from that period referring to a knife in his back would be referring to an actual knife – between the shoulder blades.
    .
    GoT is rather tame in comparison to my beloved early British history (except of course for the dragons and the dead people walking around in GoT).

  11. Pingback: Why I Love Going Back in Time | Loleta Abi

  12. I tend toward the late 60s early 70s in my stories but one WIP is set in some unspecified future. I like forward or backward better than now!

  13. My WIP is set in 1871. It is a historical mystery. I chose this time period because of the setting which is in my hometown. It has a history of lawlessness and extreme rowdy behavior in this time period. It has been said that 76 people died before a natural death. I thought this would be an excellent setting for my story of murder with a variety of suspects.

  14. Hi Mr. Bell !
    I am fascinated with the early cold war conspiracies, and cover ups. CIA and foreign agents on every corner. What fun.

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