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.
“New Year, same world. But new garment, new birth—new person.” – Jesus (paraphrase)
Here are the top five recent posts from this year, according to page views. May your year be more than a new number on the calendar!
1. We're Made of Dirt
Let's remember, we're all Adams here. Excuse my dust, please.
2. An Inconvenient Messiah
God didn't bother becoming a man to fulfill somebody else's agenda.
3. God Gives the Increase
God, never just a cheerleader, is the wellspring of everything we can accomplish on our "own."
4. What's Write for You?
Define your own way of writing, from the chair you choose to how often you write.
5. God Had a Seventh Day - Why Not You?
Rest is vital to the creative process. No one demonstrates this better than God.
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 publishing industry has birthed a new redundancy: the “short-short” story. Another common name for the genre is “flash fiction,” yet I don’t like this phrase as much. To “flash by” means to appear briefly and vanish without much of an impression, but if done well, stories of this kind can pack as much force as a tightly clenched fist—denser and more powerful for their brevity.
Short-shorts are traditionally less than 1,000 words. Some say 300, some 500; the devil says 666 is the limit. Usually the story focuses on one significant event with a small group of characters. Notice, though, that all this academic chatter leaves a wide gap for the writer to fill. As a self-appointed Grand Poobah of short-short fiction—I have, after all, published two whole pieces of it—I’ve worked out a few guidelines for the flash-by story:
In Greek mythology, a Titan named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, allowing civilization to blossom. We can do the same for our writing, filching a little of the heat from somebody else to help our own work flourish. The good news is that, unlike Prometheus, we probably won’t end up chained to a rock with an eagle eating our liver every day for eternity.
Occasionally I’m writing a scene that begins to feel like a cheap sock-puppet show (no disrespect to PBS or any puppet-friendly network). The characters may argue or banter, but because they do nothing but speak, the narrative thins out and becomes less palpable. It takes on the one-dimensionality of a fast sketch, rather than the flesh-and-blood tangibility I had been going for. The people become talking heads, or, if they’re alone, they walk through a gray landscape where little of their world assumes a form.
Other times, I may read a book whose world is too tangible. Some authors catalogue every detail in a scene—the woodwork of an office doorway, the names of volumes on a lawyer’s shelf, the thirteen toys in a store window. The relentless listing overwhelms me and jumbles my sense of a scene, as if the characters were lost in a hoarder’s house. I’m guilty of this in my own writing sometimes, too.
The solution is a reasonable balance of description to create the impression of a scene. Here is the strategy that has helped me:
In his 1908 book Orthodoxy, the feisty G.K. Chesterton described our search for truth and meaning as that of a man who sails from the coast of England, spending many days on the ocean, until he arrives back in the very village he left. At first he does not recognize the place, and it seems fresh and wondrous, untainted with familiarity. Then he realizes he has lived here all his life, and sees his home with newly appreciative eyes.
Chesterton equated the unappreciated village to church, to our view of God and wherever he chose to put us on Earth. I have detected this same veil in myself and other people, especially when it comes to writing. I once saw a Twitter profile whose author asked something like, “Why write about the boring mundane world when you can write about fantasy?”
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.
Why I'm Choosing the Catholic Church
The Struggle to Stay Real as Writers and Humans
When People Stopped Being Interesting to Write About
How to Avoid God, Unsuccessfully
3 Ways to Use History in Your Fiction
Who's Afraid of Death?
Jesus and The "Illegals"
The Hardest Command
Grasping the Resurrection
The King of Outsiders
When Your Idol Falls
Our Not-Guilty Verdict
Nobody Dies for a Lie
Would You Be The Doorman?
What is a Blessing?
Real Obedience is Love
Jesus was Inevitable
The Death of Envy
What God Really Wants
Submission and Query Resources for Writers
Hearing His Voice
The World Overcome
Honestly, God: Praying Our True Feelings
When God Gives Us What We Want