How Much Detail Gets You to 1939?
All fiction is historical fiction, sooner or later. My own novel, The Berlin Fraternity, was written in the twenty zeroes, and begins almost ninety years earlier. The follow up that I am writing now, Red Sleeper, is set in 1956. In those books, I had to create – or recreate – believable historical periods for the characters to strive and suffer in.
But the book I wrote between those two, The Carrefour Crisis, was written in 2010 and 2011 – and is set in 2012. But I knew that the book would have a life long after the year in which it was set. When readers encountered it in 2022, or when readers not yet decanted from their natal tanks when I was doing the writing found it online in 2050, it would be historical fiction.
Our digital evernow makes period detail extremely easy. O Google, to what motion picture does my teenage protagonist take his girl in the summer of 1939? O Google, who manufactured the engines on a Junkers 52/3 transport plane? O Google, please give me four brands of canned soup available to survivors of the zombie outbreak of 2012!
But just because you can find it doesn’t mean you should use it – that’s the most important lesson of the internet. So how much period detail adds a vivid sense of place, and how much becomes a show-off and an annoyance?
Prioritize period details that seriously affect the character’s environment, and spend some words on explaining how. In 1939, for example, telephones were cabled down. Someone who went out to a restaurant was cut off from communication from home, unless someone knew where to go to find them, or where to send a written message by courier. The person at home might get in touch with the diner by telephoning the restaurant, but that assumes that they know which restaurant to telephone, and the telephone number at the restaurant, and that the restaurant staff is willing to alert the diner to the call. All of this could be essential to your plot, so explain it.
Second, be wary of the familiar. Writers have an instinct to include period details that everyone already knows – Adolf Hitler, The Wizard of Oz. But familiarity might make those things uninteresting. And if you emphasize brands and institutions that also exist in the present day, you risk undercutting the sense of place you are trying to build. This is a danger in writing a book set in the 1950s, as I am doing now. “Haigwood drove home, drinking a Coca-Cola in his Chevrolet, and found his kids watching Mickey Mouse on the TV in the living room”, is not a sentence that sets anything off from 2015.
So mix it up with period details that are unfamiliar, even jarring, to the modern reader. Mad Men reveled in this kind of thing. But do not mistake period detail for a story.
Story is drama, not detail. Story is what people do and fail to do, and how that makes them feel.
So historical events should be included as plot points, not lectures. Do not include the Nazi invasion of Poland because you think history is fun – include the Nazi invasion of Poland because it causes someone’s husband to be shipped to the front, or because it convinces your protagonist to start opposing Hitler’s regime. Make the history muscle instead of fat. Make it your plot.
About the Author:
Brian Downes is a novelist and contributor to Florida Geek Scene. He lives in Orlando, Florida. His new novel, The Carrefour Crisis, is launching at Gods & Monsters on International Drive on August 22nd at 10 PM.
At Florida Geek Scene: http://www.floridageekscene.com/contributors/
At Gods & Monsters: https://www.facebook.com/events/1617017921901302/