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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Write What You Want To Know

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It used to be the standard advice for new writers: Write what you know!

The driving idea behind that sentiment, of course, was that to write authentically, accurately, and with convincing detail you needed to stick with your own experience, for that is obviously what you know best.

Thus, for many decades, writers kept it close to home. Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age as he was living it with Zelda. Hemingway wrote about World War I and its aftermath, then about other things he experienced—fishing, hunting, the Spanish Civil War. James Jones and Norman Mailer burst on the scene with novels about World War II. Harper Lee wrote about her own childhood.

I recall when the movie The Last Detail came out, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. There was a story about Ponicsan in the L.A. Times in which he talked about his decision to join the Navy at the age of 24. He did so because he wanted to expand his experience so he had something to write about.

I was a college student at the time and got a copy of the novel, read it and loved it. So I wrote a “wannabe a writer” letter to Ponicsan, care of his Hollywood agent. Mr. Ponicsan wrote me a nice letter in return, with advice and encouragement and one important caveat. The last line of his letter was, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” That was 21 years before my first novel came out.

But is Write what you know still sound advice? If you incorporate your special area of expertise in a natural fashion (say, as a lawyer writing legal thrillers), it’s fine. What’s not fine is if it’s taken as Write only what you know. That, it seems to me, destroys one of the great joys of being a writer—the ability to go anywhere, create any character, so long as you do enough research to make it all ring true.

Thus, the better advice, it seems to me, is Write what you WANT to know.

Toni Morrison

I recently came across a 2014 interview with Toni Morrison in which she said:

I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.

She continues:

When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence.

What a refreshing counterpoint to sticking to “what you know.” Go outside the camp. Be reckless, be an explorer. Imagine it, then create it. Part of the imagining, of course, involved research.

As I look back on my own writing, I notice that at least half the time I’m writing about a woman protagonist.

How on earth did that happen?

Well, first of all, I find women more fascinating than men. I’m a simple creature. My wife is complex. I count our 37 years of marriage as not only an adventure in love, but also an engagement in a ton of research. Which is why Mrs. B is always the first to read my work. I need to get this stuff right.

When I came up with the concept for the Kit Shannon series, the publisher I pitched it to had the idea of teaming me up with one of its top-selling authors, Tracie Peterson. We got along famously. We brainstormed the plots and I wrote the first drafts. Tracie went over the drafts and tweaked and added more of what a woman would have thought, spoken, noticed. By the time we finished the third book, I felt I had inside me the voice we’d developed together. I was then able to go on and do three more of these novels on my own.

Which may have been the most enjoyable part of my career. I loved living through Kit Shannon, even though I have never been a woman living in 1903 Los Angeles. (Not many of us have, I venture to say.)

So follow Toni Morrison’s advice. Don’t be afraid to go outside your camp. It’s one of the great pleasures of writing fiction.

So what do you think of that old chestnut, Write what you know?

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