Get It Right, and Get It Written

I’ve written two novels that are historical mysteries. One of them is unpublished, and I’ll probably never get around to revising it, because it has problems. The other, While Caesar Sang of Hercules, I think worked pretty well. You can find it on Amazon; all you have to do is spell my name right and it will pop right up.

Historical research is a bitch.

Right now I’m contemplating, with some misgivings, the idea of writing a mystery (possibly a series) set in Los Angeles in 1933. Prowling on the Internet, you can find an enormous amount of historical material on what life was like in 1933 — but finding the details you crave may be terrifyingly difficult.

Let’s suppose a scene in your story is set on a Tuesday evening in the living room of a couple of your characters. They’re listening to the radio, of course, because there were no television stations to speak of in 1933. But what broadcasts specifically would they have tuned in on? Burns & Allen? Amos ‘n’ Andy? Did those shows air on Tuesdays? At what time? Would a wild guess be good enough, or do you need to nail it down through research?

The nearer to the present day your story takes place, the more danger there is that readers will notice if you blow it. I did a lot of research while writing While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and I’m fairly confident that nobody other than a professional historian would spot any errors I may have made about Rome in the days of Nero. I first drafted that book in the early years of the Internet, so my research consisted of driving up the hill to Stanford to buy books at the campus bookstore.

The book that I don’t think can be salvaged was set in Chicago in 1885. I did a lot of research on Chicago too, but the first crime in the story took place in a lumber town in Wisconsin, and I got the Wisconsin lumber industry totally, irretrievably wrong. I’ve never been able to figure out how to start the story in a more realistic version of Wisconsin. There were other problems in that book too, so I’ll have to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Most readers probably don’t care much about historical accuracy. Throw in a gramophone and a flapper, and they’ll believe it’s 1933. And for a writer who is struggling to make a living, spending weeks or months on research may not be cost-effective. But I don’t have to make a living at it, and I want to get it right.

Plus, the research is fun! For my Chicago book I managed to find and download an actual roster of the police force in Chicago in 1885, complete with the names and short biographical descriptions of the officers. About a third of them were first-generation Irish. Not only that, but in Chicago in 1885 there was actually a “colored detective” on the force. Who would have assumed the department was integrated, even to that extent, in the 19th century?

Modern readers will bring their own assumptions to the table, of course, and that can be a danger for the writer. My Rome book deals very largely with slavery, and slavery is a sensitive topic. In ancient Rome, slavery was an essential part of the economy — but it wasn’t based on race! Modern readers can easily make bad assumptions or have bad emotional reactions when they find out some of the main characters not only are slaves but have none of the modern ideas about slavery. The Romans knew that the abuse of slaves was both common and evil, you bet they knew it — but in ancient Rome nobody ever advocated freeing the slaves. Their entire economy and social structure would have collapsed. Abolition is a purely modern concept.

Race relations were a vital, and uncomfortable, part of the U.S. culture in 1933. This morning I drafted a brief scene in which my protagonist, a young white woman, is having a casual conversation with a black elevator operator. I’m pretty sure it’s accurate and realistic as to the language the young man would have used, but that scene scares me, because I’ll bet you five dollars someone is going to read it and think I’m the most awful kind of racist for having put those words in the character’s mouth.

Another character in the story is the landlady in the boarding house where my protagonist lives, and you can darn well bet that landlady wasn’t going to rent to any Japs or kikes or spics or niggers.

Were you triggered by that? If so, I think you now understand the problem for the writer. I would never use those words in my own voice (although I just did exactly that, for rhetorical effect). But in dialog? Yes. Or in a first-person narrative by a speaker from that era, yes. Those words are how the landlady (who would have been born in about 1880) would have said it. They’re her words, not mine.

I can write around it by having my narrator say, “She used a couple of colorful terms that I’m not going to repeat.” But that’s cowardly. That’s not good writing, it’s kiss-ass writing.

Today, in our allegedly more enlightened culture, the writer of any sort of historical fiction is on the horns of a dilemma. When it comes to sensitive topics such as homosexuality and race relations, if you write it accurately you’re liable to offend people. Far too many people don’t want to know how it actually was (or, for that matter, how it actually is). What they want is for you to gently massage their feelings. If you fail to convince them that you share their view of right and wrong — not in nuts-and-bolts detail, which I probably do, but in the broad-brush feel-good manner that is all they’re capable of understanding — you’re in deep trouble.

Fortunately, I don’t have to try to make a living at it.

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