Writing a historical novel is a balancing act of the modern and the ancient, from current and past ethical boundaries to a balance of the literary styles of two different eras.
On the first topic, I have a friend, Albert A Bell, who writes ancient Roman mysteries, and his protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is a slave-owner. Part of Albert’s task is to include in Pliny the attitudes of a wealthy Roman toward those slaves, while still keeping him a sympathetic character to the reader. It’s a definite balancing act. I don’t know what Pliny really thought about his slaves or how he treated them but Albert keeps him distanced yet reasonably compassionate and makes it believable. I doubt many Roman slave-owners thought much about their slaves as people but to the modern mind it’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to a character who treats people as inferior. Modern readers, for the most part, want a protagonist they can see as a good guy, which sometimes blurs the line of historical accuracy.
In my novels, set in 1910s Detroit, many people with social status would have been raised with very definite opinions regarding people of color, the poor, and the ‘insane’ – which would have included gay people, who were considered sexual deviants. My protagonist, Will Anderson, was raised in that type of household, and when an openly (or as openly as was possible) gay man tries to befriend him, Will rebuffs him again and again. He accepts the man’s help only when he has exhausted all his alternatives. I felt like I was walking the line there. I wanted to include a historical perspective on homosexuality but I also wanted this character to be significant in the book. The only way I could do that was to box Will in enough that he had no choice. From there it felt right.
On the second topic, writing style has obviously changed a great deal over the years. Even though my books take place only a hundred years ago, if I wrote in the style of the early 20th century most readers would yawn and put down the book halfway through the first chapter. (That’s not strictly true. If I wrote a book in the style of the day no publisher would touch it, so no one would read it at all.)
Our goal as historical fiction writers needs to be to create the impression of the historical style. Our books are not written in the verbiage, syntax or particularly the style of the time period we write but are instead our approximation of that language – to create the feeling of authenticity to the reader while keeping the book moving along.
The most common method employed is to use loftier language for the well-to-do. With most historical novels set in the US, I tend to read with an English accent. There is a definite reality to that. Depending on time and place, it wasn’t unusual to hear educated Americans speaking much more like Brits.
However, poor people did not speak that way – in America or anywhere else. They used terrible grammar and had horrible vocabularies, and many of them swore like stevedores. (How’s that for a historical word?) I personally get suspicious when I’m reading a book in which the peasants speak like nobility. Okay, there probably were a few – somewhere – but the other millions of poor folks didn’t even know anyone who talked like that. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t read. Heck, they didn’t bathe. When survival is the rule of the day language tends to be left behind.
I imagine this is a somewhat contentious issue, so what do you think? Should historical writers strive for absolute historical accuracy or should they write in a way that readers will find more accessible? You’ve seen which side I come down on. How about you?
Got my all-time favorite email this morning. My goal is to write books that are, to use a "word" I sometimes see in reviews, unputdownable.
Toward the end of my books, I try to keep ratcheting up the tension, not giving the reader a place to jump off, where they can assume the protagonist will be okay until the next day. It's a fine line to walk. A writer can't just throw in cliffhanger after cliffhanger, because it will wear the reader down. Mix in a few teases with the cliffhangers, though, and you just might keep the reader going all night.
Here's the email:
"A pox on you, DE Johnson! Another school night up until 1:30am -- had to finish Det Breakdown -- and missed the Y this morning. If the Mr. mentions something about fat and lazy at least I can say I am well-read. OK, so now I am destitute. When will there be another? I want them to get married and somehow have children."
If my skin starts breaking out, I'll be worried. Otherwise I'll just enjoy the thought of another exhausted reader ...
There is still time to register for the Blood & Tea mystery writing conference in Ludington, MI on September 21 - 22. See the link here. This will be a very useful conference at an incredibly low price - only $150 if you register before the end of August!
What's better, there is going to be a very high faculty to student ratio, so you are sure to get individual attention. (And what's best of all, I'll be there!)
If you are a mystery/thriller/crime/suspense writer in Michigan or nearby, this will be a very worthwhile conference for you! And it doesn't hurt that it's in beautiful Ludington. Register now!
Sweet article in the Detroit News, with their "Suspenseful Summer" reads. In addition to recommending new books by Gillian Flynn, James Lee Burke, Alexander McCall Smith, and others, they included Detroit Breakdown! (Read the rest of the article at the URL below.) Here's what they said:
"Summer book lists usually proliferate when the lilacs are still in bloom, giving readers a chance to pile up books for the Fourth of July and early summer getaways. But for many of us, it's the dog days of summer when there is finally time to rack up some serious reading hours. . . . Right now, fans of the mystery/thriller genre have a bumper crop of new (and newer) books to consider. . . .
"Readers who like Caleb Carr-style historical mysteries only have a few weeks to wait for Michigan author D.E. Johnson's ("The Detroit Electric Scheme) latest, "Detroit Breakdown: A Mystery" (Minotaur Books), out in September. Set in Detroit in 1912, the mystery involves a series of "opera ghost" murders (the Phantom of the Opera figures heavily) at the Eloise Hospital, Wayne County's insane asylum. One such murder involves the cousin of a young Detroiter, Elizabeth Hume, whose fiance, Will, has himself committed to Eloise in order to investigate. Will is already mixed up with some gangsters by the name of Bernstein, and other historic figures are in the mix — Edsel Ford makes a brief appearance, giving Will a reference."
From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120731/ENT05/207310305#ixzz22IhdxO3V
Great news today! Publishers Weekly has given Detroit Breakdown a starred review (defined as "Outstanding in its genre").
Here's the review:
D.E. Johnson. Minotaur, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-00662-2
"Set in 1912, Johnson’s excellent third mystery featuring auto mechanic Will Anderson (after 2011’s Motor City Shakedown) effectively employs parallel first-person narratives to advance an investigation into a creepy murder.
Elizabeth Hume, an affluent woman with some skeletons in her closet, gets a late-night phone call that sends her and more-than-friend Will racing to Eloise Hospital, a sinister insane asylum in Wayne County, Mich. The anonymous caller has claimed that an inmate there, Robert Clarke, who’s a cousin of Elizabeth, has murdered a fellow patient and is threatening suicide.
Elizabeth deftly defuses the situation when she arrives, but can’t persuade those in charge of Robert’s innocence. To clear his name, Elizabeth and Will both go undercover at the hospital—she as a volunteer, he as an amnesiac admitted for treatment. The authorities discount reports of other victims and that “the Opera Ghost” (aka “the Phantom”) was responsible.
Johnson makes the most of the spooky setting. Agent: Alex Glass, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)"
On Thursday I had the most extraordinary experience. I spoke to about 400 students at Saginaw Swan Valley High School in an assembly, and then had about 50 attendees in a writing workshop on “point of view.” The fact that I survived with my pride intact might be the first clue that the school is something outside the ordinary, but there is so much more.
First of all, this school has a competitive writing team. No fooling.
But before I get to that, the assembly. I talked about following your dreams—to identify your passion, figure out a way to embrace that passion, and make it a key part of your life. So many people (like me) settle for trying to figure out how to make a living rather than making a life. After softening the audience up with a very inspirational video, I told them my story and gave them my advice for how they can make their lives what they want them to be. You could have heard a pin drop. The feedback I got afterwards is that the students took my story to heart.
My adult life is a pretty good cautionary tale. I drifted along in the current of life for thirty years, being miserable in the business world, while thinking I was a writer. I came very close to never finding out if I could really write or if it was just something that I was better at than most of the kids I went to school with. Through most of my life I had no motivation other than getting through the day. Finally I took charge of my life, took a big chance, and got what I’d wanted since I was a kid—I found out I was a writer, and better than that, an author.
This school treated me like a rock star! At Swan Valley (unlike most everywhere else), being an author is a big deal. The kids wanted to have their pictures taken with me. They fought over getting to escort me. And, best of all (and for the second time in the last two years), I had a high school student tell me I had changed her life. It doesn’t get much better than that.
On to what is different about their school, starting with the administration. I could not have been more impressed with Mat McRae, the principal, or Kay Wejrowski, the Library Media Specialist. They are passionate about literacy and writing, and it really shows. They run a variety of literacy programs, and, based on what I saw, the reading/writing culture must run all the way down to kindergarten.
In 2010 Swan Valley won a Citation of Excellence from the Library of Michigan. Last year, they were one of six winners nationally of the Follett Literacy Challenge. And, as I said, they have a competitive writing team.
Outside the context of our writing-challenged society, I would say that competing in writing is sort of missing the point. If we’re competing against anyone as writers, it should be against ourselves in our journey to become better at what we do. HOWEVER, inside the context, I think it’s an amazing idea. Schools need to find extraordinary ideas to help students embrace writing. It’s a big deal at Swan Valley that their writing team won last year’s conference championship in writing.
Writing … is a big deal. Who knew?
I'm a little over a week into the first rewrite of Detroit Breakdown, the book I'm working on for a Fall 2012 release, and I'm having a great deal of fun. An awful lot of writers tell me how much they hate rewriting. For that matter, I've heard a lot of them say they hate writing, which is really puzzling to me.
There's a podcast called the Nerdist Writers Series, which is a TV writers panel discussion about writing, with different writers week to week. I find it interesting to listen to, both for the writers' stories and to learn about TV writing. But I can't tell you how many of those people talk about how excruciatingly painful it is for them to write.
Reminds me of the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this."
The doctor says, "Then don't do that."
Which is what I would say to people who find writing painful.
But, anyway, rewriting - God help me, I enjoy it. For a first draft, you chase all the rabbits down their little holes, looking for the ones that will best contribute to the story. Along the way you pick up characters who are interesting and fun (or crazy or dangerous or stupid) who ultimately end up being unnecessary to the story.
Don't get me wrong. It's really fun when you're humming along on the first draft. At times the story seems to write itself, the characters come up with all these really cool lines, and you wake up early just to get at that computer. First drafts can be a blast.
Right up until you hit a wall. How am I going to get from here to there? Or why didn't I realize this character was going to have to do this thing that he wouldn't really do? Of course, the next day when the answer pops into your head, it's back to fun and games.
The rewrite is when you jettison all the extra baggage and keep only the stuff that best moves the story forward.
You discover you can consolidate scenes, that two things could be done more effectively in half as many pages. You figure out ways to give readers clues to the resolution of the story - and just as important - you figure out ways to draw the reader's attention away from that clue you just fed them, and pay attention to something else that's not going to help them solve the mystery. You make your characters consistent. You solve plot problems. You fix the book, changing it from a big sprawling mess to a tightly-woven, suspenseful roller-coaster ride.
And that's fun.
Booklist has chosen The Detroit Electric Scheme as one of The Top Ten First Crime novels of the year! (See the full list here: http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=4772921)
This has been a VERY GOOD WEEK!
Big News for me - St. Martin's has offered me another two-book contract! Will Anderson will have to survive his adventures for at least a few more years.
Books three and four will involve mental health in the early teens (think Will being committed to an asylum to try to find a killer) and women's suffrage, respectively. There were a lot of nasty things going on in asylums at this time, so I've got a lot of fodder for Will's trials and tribulations in that book. For the other, I've got politics and death threats to work with. The Michigan ballot for the 1912 presidential election contained a constitutional amendment to legalize the vote for women. The campaign was filled with dirty tricks and behind the scenes machinations, and ended with a recount, "lost" ballots, and a stolen election.
Both nice backdrops for mysteries, I think!
Motor City Shakedown is launching this September, book three will be published in fall 2012 and book four in fall 2013.
Okay, time to write some books!
Coming September 13th!
Book 2 in the Will Anderson series features Will and Elizabeth facing off with some of Detroit's early mobsters - the gangs of Vito Adamo and Tony Gianolla.
My favorite character in the book is Izzy Bernstein, the youngest of the brothers who eventually ran the Purple Gang. In the book he's a newsboy who I can see in this character at the left. (And I appreciate that he's holding up an ad for my book!)
My Izzy is a foul-mouthed little tough guy trying to keep up with his older - and tougher - brothers. I have no doubt it was a difficult task. The gang is thought to have been responsible for as many as 500 murders. (That's probably hyperbole, but they were definitely bad dudes.) Izzy, however, was the least criminally-inclined of the Bernsteins and spent much of his life in the "legit" world.