Exploring Historical Fiction: one way to start writing
A lot of folks ask me, “You write historical fiction? How ever does somebody come up with an idea and do that?” “I have no idea,” I reply before explaining my own process:
While reporting for the Elgin Courier, I involved myself with the Elgin Depot Museum. Their collection contains a private detective’s report. The local Woman’s Century Club hired him to investigate bootlegging. This discovery got my creative juices flowing. Suddenly I found myself working on my first novel, Bloody Big Dry Blues. I decided to somehow base it on historical fact and set it in Central Texas a century ago.
Soon I realized that, for me, knowing what’s happening is of utmost importance, i.e. the historical narrative. So I began reading and categorizing every available Courier back issue from 1914-1919. The thing that strikes me most is how what they were experiencing and arguing about then? Is pretty much the same things we’re experiencing and arguing about today.
William Faulkner: “The past is not dead, it’s not even passed.”
My very entertaining unpublished novel’s plot weaves imagined characters and situations with fact. It tries to make complex historical predicaments accessible and relevant to our present day. A study in rhetoric, it focuses on how two propaganda campaigns overwhelmed their opposition. During this period, Prohibition and the European War drove the narrative. I set my novel’s historical background by creatively destroying editorials from opposing viewpoints. Then I wove that material into the fictional narrative via dialogue (a la Aristophanes). For concision’s sake, today we’ll focus on Prohibition.
Our historical narrative begins with the passage of the 16th Amendment. This authorized the federal government to tax incomes starting in 1914. No longer did it have to rely on alcohol taxes to generate operational funds. The approximately 50-year-old prohibition movement seized this opportunity to further their anti-alcohol cause. Soon the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) became the nation’s leading lobbying group. It had chapters across the country, including throughout Central Texas. They swamped all governmental levels with letters, telegrams and petitions.
In Bloody Big Dry Blues I use several characters to relay the Dry argument. One of them is Reverend V. Algernon Biggs, who says:
“Prohibition does away with the social drink, and that is what makes our drunkards of today. A drunk may scowl at his best friend as though he hated him, or he may speak roughly to a young girl, and you may be sure no man ever expected to be like that, when he took his first drink. If it’s taken for the sake of accommodating a friend, he’ll keep drinking because he thinks it’s smart. But finally he will only find himself approaching a habit he can’t conquer. That’s why the Bible teaches us to shun every appearance of evil – And surely this is an evil we must continue to wage war against, for the saloon is a great temptation, and we are only doing our Christian duty by taking away from the devil one of his most powerful tools!”
“Wets,” on the other hand, opined that morality can be neither legislated nor enforced.
One character in the novel who’s ticked off about the town being dry is I.C. Doolittle, who says:
“Any man must be considered a radical if he states that these millions of our ancestor Christians who accepted Christianity as it was then preached died and went straight to hell because they never heard of prohibition and had no chance to vote liquor out of the communities in which they lived! Men cannot be made moral or forced into temperance or whipped into religion, and I firmly believe infinite harm is being done to His teachings by those radical agitators in the hurtful criticisms they make on what I deem to be fine upstanding Christian men!”
As time goes by, Doolittle’s argument becomes more economic-oriented:
“Nary a once do they tell you how customers we formerly had aren’t seen in our streets anymore with their cotton and produce…Statistics, they prove that the six wettest precincts around show more per capita wealth than the six driest precincts hereabouts! And that comes straight to you according to District Judge Norman G. Kittrell of Waterloo hisself! One of the most learned judges in Texico! Before anyone listens to anyone about anything, they should make sure they’ve studied the question at all angles first.”
These anti-Prohibition arguments fell on deaf ears. By 1917 many communities as well as 26 of the 48 states had passed prohibition measures. Congress ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919 and Prohibition became US law in 1920. It was the first amendment to explicitly limit an individual’s personal liberty. Soon the Wet’s reasons for arguing against Prohibition proved correct. An even more disreputable establishment replaced the saloon. With the government no longer overseeing the manufacture of alcohol, people began consuming “rotgut.” There was a sharp uptick in crime. And, simply put, it doesn’t work.
Doesn’t that remind you of this country’s ongoing debate about legalizing Cannabis?
[bctt tweet=”History repeats itself. #historicalfiction #writingtips ” username=”OurWriteSide”]
In conclusion, Bloody Big Dry Blues weaves imagined characters and situations with fact. It tries to make complex historical predicaments accessible and relevant to our present day. Why? Because that’s what good historical fiction should do. Next month we’ll delve into WWI and illuminate “contested memories.” I believe using this concept can make good historical fiction great.