This blog began with the intention of weaving together posts about the writing life with thoughts on faith and morals. Eventually I turned entirely to meditations on Christianity, and I do not regret that turn at all; it has permitted me to distill my experiences with God and some of my own mistakes into work that I hope is worthy reading for others. I believe, however, that after spending a few years writing fiction in relative quiet, I am ready to include an occasional writing post once again.
With that, I want to talk about yesteryear.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.”
Over the last five years, much of my writing has tended toward the past in the American South. An Appalachian preacher from the Depression era. A suburban pyromaniac raised in a defunct coal mining town. A vengeful con artist fathered by the scion of a wealthy judge’s family. In each of these stories, I found that setting events in the past lends more than atmosphere and a chance to explore bygone societies. History can give you the concrete devices you need to construct a good storyline—one that could only emerge from the era in which you are writing.
Consider these ways to involve historical setting in your plot:
1) Technology. In one scene of my short story “The Judge’s Son,” a character overhears a pivotal conversation between relatives by eavesdropping on a party line phone. Maybe your main character lost her father when his buggy overturned in a flood. Perhaps your protagonist’s experience as a wireless operator on commercial liners makes him the only person in his town who can understand Morse code messages from a telegraph.
Also, think how the absence of technology might present a dilemma to your characters. A car crash on a remote highway could prove far deadlier in the 1950s than today (No cell phones—not even the big walkie-talkie kind).
2) Culture. Human nature doesn’t change, but the collective beliefs with which we surround ourselves do. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the Catholic Church was the center of daily activity—not just for religion, but commerce, politics, and marriage. In 1896, the US Supreme Court upheld racially segregated streetcar policies in Plessy v. Ferguson, even for citizens who appeared white but were known to have some African ancestry. How might the essential sociological facts of your setting shape your characters’ choices? How might they cause new conflicts to arise, new consequences?
In Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, schoolmaster Grant Wiggins is tasked with teaching pride to a young, condemned black man before his execution—an undertaking far more poignant in the Jim Crow South.
When I set a novel in 1959 near the peak of the school prayer debate, I focused on my narrator’s fear of knocking over his community’s golden calves of patriotism and religion while trying to stop the release of a terrible secret about himself.
3) Laws and Events. Irene Hunt’s 1970 novel No Promises in the Wind, set in 1932, makes use of the Prohibition era in an important scene where her character, a runaway, hitches a ride with a boastful bootlegger and makes a mistake that costs him his savings. Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country (you may very well cry if you read it) revolves around the murder of an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. A simple Google search, trip to the library, or examination of a contemporary newspaper can show you what was happening, what was occupying the world’s mind, during the time your story occurs.
If you try to make the past more than a backdrop—indeed, let it define your characters and provide coherence to your narrative—you will thread the past through the events themselves and create a more strongly felt, more complex fictional world.
Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist, was a married postal clerk who wrote forty-seven novels, two plays, eighteen travel books, and dozens of short stories. Dame Barbara Cartland, another Brit, wrote 722 novels, averaging one book every forty days of her career. Spaniard Corín Tellado wrote 4,000 novellas.
Meanwhile, J.D. Salinger wrote four books, the last in 1963, though his Catcher in the Rye was still selling 250,000 copies a year up to his death in 2010. Sixty years (1934-1994) passed between Henry Roth’s first and second novels, Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream. Harper Lee wrote one astounding novel, won the Pulitzer, and never published again.
Most of us are somewhere between these writers. We’re not word-volcanoes spewing stories, nor do we champion the myth of “writer’s block.” We still fall into two categories, though: waterwheels or hummingbirds.
“Classic—a book which people praise and don’t read.” – Mark Twain
If you went to a normal American high school, then you probably sat through normal American litorture—that’s my horrible hybrid word of “literature” and “torture.” Maybe you listened to Faulkner’s Sound and endured his Fury, or said Farewell to Hemingway’s Arms. Maybe you read The Great Gatsby (I couldn’t come up with a pun for that). If you love books as much as I do, then you might have felt puzzled, or even ashamed, if you happened to think the hallowed canon didn’t live up to its laurels.
But isn’t it heresy to frown at the work of these dead, bearded, alcohol-tolerant men? (Yes, I know, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s face was as smooth as a doll. But still!)
From the controversial Strunk & White to Donald Maass’s helpful The Breakout Novelist, guidebooks on writing bulge from my bookshelves. Used little now, these books once loomed over me with the authority of tribal elders. I would careen from one absolute rule to another as if they had proceeded from a cloud on Sinai. “Never use the fact that!” shouted Strunk. “Never use whisper unless a word starts with ‘s’!” shrieked another.
The summer view from my backyard...no copyright violations here!
The Bible tells us that Creation (capital-C intended) involved six days of labor—dividing the waters, flinging the sun and stars into orbit, seeding the dead earth, and stitching together a strange little hominid named the human. After that, God took a break. On the seventh day he rested (Genesis 2:2). Isn’t that the impression some of us get from Scripture, that God was tuckered out from all the making and finally decided to collapse on heaven’s sofa?
I remember a joke from my elementary school days: “Your mama’s so fat, it took God six days to make her, and on the seventh day he RESTED!” Leave aside for a moment your joy that public school kids would be so familiar with Genesis. Realize instead that people often assume creation—whether by God directly, or by him through us—involves exhaustion…depletion…weariness…
But if God is infinite (Psalm 145:3), then how could he get tired as we limited beings do?
Behind the shed in my parents’ backyard, a cluster of purple coneflowers grows within a shelter of high grass. Despite their healthy blooms, I recently caught something gnawing at those flowers, and it wasn’t the usual rabbit (see picture at left). Tendrils of ivy have curled about the stalks and petals, blending with the greenery even as they wind tighter and strangle it.
I warned my father that he shouldn’t let those vines grow in his garden. “But they’re beautiful,” he protested.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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The King of Outsiders
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When God Gives Us What We Want