Thursday, April 16, 2015

Time After Time -- Writing in "Period"

This week's Writer Roundtable is another from the open call for ideas and topics. With many of the writers I know and love being period writers, this one really grabbed my attention when a reader suggested it. So keep those suggestions coming and we'll keep sending them to the roundtable for the peanut gallery to respond to.

Do you tend to write in a particular time period? If so, why are you drawn to it? If not, what keeps you popping around from time to time?

Robert Krog:
I don't gravitate to a particular historical time period but I do tend toward, when I'm not writing for a particular story call, to a setting with a generally ancient world feel to it. However, my work bounces around from settings that are ancient, to medieval, to modern, to futuristic, to indeterminate.

I started reading fantasy at an early age so ancient and medieval settings pop to mind very easily. I studied ancient history for years, so that setting edges out the fantasy one by a slim margin. But, I'm a fan of many genres and settings, so no one time period or setting predominates. Between that and writing to particular story calls I have pretty well eliminated the tendency to fall into a rut and write stories in just one such setting.  

Stephanie Osborn: The two periods in which I find myself writing most often are "near future" and Victorian era. I figured, when I started writing SF, that I'd do a lot of far future stuff, but I actually don't. See, I write hard SF, because scientist here. That means that the science in the story should at least be plausible, even if the extrapolation eventually proves incorrect. The farther ahead you go, the harder it is to do anything like a reasonable extrapolation of current cutting edge science, and have it turn out semi-realistic. I've played some games with advanced cultures contacting ours, and one novel I wrote with Travis S. Taylor jumps around in time a bit, but in general, if it isn't Victorian, it's pretty close to the modern day.

Since I'm fond of a) steampunk and b) Sherlock Holmes, I do a fair bit of writing in the late Victorian era too. (1880ish to around 1900) I think it's just a cool timeframe. Very elegant, a wide blend of prim-and-proper and ain't-got-no-clue-guv'nor from which to draw characters, and SO VERY much science and engineering going on! A significant chunk of our "modern" physics was being developed during this period, much of which was then confirmed in WWII's Manhattan Project and the space program of the 1960s. Just a fun time to dink around in.

Mark Bousquet: I'm drawn to the mid-to-late 19th century. I don't write there exclusively, but it's where Gunfighter Gothic is set and so I tend to come back to those characters and that universe. I like that time period and I like those characters, so there's always two reasons to jump back to the 1860s and muck around.

Bobby Nash: I'm all over the map with the time periods I've written. My preference is to do stories set in modern times so I can explore the world outside my window. Of course, as I also am a work-for-hire and tie-in author as well, I often find myself working on characters that are set in a specific time period by the publisher. This is especially true when it comes to writing pre-existing pulp characters. Many of these pulp characters and books have become period pieces, with the publishers preferring to keep them in the time frame that their original stories took place. That is, of course their right so when I write Domino Lady, The Spider, Green Hornet, Ghost Gal, or whichever pulp character is set in a specific time, that's the time period I place that story. Sometimes I think it would be fun to see what adventures Domino Lady found herself in during the WWII years. I suspect she would have made herself useful to the war effort.

After spending time in the past, it is nice to step back into present day and have characters use modern technology.

Walter Bosley: I prefer the post-Civil War 19th Century and early 20th Century up to World War 2. Society had not jettisoned elegance and technology was not so advanced as to make people lazy. There was still some mystery in and about the world. When I write in the present, it's either in a time travel story demonstrating the contrast of how today sucks, yesterday remains still more desirable, or tomorrow can't get here soon enough; or it's just for convenience but the story will still be a throwback in style.

Nancy Hansen: I do a lot of quasi-medieval stuff in my fantasy line, anything that is before gunpowder. But I'm really all over the place these days, with a buccaneer era (mid-late 1600s) novel series, a modern day PI series, and a children's book series that is contemporary and has magical otherworlds (including economies based on chocolate and genie GPS units) as well. I've done period pieces in short fiction. So I don't limit myself that strictly. The project has to interest me, and then I'll worry about how to set it in the proper time period.

Erwin K. Roberts: I've written the most in the so-called "Pulp Era" in the 1930's and '40's. But that's largely because I've used a lot of public domain characters from that timeframe. Dr. Watson and the Masked Rider in the wild west came fairly easy for me given the huge number of radio, TV, and movie westerns and northerns I absorbed while growing up.

I.A. Watson: I write a lot of Victorian-era stuff, but that's mainly because that's the era SHERLOCK HOLMES, CONSULTING DETECTIVE is set in. These days the Victorian period (which was pretty much the US Wild West period) has become a fictionalised world of its own, so it's challenging to keep it "real"; one has to remember that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't writing historic fiction, he was telling contemporary mystery tales. That era was the crucible of modern culture and civilisation. It's where the shadows of the past meet the coming modern world. It's the first time period where society and people's reactions are recognisably like our own, making it a great mirror through which to see ourselves and a lens by which to focus on what has changed.

I've also done four books of ROBIN HOOD stories, which are set in a fictional version of 12th century England, the middle of the mediaeval period of knights and castles. That time in England was a fierce mix of shifting and solidifying power bases, a hundred and twenty-five years after the brutal conquest and ethnic cleansing of the Saxons by the Norman invaders. The stratification of society, where 80% of the population are serfs, effectively slaves tied to a geographical location, the independent and authoritative church institution, and the overwhelming might of feudal overlords makes it a situation ideal to apply a laughing resistance-leader bandit to make everything change.

My most recent historical was a two volume ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON set in 4th century North Africa. The appeal there was that it was a time and especially a place I knew less about. It required me to learn something and make some creative choices. If there was an historical St George he was a Roman knight, of the later Roman legions that had moved on from the "traditional" footsoldiers with auxiliaries that we generally think of. He lived at a time when the empire was crumbling. Rome was marginalised. Byzantium or some other eastern city was the capital. The Empire formally recognised a state religion but was overrun by Christians, Mithraists, eastern mystery cultists and others. The formerly rich and fertile Libya was suffering from climate change and rebellion, gradually devolving from its former glories like the dustbowl towns of depression-era America. It seemed to me to be an interesting place to tell a dragon story.

I've done other historical works as well, in part because that's the period I was asked to use because that's when the characters were active -- Gideon Cain, Demon Hunter (18th century Europe), airman detective Richard Knight and the Zeppelin crew of Airship 27 (pre WW2), Semi-Dual (pre-great crash 1920s), Hawkeye the Mohican (Anglo-French conflict in colonial America), Sinbad (Caliphate-era Middle East), Armless O'Neill (1930s Congo), and some other stories due for my WOMEN OF MYTH anthology in August 2015. In many cases the setting is essential to the plot. In others the setting is essential to the mood. Some character4s can only exist in certain times and places.

Lee Houston Jr.: I tend to go to whatever time period the story dictates. If I'm drawn to any specific time period, I would say the 1960s/1970s because that's basically my childhood. Despite such serious issues like the multiple assassinations, the Vietnam war, Watergate, etc; there was also a lot of positive aspects of those 20 years like the original Woodstock Music Festival, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the bicentennial, etc; that I would either love to experience to begin with or relive.

Allan Gilbreath: I am a complete hack -- I write what is on the story request.

When you begin to write a period story, how to you begin? Research? Just diving in? Watching documentaries (don't laugh, I've done this for inspiration)?

Stephanie Osborn: Actually, the documentaries -- and sometimes even well-done period fiction films -- are very good ways to get a feel for the dialects and lingo. I was having trouble getting the hang of phrasing and speech pattern for a rural Englishman, and my editor tagged me onto a British film -- can't recall the name, but Ian McKellan was in it -- where the characters were basically the Brit version of rednecks. Half an hour in, I was writing the dialect like a champ.

But in general, yes, I dive head-first into the research. I may not have all of the history accurate in a given story, but by golly if it isn't, it's because I did it DELIBERATELY. (Yes, I have a steampunk novel I'm shopping, where I played fast and loose with a few historical events just for fun. I figure, I'm playing with an alternate timeline as it is, I can "adjust" a few things here and there for more excitement.) And there's a ton of stuff I study that sometimes amounts to only one or two words in the manuscript, but they're the PROPER terminology for the situation. I spend probably as much time researching history, culture, and such, as I do the science. Sometimes more, depending on the science -- for a Victorian setting, I already know most of the science and engineering.

Robert Krog: I generally dive in, if I am already somewhat familiar with the era in question, and research as necessary along the way. While I don't write anything with the intention that it be strict historical fiction, I do research so that the setting seems close enough to an actual historical setting, if you follow me. I am an historian, and one would suppose that I'd love to play around in accurate historical settings, but the truth is that I'm afraid I'll do that and get important or even minor details wrong. For that reason, I never try write something that is in an actual historical setting, just one that resembles a particular era.

I do research as much as time allows on the era my story resembles. I've read up on the intricacies of clockwork, on the making of iron into steel, on the process of dyeing wool, etc.. I don't mind documentaries, but I always double check the assertions of such shows. The state of documentary film making is often sketchy. Documentary film makers and their publicists frequently make unfounded assertions a central point in their work in order to attract viewers.

Where one hasn't had time to do rigorous research on every aspect of life in a historical setting, even for merely pseudohistorical stories such as mine, there is the marvelous trick of deliberately vague language. If you really don't know what the clothes looked like and don't have time before the deadline to research them, and they aren't vital to the plot anyway, avoid describing them as much as possible. If the clothes are essential, you'd better make the time.

Mark Bousquet: It's usually character based. I come up with a character and a scenario and then I research to make the world of my story a more lived-in place. There are times, however, when I'll be watching a movie or a documentary and think, "That would be perfect for Character X" or "I need a character to walk in that world." George Michael once said he knew he wanted to be a songwriter when he was listening to a song and realized he would have done one particular part of that song differently. I think there's a lot of truth in that, for me. I can't read/watch a Harry Potter story and not think how I would've told this whole universe from Hermione's perspective. So if I'm watching a documentary, part of me is definitely mining it for future story possibilities.

Bobby Nash: I usually have a story idea in my head when I start so I just dive into the writing, stopping to research as I need to as I go along. It's usually the minor details that I have to look up. A few that I've run across. When were binoculars invented? When did they become available to the public? Price of a payphone in 1936? When were seaplanes invented? What was the price of gas in 1940? How would a prostitute dress in 1935?

There are certain plots that technology has rendered ineffective. In the 60's or 70's, you could have a plot where you P.I.. character uncovers an assassination plot all the way across town. He cannot get hold of his police contact on the pay phone so he rushes to get there in time to stop the shooter. That's your plot. These days, cell phones, texting, heck, even social media have made that basic plot a lot more difficult to pull off without adding another layer to it that will keep you P.I. from making contact. And yes, using "no signal" is a cop out. You have to come up with something better than that. That's one of the challenges of writing to time periods, but it's a challenge that makes the writing better, I believe.

Erwin K. Roberts: Sometimes I just dive in, if I have have an idea hit me. But, at some point, I will do research to back up what I have written. I definitely do not want to do something insane, like putting the Grand Canyon in Idaho.

Huge numbers of experts and teachers tell the writer to "Write what you know." That works, sometimes. When I agreed to do a Masked Rider story for Airship-27 I immediately remembered my son and I stoppin g for a brief visit to Devil's Tower. Ka-Blam, I decided the Robin Hood Outlaw would end up having to climb the thing a decade or two before anybody really did.

Like Sean, I have pulled fiction ideas out of documentaries. I've also been known to search a date on-line so I can use real happenings as a backdrop to the stories I tell.

Walter Bosley: The beginning of each of my stories is usually driven by the character's motivational issue or angst -- or my own.

I'll usually set a story in a period I am familiar with and the research comes in on details for authenticity, i.e. clothes, accessories, guns, ladies underthings (I know I said clothes, but it's fun to say 'ladies underthings'), food, etc etc.

A favorite research tool of mine is finding various series of historical encyclopedias popular in the 70s and 80s, like Time-Life books because they're always full of old photos from the particular era that you don't always find online. And there's something authentic about looking it up in a book in a library. After that, I'll go online and watch films from the silent era so I can see people actually in that time and moving and breathing and still alive.

I find my personal desire to be there impacts my period writing.

Nancy Hansen:  Really depends on the project, but regardless, I do a  lot of research. If there is background material on a storyline, I'll go there first, and then branch out to what the area it takes place in would have looked like, whatever vehicles, weapons, and any other props that might delineate the era. I want to get the setting right, and kind of visualize it so that I can 'see' what people are doing and how they'd move around on my canvas. So I'll dive in with a visitors guide firmly in hand.

Right now I am up to my eyeballs in the second historical fiction pirate novel in a series I'm doing for Airship 27. Previous to starting the first one, my only knowledge of pirates was from Hollywood action flicks (including those ever-popular Disney movies). I spent more hours researching material for the first one than I did writing it, because I know virtually nothing about sailing or the Caribbean of that era, which is where the stories take place. While I was wading around in there, I learned a ton about possible cargoes and treasures, how world politics of the era affected colonial government, local weather patterns, medical knowledge, even how often colonial areas changed hands between countries. There's so much more to know, because I am only just getting to the point where I can recognize ships by their rig and sails, and can barely recall what to call the darn things. I still spend a lot of time looking stuff up, poring over my growing library of pirate and sailing ship info, and just trying to wrap my brain around how things worked. At night, before drifting off to sleep, I read, and my Kindle is filled with piratey adventures. I'm now quite fond of Rafael Sabatini, who sure could tell a rousing good tale. I can also tell when an author is fudging it, because I know just enough to understand what should be going on.

Anybody have any good historical pirate documentaries to recommend?

I.A. Watson: It depends upon the period. Victoriana is reasonably easy. I'm British. My grandmother who helped raise me was a Victorian. There's a wealth of literary and scholarly sources easily available, many of them in my library downstairs. I have maps of 19th century London and the world within reach of my writing chair.

The middle ages require more research, although mostly I prefer to go to primary sources rather than textbooks that interpret them. For example I'd prefer to read the actual treatise on law attributed to Henry II’s Justiciar Ranulf de Glanvill on raptio - illegal rape (as opposed to the legal kind by husband upon wife) which sets the compensation prices and outlines the enforcements to make the rapist marry his victim than wade through modern commentaries on it. That way I form my own impressions.

When I'm out of my "periods" entirely, as with the late Roman African story I mentioned earlier, I start with what primary sources I can get. Several Roman authors wrote travelogues and descriptions of the place. The Greeks who has founded Cyrene, capital of Libya, eight hundred years earlier had also described the place. The ruins of Cyrene, at modern Slontah, are a World Heritage Site - a very endangered one, partly lost just two years ago by local bulldozing for new housing and by war damage and looting - but there's good archaeological evidence and maps dating back from Victorian-era investigations. Working from the oldest sources up to the modern commentaries helps me form my own "artistic" choices as I go. I'm not looking to write a textbook. I'm selecting those elements of history I want to weave into my story. It has to be "true" like a painting is true, not like a photograph is.

Finally, to help me assimilate what I've learned I write myself little essays. I sometimes inflict these on other people, such as an authors message list. Some got collected in my non-fiction book WHERE STORIES DWELL. Others get hurled at the reader in the form of copious footnotes to satisfy those who want to know more than should be properly told inside a fictional narrative. I can't resist a footnote.

Lee Houston Jr.: Research is very important, and a topic of debate unto itself. Depending upon the when of the story, I usually go to a book or online references. Yet I've also found that the music, movies, and television of a specific period (at least from the late 1950s onward) can convey much needed information too; like the fashions and atmosphere of the day in question.

Allan Gilbreath: Research, research, and research -- no limit to research. Other works in the time frame, online, books, and even documentaries.