Omnimystery News is delighted to welcome William Topek as our guest blogger. His first mystery, Shadow of a Distant Morning (ireadiwrite Publishing, November 2010 eBook, 978-1-926760-48-3), set in 1934 Kansas City, introduces private investigator Devlin Caine.
Today, William writes about "Bringing the Past to Life Without Killing Your Story." And he's also providing our readers with an opportunity to win a copy of his book. Visit Mystery Book Contests, click on the "William Topek: Shadow of a Distant Morning" contest link, enter your name, e-mail address, and this code (5367) for a chance to win! (One entry per person; contest ends 02/17/2011.)
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There's really only one rule to the art of storytelling: make the audience want to know what happens next. When writing fiction, naturally you should be concerned with such things as character development, story structure, pacing and plot. In the end, though, if the reader wants to keep going with your story, wants to know what happens next, it means you've already done your job addressing these things. A story must flow, and the key here is to keep from jarring the reader out of this flow with flat, dull characters, unbelievable plot points, incoherent writing, plodding description, or anything else that breaks the narrative. Readers will forgive a lot for a good story, but a good storyteller seeks rapt attention, not forgiveness.
Setting a story in the past adds an additional challenge to keeping the flow going. To bring a past era alive and make it relatable to a modern audience, you must authentically and accurately recreate that period. Nothing will jar a reader out of a story faster than a blatant anachronism. If your story includes a doctor in the 1950s who pauses to look at his digital watch, you've just slammed yourself down into the lowest ranks of amateurism. While in some cases only expert historians might catch the mistakes you make, you may be writing about a more recent past, known well by people alive today. And frankly, don't the more knowledgeable among us also deserve to enjoy an engaging, well-written story free of glaring errors?
I decided that for my first novel I wanted to write an old-style, private detective story, a throwback to the hard-boiled, noirish works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. An atmospheric narrative filled with complex characters and surprising, even shocking, revelations. The result was Shadow of a Distant Morning, a novel set in 1934 and featuring Devlin Caine, a WWI veteran and former Pinkerton's operative now working as a private detective in Kansas City. Along with all the usual labors involved in writing a novel, I had to do a great deal of research about the period. I chose 1934 at random. I knew I wanted a Thirties/Forties-era private eye, and figured that if I wanted to write more novels featuring that character (and I do), it might be better to start farther back. As it turned out, 1934 was a particularly eventful year for the world, for America, and for Kansas City.
The first step was to ask myself: what do I need to know about this period to write an authentic, convincing novel? The obvious answer was: everything I could. What local, national, and world events were going on at that time, things that everyday people were talking about? In what media were these events being reported? What technology was in use at that time? How did people dress and speak? Who were the celebrities of the period? What brand-name products were available then? How much did things cost in 1934? What well-known landmarks should be referenced? What were some of the more popular songs and movies of the day? What makes and models of cars were being driven? What was the political and economic climate like in Kansas City a few years into the Great Depression?
This is not an article on how to do research. Research is like writing in that there are as many individual approaches to it as there are researchers. Obviously, the single most helpful resource these days is the internet, and any writer should be supremely grateful to live in a time when such an incredibly powerful tool is available. I have a newfound respect for writers who did this kind of thing using only public libraries, telephones, and legwork (and manual typewriters, while we're at it). Some years ago I attended a lecture given by renowned fantasy author Ray Bradbury. He told us how he wrote his classic novel Fahrenheit 451: by feeding dimes into a coin-operated typewriter in the basement of a library, then taking breaks to head up to the stacks and locate classic literary works he wished to reference. I could have visited a dozen libraries while researching my novel, spent far more time with printed reference material, and still not uncovered as much useful, specific information as I found online.
Not that I relied exclusively on my own internet search skills. I had a friend assist me with general material from the period as well as specific odds and ends I asked for. He was able to provide advertising materials from the time, various historical tidbits, and the make and model of Devlin Caine's favored handgun. From eBay, I acquired a street map of 1934 Kansas City. I contacted a staff member at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (which had just opened the year before my novel takes place) and was able to learn of a specific exhibit being shown at the time. Having lived in the area years earlier, I arranged a return visit to Kansas City and spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon photographing various historical landmarks downtown. I decorated a bulletin board in my office with printed photos to inspire me – the buildings I'd photographed, automobiles mentioned in the novel, and two group photos: one of plainclothes detectives on the KC police force in 1934 and another of the Kansas City Monarchs, a regional baseball team from the Negro National League. While I usually prefer to write in a quiet environment, I sometimes listened to songs from that year that I'd purchased and downloaded from iTunes.
I don't think I've ever wanted to time travel so badly in my life. What I wouldn't have given for just one week in 1934 Kansas City. Sit in the diners, visit the nightclubs, walk the streets and observe how people dressed, spoke, and behaved. So I did the next best thing: I watched films from the period. I sat with a legal pad while viewing the classic 1931 gangster film, The Public Enemy with James Cagney, taking four pages of notes on speech patterns, slang expressions (Yes, people did say “What's up?” back then), technology, and anything else that caught my eye. I reread works from the period (Hammett, Chandler, and James M. Cain among them), keeping an eye toward the same details. One of my goals was to write a novel that actually could have been published in 1934. Also, I didn't want the protagonist looking back on the story as a memory from some future vantage point, desiring instead to give the story a stronger sense of immediacy. For these reasons, I was careful with the language. Nothing too explicit, and I avoided to the best of my ability using expressions that didn't exist back then (“blue-collar” and “for the birds” had to be dropped from the first draft).
Okay, so you have all this information, never enough but more than you should be able to use if you're any kind of researcher. How do you work it into your story? And how much is too much? As my novel is told in the first person, it was natural to have a lot of internal monologue, Caine's thoughts as he goes over the events of the day in his head. As a private detective, he's no stranger to doing research himself. He visits the library, reads the newspapers and magazines of the day, and listens to the radio (I was fortunate to find an article from an October 1934 issue of Time magazine, as well as an article about FDR's fireside chat given the day before the novel opens). And, of course, Caine interacts with other characters. A lot of authentic detail can be given in the natural context of conversations, interviews, etc.
I don't consider Shadow of a Distant Morning to fit the criteria of an historical novel. My protagonist does not participate in well-known, real-world events of the time, nor does he interact with actual historical figures. The events in the novel and the characters who populate it are entirely creations of my imagination. Nonetheless, I needed a sufficient amount of detail to make both the setting and the story accurate and believable. Many people outside Kansas City are unaware of the area's rich mob history, particularly in the Thirties. I was surprised to find that KC's head mobster was assassinated in the very year my story takes place (a fact I was able to work subtly into the plot). Indeed, 1934 was a banner year for public enemies in general. Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson were all gunned down that year (note to certain filmmakers: and in that order). At that time, Kansas City also had a political boss, one of the most powerful in the nation. This person was instrumental in starting Harry S Truman along a political path that eventually led him to the presidency.
Clearly, a novel should not read like a history thesis. A novel is a story, and in a story, well, things should happen. You don't need to put in every detail of your research, citing specific dates, listing every fact, giving the complete history of an event or person. While occasionally some information is helpful to establish a setting or plot device, or is just interesting stuff to know (people do appreciate learning new things), don't clog down the story in your eagerness to show off how much work you did. That's as bad as using long, cumbersome sentences and esoteric vocabulary just to show off your knowledge of English. Make the story flow naturally. How do you converse with your spouse, friends, or workmates about current events or movies or a new restaurant opening? The characters in your story should do so in the same way.
An interesting side-effect to delving into the past is that you'll begin to notice similarities to life in the present day. At first the differences will manifest themselves. Readers will connect the details you provide with their own images of similarly placed novels, films, and photographs. They'll begin to see the world at that time in which you're writing. But as the old adage says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Readers will begin to notice the ways in which your past setting reflects their modern world. In 1934, America was still reeling from the Great Depression. Ruthless business moguls and other speculators, unhindered by concepts of responsible use or limitation of any sort, essentially gutted the stock market, and the nation spiraled into an unprecedented economic collapse. A Democratic administration pushed for stricter regulation, establishing large-scale social programs and other emergency measures to keep things from getting worse, while the rich and powerful railed against this veering away from an entirely free market. Sound familiar? And, of course, people in any age work, eat, dream, fall in love, and generally try to make their lives better. Not too surprising that any age starts to feel familiar.
When used judiciously, historical detail will lend authenticity to your novel without slowing down or otherwise taking away from the story. There are several historical details in my novel that I don't expect most readers to notice, or to care about if they do. Kansas City's police force did install two-way radios in their squad cars in 1934. The World Series really did go all seven games that year, and the scores of individual games – where they appear in the novel – are reported accurately. The moon really was waning when Caine looked at it (I checked the NASA records). Apart from the fictitious Maxie's Diner and a bar named Lonnigan's, all other named locations used in the novel are, or were, real ones. Such details may add an extra level of verisimilitude for those in the know, but they won't detract from the action for those unfamiliar or uninterested.
Are there historical inaccuracies in my novel? Almost certainly; a lone researcher can only do so much, and a researcher is only as good as his or her sources. And in this age of instant communication, mistakes are identified and brought to the surface faster than ever. There are hordes of internet users whose very reason for living seems to be the gleeful finding and touting of errors. I don't believe a writer should be daunted by this. For one thing, such scrutiny helps keep us all honest, and reasonable readers will recognize and appreciate the difference between a particularly arcane slip and a writer who was too lazy to get basic facts straight. Apart from all that, there's something inherently flattering about having your work pored over with such attentiveness.
So, the basic formula for authentically recreating the past in a naturalistic way? Figure out what you need to know, find out more than you need to know, and apply such knowledge as necessary to establish and enrich both setting and story. And do so in as realistic and flowing a manner as possible. Like any other aspect of good writing, this is hard work. The result, however, will be a quality piece of fiction that is richly satisfying for both the writer and, hopefully, the reader.
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About Shadow of a Distant Morning: Kansas City, 1934. Devlin Caine, a WWI veteran and former Pinkerton’s operative, is hired by a wealthy industrialist to check out a potential business partner. The job is simple and the money good, but for Caine, it’s a short step from checking public records to being roughed up in a back alley. Clearly there are things the client neglected to mention, such as Caine’s predecessor on the job being found in the Missouri River with a slug in his chest.
When the man Caine is investigating turns up murdered as well, Caine finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between his client, a competing industrialist, and a local underworld boss — all after a coded notebook Caine found in the dead man’s hotel room. Desperate to unlock the mystery of the notebook (and to protect his client’s beautiful young daughter), Caine plays the three men against each other in an effort to buy time. He knows only one of the three rivals can win this battle, and backing the wrong side will cost lives, starting with his own.
Shadow of a Distant Morning is available in popular eBook formats including Kindle Edition and NookBook.
For a chance to win a copy of Shadow of a Distant Morning, courtesy of William Topek, visit Mystery Book Contests, click on the "William Topek: Shadow of a Distant Morning" contest link, enter your name, e-mail address, and this code (5367) for a chance to win! (One entry per person; contest ends 02/17/2011.)