Monthly Archives: December 2012

The perils of writing about the near past

You’ve set your story in the near past, a time period with which you are familiar because you grew up in those decades or had relatives who lived through them. Research should be a breeze, right? After all, how hard can it be to get the time period of your own life right? You have memories. And you have internet research at your fingertips, a wealth of information just awaiting your mouse click.

But, beware. The near past as a story setting is a minefield. Step out of line, and verisimilitude explodes, throwing the reader out of your narrative.

You’d think that writing about the near past would be easier, though, than setting tales in faraway times. Easy-to-access research and memory both provide ample material for the meticulous writer of near-past stories. But there’s the rub. Almost too  much is available on the near past, making it difficult for the careful writer to find small details that make a story resonate with truth. And sometimes, we make assumptions about certain aspects of life in the near past that turn out not to be true, had we bothered to look them up.

A few examples: don’t assume that because you grew up watching certain television shows that your characters can watch them…whenever. Back in the days before syndication, TV programs aired in specific time slots. Reruns aired in those slots, too. It took decades for many shows to reach the hamster wheel of syndication, available at all hours and days.

A man wouldn't "zip" his pants in a story set before the 1940s.

A man wouldn’t “zip” his pants in a story set before the 1940s.

Don’t assume, either, that a movie released in a particular year was available the month in which your story is set. Singin in the Rain came out in 1952, but that doesn’t mean the characters in your story could go see it in January of that year, or even in August. It was released, according to IMDB, in U.S. movie theaters in April of that year.

Don’t assume, either, that modern dress was completely modernized at the time of your tale, just because the outfits bear a resemblance to what we wear now. A famous bestseller of the past few years set in the 1930s mentioned a man zipping his pants. But men’s trousers had button flies even up until the 1940s. When zippers replaced buttons, tailors advertised they’d take out the newfangled gadget, replacing them with the old-fashioned buttons, for men who didn’t like this latest sartorial trend.

Think twice, too, about icons of the past. I once began a tale set in the early 1950s, describing one of my characters as having Marilyn Monroe looks. Only problem? I needed to find out specifically when Monroe became well-known during that period. Yes, Monroe’s star had started to soar in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until at least 1953 that she became the sex symbol we all now think of when her name is mentioned. Would she have been hot enough at the early part of that decade to use as a descriptor? I wasn’t sure. I took the reference out.

I also once set a story whose denouement was on December 7, 1941. It took a great deal of time to find out how most Americans learned the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, what radio show was on at the time, when it was interrupted.  Oh, there was a huge amount of information on the attack, but it was all too broad-brush for my story. I needed to know how this news would have reached a particular family in a particular city.

The point is that you might know the macro details of those times, but getting the tick-tock of a momentous day’s hours right is a lot tougher.

The writer who sets a story in the near past has an entire population of possible nitpickers who also lived through those times or know folks who did. And, while there aren’t any Tudorites still living to wag their fingers at the author who gets an arcane fact wrong in a story set during Henry’s reign, armchair critics abound who don’t need a history degree to point out your mistakes in a near-past setting.

So, when writing about the near past, it’s best to treat it as if it were a foreign time long ago. Don’t completely trust your memory, and do look up details whenever possible.

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Fruitcake, balls and tornadoes

Like Ahab hunting Moby Dick, I’ve been on an obsessive search–to find those big, fat, shiny ornaments you hang on deciduous trees outside. Finally, I hit the target. I mean Target, the store. That’s where I found them. And I’ve hung them outside as my own clenched-fist protest against the winter sky–its shortening days and longer nights:

christmas 2012 big ornaments

Speaking of things Christmasy, let’s take a break from making fruitcake jokes to actually make…fruitcake. Or, rather, fruitcake bar cookies. Believe it or not, until I was in my twenties, I’d never tasted fruitcake. But after I married, I discovered that my mother-in-law not only liked it, she made batches of it every Christmas, all soaked in apple brandy, to send as gifts to friends and relatives. Her recipe was very good–a dark, dense cake filled with candied citron, orange peel, cherries and nuts and raisins, too. When she lived in Maryland, she’d go to Lexington market to find these candied treasures.

She is gone now, and I can’t recreate her fruitcake success. Her recipe was for many cakes–I tried one year to make only one loaf by doing lots of math (long division, even!) with the recipe. Me + lots of math = not-so-good-fruitcake.

Not to worry — she also left us a recipe for fruitcake bar cookies, a lighter batter but still moist and sweet. So if you happen to be among the few, the happy few, who enjoy fruitcake, here’s the recipe:

EDITH STERNBERG’S FRUITCAKE BARS

Cream together:

  • 1/2 cup butter (one stick)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsns milk

Sift:

  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tspn cinnamon
  • (dash of nutmeg if desired)

Mix dry and wet ingredients. Batter is VERY thick.

Add: 1/2 cup raisins, 1/4 cup candied cherries, 1/4 cup candied orange peel, 1/4 cup pineapple — whatever candied fruits you like and, really, as many of them as you like.

Spread with spoon (or your clean fingers!) in a greased 9 x 13 pan and bake at 350 for 1/2 hour. Cool and cut into bars.

Fruitcake cookie

Fruitcake cookie

I saved the recipe in my new recipe book. The one I made. Yes, I did.

Finally, a note about a previous post…

I wrote about my recent trip to Kansas where I met long-time writer pals for the very first time after corresponding with them for more than ten years. In looking through my photos of that trip, I came across this one, from the Kansas City Airport:

ks tornado shelter sign

Hmm….I guess they have tornadoes out there sometimes. Would make a great setting for a fantasy tale….

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