Over the last month I’ve been trying to immerse myself a little deeper in books and movies that take place within the same general time period that my novel is set, using 1900-1935 as a wide range of years to pull from, as the events of my novel occur over 1918-1919. The idea here is to, for one, gain a better understanding of the traditions, practices, and standards of the historical narrative form. I believe this falls under the due diligence umbrella. The second reason for this immersion is to acquire something of an ear for the way people spoke at the time. It’s always struck me strange when characters speak so differently than we do in historical pieces—thinking mostly of characters with vocabulary dominated by slang who speak in nasally, affected tones—but how am I to know how people really spoke in, for example, 1920s Kansas City. My main hesitation then, during the drafting process, has been trusting my intuition against what I see is a practice of accentuating slang in historical forms to give it an “old-timey” feel. (It’s also important to note that typically only teenage or early twenties characters from lower economic classes use this thick slang. In It’s a Wonderful Life we only really see Ernie the cab driver speak in this affected way, certainly not Potter, or the grown version of George Bailey. Or in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, mostly it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character with the period accent, and the black gangsters to a degree, but certainly not the kidnapped Senator’s wife.)
One of the ways I’ve been trying to bridge that information/experience gap is by reading local newspapers from the area on the microfilm collections of Omaha libraries, mostly the Evening World-Herald at this point—an idea I picked up from Ron Hansen. Now, this is a somewhat formal medium, so the language used there isn’t exactly street, but I’m not sure that’s something I want anyway. (If I don’t use a lot of slang in my contemporary stories, why would I do so in my historical ones? Plus, my main character is a country boy from a rural immigrant community and probably wouldn’t have been exposed to too much popular culture anyway.) What I’ve really been struck by in doing this kind of research is how little things have changed in the past ninety years. Surprisingly, the most obvious evolution in tone and style has actually developed in the hard news stories, because the Public Pulse letters are eerily consistent in tone, language, style, and even content if you replaced Germans with Muslims and German-Americans with illegal immigrants. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the similarities were striking.
So there is a tension in the writing process between authenticity and expectation. From what I can tell, people in 1918 Omaha didn’t really speak too much differently than we do in 2009 Omaha—or they didn’t write much differently, at least. (Again, this is focused mostly on middle-class white communities who were/are engaged in civic, political, and cultural issues.) However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that my book’s audience would accept dialogue that doesn’t sound “old-timey.” More than likely a balance must be struck between what I decipher as authentic and what the tradition tells me an audience will expect. What that balance means exactly will probably have more to do with my own ear (going with what looks and sounds the best) then anything else in the end.
Dispatch from The Open City
“The United States National Banking Company had been the first place Jacob stopped in at, a white sandstone building with large columns in the heart of downtown. The bank lobby was a bustling place, so unlike the sleepy office of the Jackson Building & Loan, where the farm deed was held. There were several stations here that one must wait in line for in order to be served. Each of them had signs indicating their purpose, Drafts, Pass Books, Deposits, but Jacob didn’t know which one to approach. He’d never had to find a job before; he’d been a family farmer up until this point. The lobby was packed with impatient people—suit-and-tie men with derby hats, holding packets of receipts for inspection, gloved women in ankle-length skirts and fine, flowered hats, clutching small purses—and the stuffy enclosure was stifling with the odor their colognes and perfumes. The bank’s one large room was divided by the cashier’s cages, heavy brass frames that held glass plates, a slot at the counter where documents and money were exchanged. There were cages in the back too, these made of heavy iron wire, containing adding machines and quick-fingered clerks whose only job was to note figures from morning til night. Beyond them was the heavy steel door of the vault, tilted open as a matter of reassurance. In the middle of the lobby stood a pot belly stove with a smoke stack the reached to the top of the twenty foot ceiling. Jacob gravitated towards the stove because it was the only place where people weren’t clustered. The metal was cold against his skin, his hands brushing against it.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Alaska Quarterly Review for “The Current State of the Universe”; Mid-American Review for “These Things That Save Us”; Hunger Mountain for “Let Your Hair Hang Low”; The Collagist for “You Know That I Loved You”; Grasslimb for “From Indiana”
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. As important as the first stories seemed, the final few seemed just as trivial. The conceit of having each story involve Olive in some way really wore thin on me. I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but give me Winesburg, OH any day.
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor. Like the teenage and twenty-something characters who people his work, Taylor seems to be aware of what might be the limited shelf-life of these stories, but he risks irrelevance in the future because of the confidence that what he writes about has a broader significance. That despite the pop culture references and out-of-style fashion, there’s something vital simmering under the surface.
The Best American Comics 2009. My favorites include “Justin M. Damiano” by Daniel Clowes, “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” by Michael Kupperman, “The Company” by Matt Broersma, “Berlin” by Jason Lutes, “Jordan W. Lint” by Chris Ware, “Freaks” by Laura Park, “Antoinette” Koren Shadmi, “Glenn Ganges in Pulverize” by Kevin Huizenga, and “Papa” by Gilbert Hernandez. My absolute favorite was Art Spiegelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!!”
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne.
Link of the Week
Nathan Bransford Blog. A cool blog by a literary agent attempting to demystify the largely secret processes of book publishing. A very nice resource.