Awkward Realities

Happy July 4th!   I think I’ll risk a few fireworks by talking about some of the

Images of the Past

awkward topics one faces when writing historical fiction – even if that “history” isn’t that long passed.

Last week, I talked about some of the challenges – and interesting things – one encounters when writing about a long-ago historical period.  What is not as often discussed is how time periods closer to our own can blind side a writer.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction that would have been considered roughly “contemporary” when I was younger (and I’m not that old), but is now showing how quickly social attitudes can change.  Through the Comments to these Wanderings, I learned of the works of an English-born Australian writer named Arthur Upfield.  Our library had a few of his novels and I dove in.  (By the way, thanks to “heteromeles” who, I believe, made the first mention of Upfield’s works.)

Immediately, I was reminded by how casually acceptable racism was only a few generations ago.  True, Upfield chose to model his detective – Napoleon Bonaparte – after a half-aboriginal, half-white friend of his called Tracker Leon.  With such a character, racial issues were going to be in the forefront of any story.

However, little elements showed that this casual racial stereotyping went far beyond the black (as the aboriginals are called) versus white divide.  In The Lure of the Bush, a man who has just found an interesting trail is described as “walking in small circles with the earnest downward scrutiny of a Scotsman looking for a lost sixpence.”  Today that would be flagged as “negative stereotyping.”

Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to a bunch of novels by Agatha Christie.  (Audio books are my favorite way of making doing chores amusing.)  Many of these are from the same general time period as Upfield’s work.

From these you can see that even in “civilized” England, casual racism was rampant.  Mind you, Christie often demonstrates how short-sighted these views are, but the fact that Hercule Poirot – despite his credentials – is often dismissed as foolish simply because he is a “foreigner” shows how prevalent such ideas were.  Captain Hastings, Poirot’s good friend, is not immune to such short-sightedness.  To him, his admired associate is the exception to the accepted rule.

Upfield also demonstrated how our attitude toward animals has changed in the last few decades.  In The Lure of the Bush, a young man who is meant to be quite admirable rides a horse to death, stalks a large cod with the intent of spearing it, and beats a dingo to death with his stirrup iron.  Today such behavior would be a quick and easy way to characterize the man as, if not a villain, certainly a brute.

Another time, another place, you say, but such differences in attitude can trip up a writer who thinks that people even a short time ago are just like we are today.

Consider social habits.  A few months back, an on-line review site featured Roger Zelazny’s ten-volume Chronicles of Amber. In the article, the reviewer commented about how frequently the characters smoked.  I was amused, since the topic had come up when Roger and I were corresponding.  I later touched upon why Roger’s characters were invariably smokers in the biography I wrote.

Roger said: “My characters smoked in most of my early stories because whenever I was momentarily stuck in the course of a narrative I would light a cigarette.  My usual reaction was then to transfer it.  ‘Of course,’ I would think.  ‘He lit a cigarette.’” (letter, 29 May 1989)

That comment came back to me last week when I was reading The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.  The main character smokes a lot – and so does his girlfriend, and so do many of the other characters.  I found myself noticing this in a way that I’m certain none of the readers did in 1951, when the book was first published.  Would someone today writing a story set in 1951 remember that little detail, especially if they’d been born after smoking restrictions went into effect?

The more I think about it, the more I’m certain it’s those little details that would trip a writer up, rather than the larger issues such as racism or cruelty to animals or sexism.  What do you think would be missed in a novel set in, say, the latter part of the twentieth century or even today?  Is there any way writers can make sure they don’t miss something crucial?

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7 Responses to “Awkward Realities”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Excellent post once again. I think that some writers who try to write modern day novels (or movies) tend to have this happen: “Ahhh! No cell phone service! We are doomed!”

    The entire plot hinges on them having no cell service and this happens so much in books and movies that it’s totally cliche and ridiculous. A large part of the country has service and a better way should be found to trip up the characters than no cell service. Sorry, that’s a pet peeve of mine. Also, with the advent of smart phones you can find out nearly anything at any moment, and this should not be forgotten about. It’s hard to get totally lost in our modern era if you’ve got access to technology and know how to use it. Don’t forget that.

    Technology can’t solve all problems, but it can help a lot.

    As far as getting tripped up, I would say that a lot of writers make characters racially sensitive when they might not be at all. I’m shocked at what comes out of the mouth of my own mother’s mouth from time to time (she’s 79), but she’s a really good person, who has certain racist attitudes–which is fairly normal for a person of her upbringing.

    There’s always exceptions, but like you hinted at in your post, Jane, I often see writers trying to inject what I’ll call “modern ideas” (multiculturalism, tolerance, religious acceptance) into characters/books that they probably don’t have any business being in when you look at the time they are in and their educational background.

    Paul Genesse
    Editor of The Crimson Pact Series

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Happy 4th, Jane. I’m glad you got to read some of Upfield’s books!

    As for details that could trip someone up, I can think of a bunch right off, but I’ll stick to a couple you mentioned up top.

    Hunting is one example. Although I don’t hunt, I’ve worked with a number of very skilled, very ethical hunters, and I’m definitely pro-hunting for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. I bring this up as a disclaimer, because when I look at wildlands issues today in California, they tend to center around things like illegal marijuana farming, poaching, methamphetamines, and off-road vehicle use. There are places I won’t hike, simply because I’m don’t want to be packing a gun to enjoy the mountains. Contrast this with, say, the 80s and 90s, when pot farming was largely confined to the north coast, and I was comfortable going all over the place. Much of this has to do with various (and asinine) public policies, but how we use wildlands has changed radically over the last 150 years, with the rise of the park movement, environmentalism, the news sciences of ecology and conservation biology, increased urban development centered around cars, and the background issue of an exploding human population. Now we even have Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and the issue he calls Nature Deficit Disorder.

    Then there’s drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Talk about an incendiary mix of crazed public policy, rampaging capitalism (licit and illicit), and hidden public demand! Even a simple history of American attitudes towards drugs for the last 150 years is a tangled web. When was heroin popular? Or cocaine? Quaaludes? Bathtub gin? LSD? How has marijuana changed over the last 100 years? Or take these new “bath salts,” which seemed to be designed entirely to avoid drug laws, the effects on the users be damned. How we relate to drugs, which drugs are the designated demons, and so forth, all of it changes kaleidoscopically every few years.

    For one example, “mother’s little helper” has changed from barbiturates in the Rolling Stones’ song, to current moms swiping their kids’ adderall so they can be “supermom” (and why is their kid on adderall in the first place?). For another example, Sherlock Holmes was a bit avant-garde back when the stories were first published, because he injected cocaine. Then Holmes’ drug use became rather shameful (did Basil Rathbone ever inject?). Now we giggle, because Arthur Conan Doyle, even though he was a doctor, portrays cocaine as having the same effect as heroin. And when the BBC recast Sherlock in the 21st Century, he was trying to kick a cigarette habit, and that gives much the same effect as his use of cocaine to avoid boredom did in the 19th Century original. The dude needs something to occupy his mind, or he goes nuts.

    You’re absolutely right Jane: the devil is in the details. Fortunately, they’re a great way to hook stories into particular times.

  3. Peter Says:

    Another one to consider: shopping patterns. In “contemporary” novels of my youth, the characters would go downtown, and shop at a variety of different stores (and there’d be a potential complication if they happened to go on Sunday, when everything was closed, or needed to shop in the evening); in my late adolesence, they’d wander around inside a mall; today, they’d go to the big box/warehouse store in the exurbs, or buy online. A similar pattern applies to banking – do the characters have to line up in person during banking hours, or can they just hit a handy ATM?

  4. janelindskold Says:

    I’m fascinated that no one wanted to touch the “hot button” issues…

    I was thinking that clothing would also off a few detail challenges. You can find plenty of Fashion, but little things…

    Gloves. When I was a kid, an occasional effort was made to get me to wear gloves for formal events, but it rapidly died out. Hats also were dying out, for me first, then for women. So writing something then would need to include that transition.

    Shopping, banking, hunting, cell phones… It’s not easy to “world build” in our own immediate past.

    • Peter Says:

      Well on a lot of the hot-button issues – race, class, gender, religion, sexuality – people who don’t remember Stonewall, Selma, or the SDS first-hand are generally aware that social norms have changed, regardless of whether they see the changes as good or bad.

      Galoshes, though? Not as big a blip on the cultural radar.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Ah… But it’s interesting how a novel written now about “then” can make people very uncomfortable if it doesn’t fit our current norms.

        My friend Pati Nagle ran into this with her Civil War in the West novels when the Spanish residents of NM were called “Mex” or “Mexes,” as would have been typical at the time. The copy editor felt this might offend and wanted it changed. I ran into something similar in the “Breaking the Wall” novels when I wanted to use the term “Oriental” — even though it was completely appropriate for those using it.

        The modern tendency to impose our current sensibilities on the past is something both readers and writers should to be very aware of.

      • Peter Says:

        Oh, I absolutely agree this is something we need to be aware of, although I’m not sure I’d qualify this tendency as “modern” – you can see it in Sir Walter Scott, who pretty much invented the “modern historical novel” – and the same issues arises with older “contemporary” novels (consider the regular calls to censor Twain, or remove him from school curricula). I just doubt you would’ve run into the same concerns with less socially-charged differences.

        I was reading a near-future novella the other day, set 10 or 15 years from now, written….I’m not sure. 5 or 6 years or so ago, I suspect. One of the characters – a man – is married to another man. Okay, no problem, same sex marriage a hot button issue, but it’s already recognized in a lot of countries.. What really threw me out of the story? The characters were all using Palm Pilot-style PDAs, rather than smartphones or tablets. That threw me for as much of a loop as a US Civil War-era character eating a hot dog would.

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