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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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction – ‘A Disloyal Element’ Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Confederate General Robert E Lee

Confederate General Robert E Lee

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have an anonymous first 400 words submission from a daring soul. My feedback will follow. The author would appreciate your constructive criticism in comments. Thank you.

The procession of Yankees moved down Richmond’s High Street, clanking chains muffled by snow. Footsteps left a bloody path. Some wore whatever could be held together with rope to substitute for shoes. Many wore no coat. Some were bound for Chimborazo Hospital, the others Castle Thunder, Belle Isle or Libby Prison. Their faces were etched with apprehension, despair, dread, fear. Some appeared dejected, others stood straight and walked proudly.

The unknown lie ahead for them. Annie stood looking, useless, her hands clenched in her pockets unable to help or comfort them. How many would be dead in a month? Conditions were abysmal at the prisons. She’d heard stories. Prisoners who got too close to the barred windows were shot on sight. There were probably worse atrocities people were afraid to talk about.

Once they went in, they were never seen again. These men had families they longed to see and who longed to have them safe at home. How do you hold onto hope when it seems you’ve been forgotten? The war had gone on for nearly three years now with no end in sight.

The prisoners continued the slow march down the road. One man faltered in his step for a moment and collapsed to his knees. His comrades came to his aid and lifted him up to continue. Most of the citizens ignored them as they passed by, but members of The Butchertown Cats, one of Richmond’s street gangs, called out names not uttered in polite society and used slingshots to hurl stones at the men. These street toughs were little more than boys themselves, many only months away from being conscripted for service in the Army. The bravado they displayed today would be tested by their first taste of battle. A member of the local constabulary broke up the toughs and they ran in different directions. The prisoners they taunted marched on to face whatever fate God had for them.

Annie watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. A green tartan scarf lay in the snow where the prisoners had just walked. It looked brand new and certain to be missed by its owner. A gift, perhaps, from a loved one. She started for the object in a vain attempt to return it when one of the Butchertown Cats flew past her and scooped up the garment and ran in the opposite direction.

Feedback

I was drawn into this submission by the human suffering and the idea of prisoners of war being paraded through Richmond. The word ‘Yankees’ and Richmond hinted at a Civil War period piece, but I had to look up the hospital name to be sure. The time period is a good one for intriguing stories, so the author had me hooked. But I have the following suggestions for consideration.

1.) Give Context – A tag line at the outset would clarify without a doubt this is a historical work about the Civil War. Something simple like – Richmond, Virginia and the date somewhere between 1861-1865 – would suffice. The reader would be oriented at the beginning.

2.) Make Point of View (POV) Relatable – The start of this offering, and most of the writing, is told in omniscient POV. This submission reminded me of a recent and excellent post by James Scott Bell on “The Perils of Author Voice.” Annie the observer first shows up in the 2nd paragraph and again in the final paragraph, but it’s not clear to me that she actually sees the whole procession and the men trudging toward their fate. It’s as if she sees into the heads of all the men marching (omniscient).

Think how much this beginning would change if Annie is the sole POV and the reader sees everything through her eyes. By orienting the reader inside Annie’s head, we learn more about her and the time period, as well as the story of the men she has empathy for. If you pick one POV per scene, where the reader can only see through that character’s eyes, the story will be more intimidate and emotional. In omniscient POV, the reader is held at a distance to be a neutral observer. This might work for some stories, but I prefer seeing history unfold through the strife of an endearing or compelling character.

Let’s take Annie. What could her story be?

Annie could find someone in the march who reminds her of her younger brother who’s missing in action. She leaps over the backs of tall men, straining for a glimpse of the rabble. When she sees a familiar gait or a pair of blue eyes she’ll never forget , she races after the men. She hides among them, maybe has the guards racing to pull her out. She sees each man’s suffering from the way they smell to the bones under their clothes from starvation. They beg her for water. They bleed on her clothes. The reader would more fully understand the plight of these men while also finding out about Annie.

  • What is Annie’s last name?
  • Why is she there?
  • What are her politics?
  • How is she treated as a woman during this period?
  • Is she looking for someone, is she a spy, or does she disdain the enemy?

3.) Add a Dose of Historical Perspective – The writing has a modern feel to it. There is no attempt to use historical authenticity using terminology from the time period or by inserting some clothing/uniform descriptions. Historical readers are fanatics about getting the history right. The insertion of “dark blue trousers and kepi caps” or the guards carrying “Springfield muskets and sabers” could add something. Depending on her backstory, Annie may not know details of weaponry, but during a time of war, I’m sure she’s seen what men wear and use in battle.

A resource I found on Civil War Terminology might help insert a few key descriptions to make the writing appear more period. Here is a resource for Civil War Uniform description. This is a resource for Civil War Weapons that the Confederate soldiers might be carrying as they take the prisoners down the street. These are quick resources I found online from a simple query. Experienced authors of historical fiction have a vast amount of reliable sites they use.

For Discussion:

What would you add, TKZers?

Would you turn the page?

Do you have good resource links for the Civil War?

 

Croco Designs

Coming November 15 – In The Eyes of The Dead (Omega Team/Amazon Kindle Worlds)

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria priest and his secret believers.

Cover by Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs

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Losing the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As a historical fiction writer, I was depressed to read the op-ed, Lost in the Past, in the New York Times last week, on how little people know of history today. Even more horrifying is the fact that this ‘historical illiteracy’ appears to infect leaders across our society – from politicians, to corporate leaders, media personalities and educators.

While I don’t intend this blog post to be a rant against any of the more egregious offenders on this score, I do feel that on this Memorial Day weekend we should reflect on the importance of knowing and understanding history. As a writer, as much as I often have fun with historical facts in my stories (and sometimes even create alternate histories), I recognize I have an obligation to my readers to do my research thoroughly and to represent the past as honestly (and as correctly) as I can. It’s frustrating to realize how much of history is ignored today (as the NYT article points out even the History Channel now does very little history!) and how easy it is for many people to forget the lessons of the past (and, sadly, doom history to repeat itself).

Is the reason we are becoming more ignorant of the past because people think history is boring? Is it too much effort to learn the real facts as to what happened? Is it because in the age of the Internet people find it easier to throw out terms like ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’ or ‘communist’ without really understanding what they truly mean (or at least what they once meant)? 

As a fiction writer, I feel strongly that novels are one of the best ways to illuminate the past – using a story can enlighten and engage (and, hopefully, provide a little palatable history along the way). The popularity of Downton Abbey suggests to me that many people are still interested in how people lived in the past (albeit perhaps in a soap opera version) so why is it that so many young people don’t even know what the ‘Great War’ was? 

When I read the newspaper each morning and my kids ask me about what is happening in the world, I am struck by how much my answer relies on me providing a historical background to what is occurring. The past illuminates and explains so much of what is going on in our world today, and I’m truly saddened at how little this seems to count anymore. 

So on this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps you can give me some more cheerful advice on how we can reinvigorate the study of history. How do you think, as readers and writers, this could occur? Do you find novels or non-fiction the most enjoyable way to ‘learn’ about the past? How can we get kids, particularly, to become enthusiastic about studying history? 

For my own children, there is always the awesome ‘Horrible Histories’ series of books and TV shows.  This clip is one of my absolute favourites – and I’m going to share it just because it goes to show that, even when ‘bending’ the facts for the sake of humor, history can be relevant, interesting and, dare I say, it…cool. If only more people could see it this way.

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The Historical Research of Heroic Measures–Guest Jo-Ann Power

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I’m very pleased to have my guest, Jo-Ann Power, at the Kill Zone today. Her new novel involved historical research of WWII that I thought you might find interesting. I’ve bought the book for my mom who always talks about her teens years as “Rosie the riveter” during the war effort. This historical period has been fascinating to me. Enjoy and take it away, Jo-Ann.

Grateful to be a guest here at TKZ, I know the importance of solid research for any kind of fiction. Having written a few mysteries and many historicals, I know the value of fact as the bedrock of any entertainment for readers.

 
For HEROIC MEASURES, my novel about American nurses serving on the front lines in France during the Great War, I did research that led me to many of the same resources that many writers use. First, I read general histories for an overview of the conflict. Then I haunted the stacks of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the National Archives for weeks on end. Newspapers from those years plus nurses’  letters, diaries and photos gave me tiny facts that provided not only color but an accuracy obscured by general histories.
 
Next I went to Army facilities like Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania where the Army keeps its repositories of memorabilia of soldiers and nurses who served in that first global conflict. I traveled to Cantigny in Wheaton Illinois where curators there pulled primary and secondary documents from their collection of recruits who served in the First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.
 
My longest  (and most delightful) excursion was to France. For three weeks, I walked the front lines of our American soldiers in northern France. I visited the battle lines, overgrown with moss and grass but many still pock-marked with fox holes and shell holes. I saw the terrain our soldiers fought through. The wide plains of farmland they ran through. The woods where they drew their bayonets and fell into hand-to-hand combat. I saw the territory where peaceful rivers now run and understood by viewing the terrain why keeping control of this river or that mountain was vital to the defense of a town, a section of the land or Paris, itself.
 
I talked with the curators of those museums, the people who live there and tell tales of their ancestors who lived there at the time. I discussed the valor of nurses and YMCA workers, Salvation Army volunteers and ambulance drivers. I walked the pristine rows of American cemeteries where the remains of more than 40,000 of our American men and women lie in testament to their devotion.
 
What did I learn in those trips? I learned about the weather in the spring time in France. Wet and cold. Just as it was so very often during the four years of war. I learned about the fertility of the Champagne and Lorraine regions. The area then was rich: today France grows 20% of the produce for European Union. I saw the importance of the City of Verdun. Nestled in the mountains, this city is the main route for two rivers. Control this city and the victor controls the major water route to Paris. I experienced the diversity of culture in the Alsace where many speak not only French, but English and German. I heard from them how they intermarried, and I could understand how they had to divide their loyalties and how difficult that was one hundred years ago.
 
I also learned from our American directors of our cemeteries that very few Americans come to these hallowed grounds to pay their respects. Most travel to Normandy, remembering the valor of those who took the beach in 1944. But in the coming five years, I hope you will remember the valor of the first group of Americans who went to serve and suffer and fight in Europe. I hope you will rent a car at the Paris airport and head into the Champagne, not merely to drink the best bubbly you will ever enjoy, but to visit these cemeteries, talk to the staff and ask them about the valor of these first American adventurers. They have stories to tell.
 
Mine is fictitious. But based in fact.
 
Here is one woman’s story of her journey from her small hometown to the greater world. I hope you enjoy HEROIC MEASURES.
For more on American nurses, read Jo-Ann’s HEROIC MEASURES blog: http://theyalsofought.blogspot.com


For the purposes of discussion at TKZ, how far have you gone for research and authenticity in your writing? Are any of you writing a period piece involving historical research? If you are, tell us about the challenges.

Synopsis

How heroic are you? Would you volunteer to travel thousands of miles from home with others you don’t know to live in tents, wash your hair in your helmet and work 12-24 hours each day?

In the Great War, thousands of women did. HEROIC MEASURES is the novel that shows you how American nurses went to war, how they lived and served­—and how they loved.
For nurse Gwen Spencer, fighting battles is nothing new. An orphan sent to live with a vengeful aunt, Gwen picked coal and scrubbed floors to earn a living. But when she decides to become a nurse, she steps outside the boundaries of her aunt’s demands…and into a world of her own making.
 
Leaving her hometown for France, she helps doctors mend thousands of brutally injured Doughboys under primitive conditions. Amid the chaos, she volunteers to go ever forward to the front lines. Braving bombings and the madness of men crazed by the hell of war, she is stunned to discover one man she can love. A man she can share her life with.
 
But in the insanity and bloodshed she learns the measures of her own desires. Dare she attempt to become a woman of accomplishment? Or has looking into the face of war and death given her the courage to live her life to the fullest?

HEROIC MEASURES BUY links: Amazon digital, Amazon printBarnes and Noble, Kobo, iTunes,  Allromanceebooks.com, Wild Rose Press 

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What If?….

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

I confess to being a total research junkie when it comes to my historical mysteries and I get excited by the smallest things – the surprise dedication and signature in the used book I just bought on the Ulster Crisis of 1912-1914 of the Reverend Ian Paisley (who, no matter what your politics, was a towering unionist figure throughout the 1970s and 1980s); the amazing trove of Kali books I discovered in a second hand bookstore in Omaha, Nebraska; the thrill of reading an original Baedeker guide to Palestine in the British Library….the list goes on.
I confess I get a buzz from delving into history – but I also love playing the ‘what if?’ game. Fiction is, of course, all about the ‘what if’ game but with history you can have even more fun. I don’t usually go in for the major things like what if Germany won the First World War – that’s certainly interesting but a little too much like fantasy for my sake – no, I like to play the ‘what if’ game at a personal, character driven level about more minor historical events. In my current WIP (the third Ursula Marlow book) I am playing it out on a major character and using the Irish Home Rule crisis of the 1910s as my backdrop. For many months I’ve been poring over the history books looking for minor references to activities that ultimately led to the hanging of Roger Casement in 1916 for trying to secure an alliance with Germany (and a supply of armaments) for an Irish uprising. I can’t say any more (and besides I don’t want to bore you senseless on a Monday morning!) lest I spoil the plot – but the key is the thrill of the ‘what if’ game.
I was asked by an audience member at one of my panels at Left Coast Crime whether there were other periods of history I would like to explore, to uncover ‘the hidden history’ or perhaps even the ‘alternate’ history…I found this question a great challenge. I mean where to start?! At the time, however, I think I answered something particularly lame but for me, apart from the Edwardian period, I would love to explore and play the ‘what if’ game across the centuries.
I’d love to explore the stories of the women spitfire pilots in World War II, the spiritualist movements of the early 19th century England, the phrenology and mesmerism movements in Europe, and encounters between the British and the aboriginal people in Australia in the early days of colonialization (just to name a few ideas!). I have about four proposals already whizzing around my head with some ‘what if” scenarios for my characters against these backdrops… but I’d be spoiling all the fun if I divulged anything further – so I’m going to pass on the challenge to you – is there something in history (recent or ancient) that you would like to explore, ‘rewrite’ or play the ‘what if’ game? If you could go back and be a fly on the wall – when would you chose?
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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…

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You’ve got to be Brave. The Revision Process at One AM.


By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

I’ve spent the whole weekend knee deep in revisions for my latest manuscript and I believe me, this aspect of writing is as challenging as writing the first full draft. Granted I forced my husband to be on twin duty the whole time, so he’s probably still recovering too, but it made me realize how much the writing process really is just that – a long and detailed (often arduous) process.

Writing historical fiction means that I have to incorporate a sense of time and place that is backed up by significant amounts of research. It also means that at every point in the revision process I find myself second-guessing historical accuracy. Not just the big stuff like making sure my characters aren’t jumping aboard the Concorde in 1912 but the little stuff, like the nuances of speech, use of slang, and the way people perceived the world around them. Sometimes I have to confess, if I don’t know and can’t find the answer I just go with my gut and make it up. Hey, this is fiction after all.

I view revising as adding the second and third coats of paint to a project – each layer adds a subtly and a depth to the characters, to the setting, and to the themes that swirl around the plot. What I find the biggest challenge is avoiding what I call ‘tinkering’ – changing my mind over a minute plot point only to find it has rolling ramifications and then (in total disgust) I find I have to go all the way back and return it all to the way it was. I guess this is what people call a ‘learning process’ but I seem to be a bit ‘learning challenged’ when it comes to this – and still find myself adding complexity where NO MORE is needed! ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ is a motto I need to have branded to my forehead.


Those who want to see the writing process in action can find me sitting in my writing studio, a converted garage in the back of our house, bleary eyed at one o’clock in the morning, determined to finish the next chapter as I’m ‘on a roll’. I might be on the internet checking on a historical reference, looking up the architecture for a historic home or searching The Times database for an event the latest fashions for that year. I might even be using the delete key to liberal advantage as part of the revision process involves getting rid of all the extraneous stuff that I find stops the flow of the narrative (sometimes bringing tears to my eyes if it was a point of historical research I spent hours on!)

Yesterday I deleted a whole chapter – painful but necessary. I then merged two minor characters to streamline the plot. I decided one scene moved like molasses and I got bogged down in worrying whether the house should have gothic archways or not…Time passed. It was one am…Time to call it quits till the red pen, the axe and the delete key were brought back out to do it all again.

Ah the joys of revision. You just got to be brave…

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