Guest Post: Keeping It Old, Making It New by Carl R. Brush

Good morning all! Today, on Out of Control Characters, I'm hosting fellow Solstice Author, Carl R. Brush. He's going to be talking about one of my favorite subjects, how to successfully write historical fiction. Before we see what he has to say. let's learn a little more about Carl and his books!

Once upon a time . . . (as all the best stories begin) I taught school (English and Drama). Now I write, travel, direct community theater plays, and work as a Child Care Technician (all right, babysitter) for my grandkids.
I’ve had two musical dramas (authored book and lyrics, not the music) produced non-professionally.
My fiction has been published in on-line in a number of “e-zines” and journals.  (See the FLASH FICTION page).
My main current project is a trilogy of historical novels set in and around San Francisco.


Not again. It’s taken Andy Maxwell two years—1908-1910—to help his family recover from the vendetta that nearly killed his mother, burned their Sierra Nevada ranch house, and exhumed some long-buried family secrets—including the fact that his father was black. At last, Andy thinks, he can return to University of California and pursue his history doctorate in peace. Not so. First of all, it turns out they don’t want a miscegenated mongrel in the Ph.D. program. Just when he’s enlisted the eminent San Francisco journalist, Ambrose Bierce, to help him attack that problem, it turns out that marauder who started all the trouble in the first place didn’t stay Shanghaied. Michael Yellow Squirrel is back for another try at eliminating every last Maxwell on earth. So much for school. And then there’s the election. Reform gubernatorial candidate Hiram Johnson wants Andy to run for the California legislature and help foil the railroad barons. And then there are the women - the debutante beauty and the Arapaho princess…
And here's what you came here for today!
Well, well, here I am at KC Sprayberry’s blog, happy and honored to be here. Kathi asked me to say a few words about the process of writing historical fiction, so I’ve brought along (I’m afraid) more than a few. Once I get started talking about this, it’s hard to stop. Thanks a million for the opportunity to talk about my craft and my new book, and I hope the piece below provides some entertainment and insight.
Those of us who write historical fiction borrow trouble. We know going in that we’ll need to load up on old-timey factoids and screen out modern influences. But, Lord help us, we’re so addicted to our eras there’s no twelve-stepping our way out of them. Thus, we dive into a sea of Google and library searches looking for delicious tidbits to authenticate and spice up our tales.
I have ever loved the history of California, particularly of San Francisco. I could try to justify my fascination, I suppose, but the truth is, it’s just a given for me. Like my white hair, nothing much I can do about it.
For my The Maxwell Vendetta and its sequel, The Second Vendetta I chose turn-of-the century San Francisco and its (fairly) nearby Sierra Nevada partly because I could tie it in with my great-grandparents’ wagon train trip across the plains in 1864, whence they came to settle in Northern California.
Plus, the beginning of the 20th Century was such a yeasty time for the Golden State that I can’t imagine a more fertile ground for storytelling. You had the horse-and- buggy and telegraph competing with the new-fangled automobile and telephone; locomotives speeding around a countryside inhabited by a population of farmers and townsfolk which still included a fair measure of Civil War veterans. (You can meet a couple in The Maxwell Vendetta.); a battle between populists and corporate moguls; racists and misogynists oppressing minorities, and the minorities fighting back. Some of the themes sound modern, don’t they? But dress in them in period attire, and it’s like changing your perspective ninety degrees or so. Same, but different. Old, but fresh.
Once you’ve go your era, then, like every other writer, you need a story. Mine is the tale of Andy Maxwell and his struggle to keep one foot on the family’s Sierra ranch and the other in the city and the University of California’s halls of academe. All while trying to survive the onslaughts of a marauder seeking to avenge a wrong connected with that 1864 wagon train. A wrong Andy had nothing to do with.
Story in hand, you start writing, and you think you have a pretty good picture of the whole, but then come those pesky details? You want someone to use a safety pin. Did they exist? (Yes. Invented 1849) Adhesive tape? (1848) Condoms? (All the way back to the Egyptians).
Of course there’s the matter of vocabulary. Turns out, for example, that “thug” is okay, but “goon” is an anachronism. Or you want someone to take a ferry across the bay. What’s the fare? You could just skip it, but you become a victim of your own curiosity, and the less information you find, the more you’re compelled to search. Turns out a number of companies operated such boats until Southern Pacific undercut them all and monopolized the trade. Twenty-five cents was the fare during the years of my tale. I had to cross the bay myself from Oakland to the San Francisco library for that one.
A subcategory of vocabulary is diction. You can’t exactly reproduce archaic dialogue. Don’t want to anyhow. Too off-putting. But you do want a flavor. So you do little things like substitute “wish” for “want”; “essay” or “attempt” for “try” “must” for “have to”; “ever loved” for “always loved.”
Occasionally there’s a moment of panic when a key element of your story turns sour. In The Maxwell Vendetta, I have Andy traveling travelling over the Nevada desert hidden in the coal tender of a locomotive. The book was virtually finished when I visited a train museum and found out that during 1906-1908, locomotives switched from coal to oil and that the oil tank in the coal tender cars left no room for a guy to hide out. I finessed the matter by positing a transition period in which my protagonist was lucky to find a coal tender among the new-fangled oil cars, and the story escaped unscathed (I hope).
As for the rest of the job, the rules of good storytelling apply to us historical folks as much as they do in any other genre. And, in the end, no matter how scrupulous you are, you’re going to miss something, and someone’s going to find it. Readers of historical novels, like readers of detective fiction, love to catch their authors in a discrepancy of plot or fact or historical detail. So, of course, we indulge them. After all, perfection, like purity, isn’t all that much fun, is it?


Nancy Curteman said…
Great piece. I have an historical novel simmering on my back burner.
Penny's Tales said…
Great - I'm working on one of those historical romances. Now I'm scared!

Great post!
You're right about some historical readers. I have an uncle who had marked up an entire book with pencil markings of what the author missed. One was that the gun the hero used hadn't been invented yet. My hat off to you historical writers. I like to create my own little world or write in the present.
Marie Lavender said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie Lavender said…
Writing historical pieces is hard. I'm no expert, but I wrote and published one. Now, I'm working on the sequel. It's hard to fine-tune everything to get it to come together right.
I love the research, more than writing the book. Have to work on that part!

I found your blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe. Great to connect! I'm at I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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