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Monday, June 19, 2017
The Pitfalls of Period Writing by Stuart R. West
My first book with Books We Love, Ghosts of Gannaway, was a sprawling pseudo-historical thriller, romance, and ghost story set during the depression in a small Kansas mining town. Never before had I tackled such an undertaking. I spent two months alone researching. Whew.
I swore I’d never do it again.
Yet here I am currently tackling another period piece for Books We Love. This time when I jumped into the Stuart R. West time machine, I only ventured as far back as 1965. It wasn’t nearly as tough to research as Ghosts, but this book, too, had its pitfalls and traps.
Again (repeat after me): Never again!
Why’d I set my current book in 1965? The story’s a nostalgic, small town mystery and ghost story. (I ain’t nothing’ if not ambitious). By definition, nostalgia always takes place in the past or is at least a remembrance of days gone by. And, personally, my favorite ghost stories always take place in the past. Much more resonance than, say, a haunted Smart Phone.
But there I go again, breaking my vow to myself by going all old timey.
Here are the biggest problems I have while writing period pieces:
Getting the lingo right is tough. In my 1965 set book, I have a character--a real hep cat--spouting such slang as, “Whoa, daddy-o, you’re out of your tree! Your old man’s squaresville, absolutely nowhere. Let’s percolate, beat feet, get to the nitty-gritty!” I know, right? It’s really easy to overkill once I dig into the slang of the time. Granted, the character in question is a mop-topped, dangerous, cool kid, but sometimes I need to rein it in. Just a smidge, daddy-o!
Speaking of overkill, sometimes research threatens to eat my tales alive. While investigating all kinds of topics for Ghosts of Gannaway, I learned more than I could ever possibly need to know about the depression, the way men and women spoke in the ‘30’s, what happened to the Midwest Native American tribes, what folks ate, ore mining, and lots more. Anyone wanna know about the hazards of brass carbide mining lamps? No? Me neither. (But I do.)
You should’ve seen the first draft of Ghosts of Gannaway. Be thankful you didn’t. I tried to shoehorn every bit of research (and I had pages and pages of teeny-tiny, hand-written notes) into the book. There was a twelve page dissertation in the middle of the narrative about how the white colonialists drove the Native-Americans out of their lands (thank God I came to my senses, and pretty much chucked the entire sequence).
I suppose my thoughts at the time were, “Hey, we’re talking history! And I spent a heckuva long time researching this stuff to the point of having mining nightmares, so everyone’s gonna enjoy the fruits of my labors!” But I saved you a dull history lesson.
Another blockade I’ve banged my head into is racial and sexual issues. Face it, our world’s attitudes have changed a lot regarding racial equality and sexual activity. We’ve all heard the derogatory and racist terms. Yet in these sensitive and politically correct times, you’re still gonna find a reader who’ll take umbrage over the racist epithets, even if they’re historically accurate. In Ghosts of Gannaway, I constantly questioned whether I should use accurate, yet highly insensitive name calling. I steered away from the Big No-No Word, but everything else was game. And even though I live in Kansas, no one’s been by to lynch me yet.
Finally…sex! The big taboo! Back in the day, of course, sex between consenting, loving adults only happened between spouses. But you know what? Hollywood would have us believe differently, so what’s good enough for Hollywood is good enough for me! Let the sex begin!
There you have it, daddy-o, my bag of hang-ups regarding gone, baby, gone period writing. (I need to put this hep 60’s lingo to use somewhere.)