Saturday, October 20, 2012

Making The Past Come Alive In Fiction

            Without the past, neither the present nor future would have a foundation.  I grew up in a rambling Victorian house in one of Missouri’s oldest cities, a place where history is around almost every corner.  My grandparents were my hands on caregivers while my parents worked so their stories fired my imagination long before I came across Dr. Suess.  They discussed the past, often inspired by the local newspaper’s daily remember when column, over biscuits and coffee each morning.  And I listened as what would become my lifelong passion for history became reality.

            With such a background it’s not so surprising I had a dual major, Communication Arts, emphasis creative writing and history in college.  Or that once my writing career made the leap from freelancer to author I soon began writing some historical fiction.  Those who knew me at any stage of my education or life aren’t surprised at all.  My former history professors are delighted.  Most of those who earn a bachelor’s degree in history either teach or fail to utilize their knowledge.  I found another way to use mine.

            I’ve been complimented by both readers and reviewers at evoking a historical period.  It’s tall praise for me because I strive to bring the past to live in my stories until it almost lives, breathes, and walks off the page.  I want readers to feel they’ve experienced another decade or imagine what everyday life might’ve been like in the past.

            To do this, research is required.  When I begin to write any of my historical novels, I start with research.  I may begin with some of the wonderful reference books designed for writers which offer a thumb nail sketch into a period of time.  For both Guy’s Angel and In The Shadow of War, I utilized The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life From Prohibition to World War II (Marc McCutcheon, Writer’s Digest Books.)  But the book, useful and intriguing as it may be was just the beginning.  Since Guy’s Angel is set in my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri in 1925, I relied a great deal on my memories of my late grandparents’ stories.  For my paternal grandparents, the 1920’s were “their era” as young adults.  The neighborhood in the novel was once the cradle to several generations of my family and through their tales, it was almost as familiar to me in my imagined past as in my own reality.

            I also used back issues of the local newspaper, read accounts of the time to make sure my information about vintage aircraft and flying would be correct, researched World War I flyers because Guy Richter in the story was one, leafed through ads and catalogs of the time and more.  I made sure what my characters wear is true to the period and verified what they eat and drink would have been available.  Old photographs from my own family files, from various St. Joseph locations and the Library of Congress “American Memory” collection all provided vital facts and detail for the story.  I watched 1920’s silent movies and listened to music from the decade.  I read books popular at the time and cooked recipes from vintage cookbooks.  I go deep in creating the past because it matters to me.


            I did the same for the 1940’s in In The Shadow of War, set in the small town where I now live, once home to Camp Crowder better known to millions around the world as “Camp Swampy” thanks to Mort Walker and his cartoon strip, Beetle Bailey.  I did in my sweet historical family sagas, The Marriage Cure and What Fills The Heart from Astraea Press.  Those two, first two of more to come, focus on the earliest pioneers to the Ozarks. Even my novella,  Long Live The King evokes both an early Elvis and the 1950’s. My latest full length release – from Rebel Ink Press - Dust Bowl Dreams, is set in 1930’s western Oklahoma.

            One reason I spend so much time and am so meticulous about historical detail is nothing can jolt me from a story faster than reading something incorrect or out of period.  I may write from sweet to heat, from contemporary to historical, but readers who opt for one of my novels set in the past can be sure the facts are as correct as I can make them!



Life’s never easy for a good-hearted man who decides crime is the answer to his troubles.


No rain in the summer of 1933 is bad news for Oklahoma farmer Henry Mink. The local banker wants the mortgage on the farm paid and unless Henry comes up with the dough, his widowed mother and four young siblings won’t have a home.  Jobs are scarce so he decides to rob a bank.   His sweetheart, school teacher Mamie Logan, doesn’t like the idea and neither does Henry’s kid brother Eddie but Henry’s out of options.


He leaves home and robs a bank at nearby Ponca City. When he returns home, he pays off the mortgage but new troubles show up. Mamie is his greatest joy and they become engaged but by fall, Henry has no options left but to rob another bank.  If he can pull off one another big job, he figures he’ll be set until the hard times are over but few things in life go as planned.  His desperate efforts will either secure his future or destroy it forever.


If Henry’s family survives and Mamie’s love endures, he’ll need a miracle.


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Dust Bowl Dreams Excerpt:



            With any luck he’d hit the farm just after dinner time.  There’d be plenty of time for hugs and greetings, a chance for Mama to make over the groceries, and time to take the whole bunch to town for a hamburger out and maybe the picture show.  Henry would head over to Mamie’s and invite her along.  He spun daydreams about the moment he’d see his girl again and imagined what everyone would do and say when he showed up with full pockets.  It’d be like the prodigal son, he figured, but in reverse – they wouldn’t kill a fatted calf for him, but by God, he’d provide something similar.

            Sunday morning he’d be proud to escort his family to church and sit in a pew with Mamie at his side.  Come Monday he’d be at the bank when it opened and pay the remaining sum on the mortgage.   Imagining Richardson’s face when he delivered the cash gave him pleasure and he chuckled out loud.  Henry couldn’t recall when he’d been so happy, probably not since before his daddy died, the rain quit, and the economy went to hell in a hand basket.

            As he drove, he admired the wide blue sky sweeping from one horizon to the other like a giant bowl and the way the prairies stretched out in every direction.  He did his best to ignore the foreclosure signs tacked up on some farms, the dry clouds of dust wafting across the empty fields when the wind blew, and the sad eyed children hanging around broken gates at some farms.

            Until Henry rolled down the lane to his home, he’d forgotten how stark the farm looked.  What paint once covered the boards of the farmhouse vanished long ago under the relentless assault of Oklahoma weather and he noticed the barn seemed to lean left as if it might collapse into a heap.  Dobbin stood in the makeshift corral, head down as if he hadn’t been fed or wanted water.  He expected the kids to run outside when they heard the car, but no one came and when he parked in the bare yard, he heard nothing but the whir of the windmill, the grinding of the worn blades.

            Henry stepped out and called out, but no answer came. He reached into the car and honked the horn several times, sharp and loud.   Although he waited, Mama didn’t emerge from the back door drying her hands on her worn apron, Eddie didn’t bolt out of the barn, and the gals didn’t come from the shade at the far edges of the yard.   Unease crept into his pleasant mood and he wondered where his family might have gone.  Henry couldn’t figure out how they left either, not with the horse present and the car in his possession.

            He carried the wooden boxes of groceries into the house and left them on the kitchen table.  Henry removed his bandanas from the inside of his overall legs and reached up for the old Eight O’Clock coffee can Mama kept on a high shelf.   When there was money in the house, she stashed it there so he put some money into it.  The remainder he carried into the bedroom and stuck beneath the worn mattress.   He made sure his wallet had plenty and went outside.

            “Hello?” he shouted again. 

Even if they were down at the river, they should’ve heard the car horn.  He smoked a tailor made cigarette, the tobacco smooth and rich against his tongue.  He’d been certain something must be wrong, but he refused to believe it.  They’d gone off to visit Uncle Ed or something, he decided.  There’d be a reason and it wouldn’t be anything bad. When he finished the smoke, he decided he’d head over to the Logan farm.  Maybe Mamie would know where his folks were and he wanted to see her anyway.

            Before he could bring the Ford to a full stop, Mamie flew out of the house and ran toward him, black curls flying.  Her beauty smote him until he forgot everything else but Mamie.  Henry stopped and got out to meet her.  He swept her into his arms, marveling at the sweet line of her pink lips, the way her small snub nose wrinkled with joy, and how her eyes sparkled like morning dew.  

            “Henry, you came home, you’re back,” Mamie cried as she hugged him tight. 

He inhaled the sweet fragrance of some simple sachet powder she wore.  Her body against his evoked both a tenderness and a sensual interest so strong he couldn’t even put it into words.  All Henry knew was how much he desired her.   Her starched blue calico dress rustled against him, the full skirt sweeping against his legs and manhood.   He couldn’t have resisted if he tried, so he kissed her, tempted to pull the pins from her hair to set it free.

            Her mouth tasted sweet and full, more intoxicating than Muscat wine.  Sensation flooded his senses, a physical delight making every nerve ending in his body light up with electricity and emotional connection.  The heady mix flared up until he all but lost his head, kissing his girl until they both gasped for air.   When they broke apart, Mamie hugged him again and he put an arm around her shoulders as they strolled toward the house.  Maybe she’d have some fresh lemonade, Henry hoped, or maybe a tasty little biscuit or something.  He didn’t bother stopping for lunch and now his stomach ached with hunger.

            He’d meant to eat something at home because he figured Mama would have something around to eat even if it wasn’t any more than cold cornbread.  But he didn’t get to eat because no one’d been home and reminded, he turned to Mamie.

            “Say, honey, you wouldn’t happen to know where my folks went, would you?” he asked.

            Her brilliant smile wilted and some of the sparkle faded out of her eyes.  Anxiety replaced joy and Henry held his breath.   His first impression nailed it – something must be wrong, some awful thing must’ve happened.

            “I forgot you wouldn’t know,” Mamie said, her voice dropping lower the way people did when they delivered bad news.  He remembered the tone too well from when his daddy died back three years ago.

            “What is it?” he demanded. “What happened? Just tell me.”

            She looked down, eyelashes brushing her cheek.  “It’s Eddie.”

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