SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons

 

I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.

 

 

Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.

 

TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?

 

 

 

Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

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For the Love of Horror & History

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


On Monday, my lovely TKZ blogmate Clare Langley-Hawthorne had a post called “Losing the Past” where she discussed the state of the historical. I must admit I’ve been intimidated from trying to write an historical. The research seemed daunting, not to mention the world building and dialogue challenges, but I’ve always loved classic literature set in a historical time period made into movies, like Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre. There is something very compelling about taking a peek into the past to see the cultures, classes, location settings, and period clothing. Whether in a book or on screen, it’s a beautiful escape to a different time and place. Historicals aren’t dying out, they’ve become the new black if they’re reimagined into something fresh.


Lately I’ve become enthralled by TV period pieces, especially if the writing and storytelling are solid and the visuals and world building are memorable. Shows that have pulled me in are: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, BBC’s Ripper Street, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. I watch other shows for different elements towards my writing, but these shows have influenced me into crossing the line of my comfort zone. I firmly believe, for me, that I must seek out projects to push my perceived limits. I think I learn more about myself when I do it. The only limit to any writer is the limit of their own imagination.


So when I was recently asked to contribute to a time travel anthology (with an amazing group of authors), I accepted with great enthusiasm (even though it scared me). I accepted the challenge because of my love for these three shows and my desire to push my writer limits. I wanted to share these feature film quality shows with you to see if they stir your imaginings as writers for inventive plots, attention to detail on world building and research, and the fearlessness of the creative mind to combine ideas that may not connect easily.


Icabod with skullSLEEPY HOLLOW – The motto at Sleepy Hollow these days is “Embrace the Ridiculous.” Show creators and the talented writers have thrown together very unlikely elements to create what’s been called WTF TV. On paper, the pitch for the show would’ve sounded absurd – Washington Irving adaptations of Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, mixed with Revelations in the Bible and the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and historical conspiracies from the Revolutionary War. Icabod Crane is reimagined as a Revolutionary War hero and Revelations “witness” who arises from his secret grave at the same time as the Headless Horseman (aka Death) starts a killing rampage in the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow. The battle of good versus evil has found a home. Crazy, yet it works. The added touch of humor to this “man out of time” story makes Icabod a very endearing character. There’s tongue in cheek humor and the show is notably very ethnically blended. Sleepy Hollow is making history in more ways than its flashbacks.


Ripper SettingRIPPER STREET is set in Victorian London right after Jack the Ripper left his mark. Fear runs high that the monster will return. The shows are tightly written, very emotional, and there is great sensitivity to social issues of the time that reflect on those same issues today. Another thing I love about Ripper Street is the portrayal of early forensics and crime scene analysis. Many scenes are laughable (ie surgical operations done in the open without sterilization or proper care for infection) yet accurate for the time period. Costumes are stunning and the street settings are vivid with great care for detail.


Penny Dreadful BooksPENNY DREADFUL – The show title of Penny Dreadful comes from history, the name given to paper pamphlets filled with terrifying stories. Such stories (also known as Penny Blood, Penny Awful, & Penny Horrible) plus stage performances of the genre were the rage in London during the Victorian time period. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and aimed at working class adolescents. Fear abounded and made fertile ground for when Jack the Ripper wreaked havoc on the streets.


Cast 1Penny Dreadful is an homage to literary horror and classic monsters of the time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, etc. What I love about Penny Dreadful is the intense world building in every scene. The details of lush sets and gorgeous costuming and the use of practical literary monsters (not animated computer generate imagery). The horror is visceral.

Dr VicHere is Dr Victor Frankenstein slaving over his “creature” in secret. The scene where Victor lays eyes on his living creature (and the creature sees his creator for the first time) is an unforgettable moment where the viewer holds a breath to watch the touching intimacy. Everything about this show speaks to me of good writing, solid storytelling, and memorable characters in classic conflict. Visually stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.


For Discussion: What shows stir your writer imaginings? Have they ever influenced you to write a genre you’ve never tried before?

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My Addiction to Fox’s Sleepy Hollow–as a Writer

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

sleepyhollow

I’ve been watching Sleepy Hollow and consider myself a Sleepyhead, one of many fans who follow the show. We tweet during episodes, quoting lines we love, and mostly talk about Tom Mison, the delectable British male lead who will undoubtedly inspire books in me from here on. But what I’ve found most interesting in the show, beyond the eye candy of Mison, is the daring mix of genres and biblical and literary references. It’s got the flavor of National Treasure (by turning history on its ear with an intriguing undercurrent of conspiracy theories or good vs evil battles) woven into the luxurious velvety fabric of fantasy, mystery, humor, romance, historical, paranormal, and horror.

fourhorsemen

On top of everything else—the cherry on the top–is damned good writing. We care about the characters and what happens to them. They have personal stories we can’t get enough of, along with the good vs evil battle against demons. There’s a great mix of suspense thriller pacing, blended with the mounting risks the characters take on with each new episode, and compelling backstories to pepper the emotional landscape. The writers leave us wanting more with each new show, while continuing an overall story arc on each character. Even secondary characters become important because of how they add to the plot. I get swept away with being a viewer, but often go back to really listen to each line because these writers do NOTHING without a purpose. It’s fun to see all the threads pull together as the season continues. You have to pay attention if you want to figure stuff out ahead of time, which I really love as a writer.
 
Other fun things to watch for is the historical research the show’s writers must do into the history of the period. Crane’s dialogue lines are incredible studies into the English language of the time period as compared to how we speak today. Abbie represents our present day while Crane is our past. They’ve even used Middle English in the retelling of the mysterious legend of Roanoke. With Crane remembering the past freshest in his mind, he is a reminder how precious our past is and how much can be forgotten over time.
 
Crane is also portrayed as a renaissance man with an enlightened perspective against slavery, which works well with Abbie being a black female law enforcement officer whose ancestors crossed paths with Crane’s family. Again, good writing. Characters and their backstories are well thought out and serve a function for all that springs from their conflict or purpose. This show also has many references to literature and books. In the last episode, Crane is quoted as saying, “Without books we have no past and no future.” I hope I remembered that correctly. It stuck with me. So many quotables from the show.
 
Crane with shower sponge
 
The “man out of time” bits are hilarious and far too few, but that makes every one precious. Crane is outspoken and has trouble admitting when he doesn’t understand our present time, making each misstep of his funny to watch. His first shower, his take on modern technology and conveniences, his disbelief we pay for water or pay 10% levy on baked goods (his introduction to donut holes), his time spent on the “ninernet” and finding a porn chat room,  and his first baseball game are hilarious. Crane’s take on us is entertaining, but it’s what he teaches Abbie about the past and the way he still lives (standing up to evil or injustice no matter the personal cost), endears him to us. This is another test of good writers – to incorporate such special moments into a suspenseful story line at the right time and place, or surprising the viewer when it comes at a very unexpected moment (like the picture above where he sees his first shower sponge and doesn’t ask why Abbie bought it for him). The writers and Mison make me want the whole show to be about Crane assimilating, but of course there must be more for us to get to know characters who are quickly becoming as familiar as family to the growing legion of Sleepyheads who crave the Sleepy Hollow world.
 
Mison in bootsI know the day is coming that Crane will be forced from his period clothing, but I have to say Tom Mison is dream worthy in his revolutionary breeches, boots, and gabardine jacket. He’s wearing a wig for the long sexy hair, but Mison looks amazing in short hair too. Google the many faces of Tom Mison and you’ll see. Here’s fun video on Mison and Beharie. And here’s another of just Mison and his short hair. The fandom on DeviantArt and twitter and countless other chat rooms and forums have quickly evolved. Fortunately people of all ages have embraced this show.
 

 
Another writer thing – the plot and character story arcs are really good. The ground swell to Ichabod’s and Abbie’s story is building in such a tantalizing way with cliff hanger and reveals that escalates the momentum. Ichabod and Abbie are the two witnesses in Revelations who are fighting the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, malevolent spirits, a dark coven of witches, and a powerful demon behind it all. The chemistry between Abbie and Crane is growing stronger as they work together and put their lives on the line for the sake of humanity, despite the cost to their lives and loves. I want to bottle similar elements into a book. There are so many things I am learning about good writing. Thanks to Fox, the Sleepy Hollow Writers and Phillip Iscove for bringing a quality show like this to TV.
 
For other Sleepy Heads, have you seen the online map on the Fox site? HERE is the link. Bone up for the upcoming 2-hour finale (two back to back eps that will be an event held on Jan 20th). Yes, this means we have to wait, but this show is worth waiting for. I can’t even imagine having Ichabod for two hours. (Well, actually I can, but that’s a whole ‘nother post…with a different rating than PG.)
 

Congratulations to Fox and the cast of Sleepy Hollow for getting picked up for a second season. Fox has a major hit on its hands!!!
 
For the purposes of discussion:
 
1.) Are you a Sleepyhead? Will you be watching the 2-hour finale on Jan 20th?
 
2.) What are your favorite elements of the show – as a writer – as a viewer?
 
3.) What clothes would you like to see Ichabod wear? I’ve heard rumor of a hoodie, but I truly believe Crane’s clothes are his security blanket. Will he part with them? If not, what will his compromise be?

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