Exploring my historical fiction

detective with magnifying glass

For the past three months, I’ve been writing about writing for another blog. Together those three columns combine to form the main historical theme of Bloody Big Dry Blues.

William Faulkner: “The past is not dead, it’s not even passed.”

Exploring Historical Fiction: one way to start writing: My very entertaining unpublished manuscript’s plot weaves imagined characters and situations with fact. It tries to make complex historical predicaments accessible and relevant to our present day. A study in rhetoric, it focuses on how two propaganda campaigns overwhelmed their opposition. Between 1914-1919, Prohibition and the European War drove the narrative. I set my novel’s historical background by creatively destroying editorials from opposing viewpoints. Then I wove that material into the fictional narrative via dialogue. For concision’s sake, in this column we’ll focus on Prohibition.

Cover of Winsor McCay's "Temperance - or Prohibition"

                Cover of Winsor McCay’s “Temperance – or Prohibition

Walt Whitman: “At moments of social transition, people are often trying to see the past in order to move forward.  Weakly stimulated by the present, we compulsively return to the past, which has the effect of eclipsing the present, which makes us return to the past.”

Exploring Historical Fiction: contested memories and fresh starts: When looking back through our time-distorted cultural prisms, we either selectively remember or forget. Over time, that creates contested memories, wherein collective society forms misunderstandings. Those myths lead individuals to believe that whatever happened way back whenever was inevitable. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our historical narrative reconvenes in 1914, when Europe went to war with itself. President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. neutrality, proclaiming all citizens “must be impartial in thought as well as action.” But following historian Walter Karp’s first rule? Look at what they do, not what they say.

"The American War-Dog" by Oscar Cesare

“The American War-Dog” by Oscar Cesare (1916)

Robert Penn Warren: “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living constantly remake.”

Exploring Historical Fiction: marketing place: Despite its basis in historical fact, Bloody Big Dry Blues is a fictional construct and I’ve taken creative liberties. How? As an avid amateur historian, I’m fascinated by the Central Texas region. Thinking about its history tends to end up with me playing the “what if?” game. Read this if you’d like to see how the fictional place where my unpublished manuscript is set became “Christianville” and Texas became “Texico.”

stan-laurel-scratching-head

Plus this is something I picked up “Off the cutting room floor” and turned into a blog post.

Thanks for reading! And as always stay tuned for more!

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Off the cutting room floor

For the past two months I’ve been writing a column on writing for Our Write Side called “Exploring Historical Fiction.” While another one will be coming out early next month, a few things haven’t made it through my editorial process. Today I figured I’ll pick something up off the cutting room floor and use it as a post. And so here you go.

It’s a myth that WWI caused the US to enact Prohibition. When Wilson declared war, the Drys had already won two-third majorities in both the House and Senate, and 26 of the 48 states had already passed prohibition measures. However, the war did provide Drys an opportunity to unveil patriotically charged propaganda. This served as a death blow to the Wet movement. The question became, “Are you going to support the war effort by conserving valuable resources like food grains?” Or, better:

Source: Ohio Historical Society

                                                 Source: Ohio Historical Society

I’d rather not think about her, never mind talk about her but, now that I alas recall? Mozilla has a similar poster hanging on her wall. She owns a rooming house, and in this Bloody Big Dry Blues scene she’s laying down her law for our main character:

“No drinkers, going God knows where to spend a dollar or even more and for what? Whiskey. Every day! With no regard for anything or anyone else but himself and his whiskey! And where does that leave hardworking good citizens like me? Who have their expenses? The poorhouse, that’s right!…That’s why Prohibition makes happier homes and better husbands and better sons by providing a pure moral atmosphere in which to prepare for life!…They must not imagine that they do not have a duty, a patriotic duty to perform as well as those who have a home. Because it has been brought time and time again to my attention that the most smug complacent satisfied creature during these days of agony is those (drunkards) who dine in boarding houses. They don’t seem to think it an essential that they aid the country and the poor little boarding house lady in her struggling to stay above the deep water of the high costs of living. They seem to think why give up any food when we’re paying for it when that’s the wrong conception. Your landlady isn’t the enemy! Just because the sugar bowl’s on the table doesn’t mean you should consume eight pounds a month! And bread and milk and butter and meat and everything else in the like proportion! There isn’t any excuse in the world why you should stay out of the duty of saving and conserving when the boys of our land are still over there dedicating their lives to the cause of liberty!”

As always, I draw a lot of my dialogue from 1914-1919 Elgin Courier back issues that I find at the Elgin Depot Museum. And the roots of Mozilla’s rant are found in this article:

Elgin Courier, 2/21/18. pg. 5 (source: Elgin Depot Museum

Elgin Courier, 2/21/18. pg. 5 (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Stay tuned!

Bloody Big Dry Blues is an unpublished work of historical fiction. It is derived from original documents, anecdotal folklore and WWI Period journalism from Central Texas. Here is where I post things I drew inspiration from while writing it. Stay tuned! And when trying to get published today, alas social media matters. So please be liberal with your likes and shares!

poster14_edit24

Gossips milling around

This is picture of an Elgin crowd on Southside outside the now-defunct Carter & Sanders Store. Nobody knows why they are congregating. So I made something up!

Soon Christianville’s population starts departing their various abodes. Concerned citizens join fearful ones to form groups that converge with similar groups along Main Street. They form a large crowd that mills around the police station, gossiping in one incessant loop. Socioeconomic stratifications range from ladies and gents dressed gaily for their promenade to those just plain stumbling drunk. No matter who they are, everybody boasts first-hand knowledge of the juiciest tidbit. Some display reflexive judgment. Others are arguing exactly how this is an inevitable product of our amoral time.

Everything seems so innocent

I’m a big fan of using old maps and, obviously, pictures as writing prompts. Especially when I’m writing historical fiction. To orient readers in the Central Texas setting, I chose to begin this novel with a scene in Austin.

Austin in 1887 by Augustus Koch (source: birdseyeviews.org)

              Austin in 1887 by Augustus Koch (source: birdseyeviews.org)

A town bounded by a river and two creeks. High above Austin, one long sepia-toned panoramic view. Everything seems so innocent to you, how fresh and promising everything looks, from way up here . . . Zooming in color on that there railroad platform downtown. Through the oppressive heat humanity teems, emitting confusions of sounds and smells. From this sunbaked bustle our main character distinguishes himself by limping a bit. Of below average height and built ropy, he’s wearing outdated clothing originally tailored for a man with discriminating tastes. His chapeau and beard are becoming. Needless to say he’s quite handsome. Especially while relaying to a porter something bawdy about great big iron contraptions bound east and that mischievous twinkle enters his eyes.

Here is where that railroad depot was located, on the northeast corner of 3rd Street and Congress Avenue:

And this is a photograph revealing the fashions of the WWI period, in which Bloody Big Dry Blues is set:

Crowd gathered around an H&TC engine at the Austin Depot (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Crowd gathered around an H&TC engine at the Austin Depot (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Here’s hoping you have a very merry!

Surprising a Rich Old Goose

Lieutenant Freeborn’s in Christianville because his best friend, a journalist named Stan Manley, sent him a vague telegram requesting help. As someone whose first remembered book, a Damon Runyon collection, was read to him by his grandfather, I’ve always been fascinated with journalism and where old timey journalists worked. So at least one scene consisting of that had to be included. Thus they plan on meeting at Stan’s workplace (this being a work of fiction, of course I’m taking many liberties).

Elgin Courier staff shown in office on Depot Street(source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Elgin Courier staff shown in office on Depot Street (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Typewriter sounds; the smell of printing ink; a sign signifying The Christianville Clarion – and being the crack sleuth he’s been imagining himself, “Aha! The Christianville Clarion, I presume,” tickled by his own fancy, “StantheMan howthuheckahya!” barging inside with vaudevillian gusto, “Always better late than never! Ha-cha-cha-cha!

Surprising a rich old goose ripe for plucking caught mid-step holding three short glasses and one tall bottle. “What is the meaning of this intrusion!” He hides the fixings behind his back and, to a smattering of backroom mutters, sidles all but his bespectacled florid face momentarily from view. “This is no way to behave,” slamming the door behind him, “No way! Can’t you see this is a place of business? It’s not some pool hall I’m running here!” becoming most business-like, “Well, what is it?”

The Courier staff worked out of those offices until 1910, when a new building was built.

Today that building adjoins the police station and looks like this:100b1150

 

Downtown’s Everyday Hubbub

Downtown Elgin, Texas 1916 (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

Downtown Elgin, Texas 1916 (source: Elgin Depot Museum)

“Housewives rushing home from errands, husbands bent on getting home to a decent meal, neither lingering nor lollygagging – downtown’s everyday hubbub is a difficult obstacle course we must traverse. Despite being early evening now, the day’s still gaining a heat that blunts your senses.

“Passing open street-level lobbies containing easy chairs, passing shops advertising everything from summerwear apparel to convenient personal services, home-cured pork loins to live mules and pretty much everything in between. Suffering an organ ailment? Street hawkers proclaiming snake oil remedies for whatever ails you abound. Buggies and wagons and carts, clattering to and fro, the odd motorcar, navigating the hard-baked clay rutted roadway. Dust is everywhere. Barbecue smoke mingles with the equally redolent horseshit fumes wafting along this here crumbling sidewalk pavement our tipsy main character’s now stumbling over. He spots two flatbed motor carriages at the heels of mutinous mules being driven by popping whiplashes. He smirks before dodging some kids getting chased for stealing drugstore candy. Several pedestrians stop to render judgment about the decline of today’s youth. More would’ve, probably. But it’s too hot. And there isn’t any shade.

“You can almost taste that pent-up need for release disturbing this very oppressive atmosphere.”