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.
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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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