Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing Fiction Set in the Past

My most recent novel, The Little Rock Messenger, is set in 1956 in the American South.  The main character is a twelve year old boy who travels by Greyhound bus to visit his grandmother in Atlanta.  Now, it just so happens that I too was twelve years old in 1956 and lived in the South (Memphis), and although I think I was a pretty good observer of life around me in those days, it wasn't always easy to write in a way that properly captured the look, the sounds and the feel of that earlier time.  Added to that is the fact that my main character is African-American, and I am a white WASP.  So I decided that if I was going to tackle something historical, even if the setting was not too long ago, I needed to do some research as well as use my memory of how things were in those days.

As my story moved along, I encountered a lot of questions.  For instance, how was a Greyhound bus designed in 1956; did it have air conditioning?  How much was gasoline?  How much was a bottle of Coke or Nehi soft drink?  What did a call from a pay phone cost?  Did African-Americans sit in the back of a bus?  Oh-yes. Did bus stations in the South have separate waiting areas for blacks?  Were blacks always talked-down to, or were there instances of kindness and respect shown by whites?  Was there any fast-food, or only sit-down cafes?  What was the popular music on the radio?  As my story includes a suspenseful chase, I also needed to research law enforcement practices in 1956 - both local and federal. How did local cops interact with the FBI?  Where was the regional FBI field office that would be involved?  Atlanta.  Where was it located in Atlanta in 1956?  How many agents were there at that time?  And so forth.

I was writing a book set in 1956 from the perspective of someone living in 2009.  We live now in a time that is far removed from that earlier period, and I was forced to immerse myself in the environment of my characters.  They had to wear clothes, drive cars, take buses, make phone calls, eat food, watch TV and movies, and listen to music that was available in 1956.  They couldn't whip out a cell phone, jump on the internet or click-on the cable TV for a 24-hour news update.  They used what they had, and that was my challenge.  It was also a lot of fun.  Because I kept asking myself as I got deeper into this project, how well would I function living in those times with what I know now?  Could I adapt, or am I hopelessly imprisoned by my own place and time?  It's an interesting question to explore.  Because no matter how remote a place we travel to these days, it seems we're never very far away from a cell or SAT phone and other modern conveniences.  Going back to the rudimentary life of 1956 wouldn't exactly be like cave-dwelling in Afghanistan, but it probably would seem pretty darn close.   

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