The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Pivoting 180 and Looking Backwards: Writing Historical Fiction

Today, we are visiting with the wonderful Monte Dutton. If you missed his earlier article on writing sports themes in your plot go HERE. Now we're going to pivot 180 degrees and look backwards in time.

Fiona - 
So Monte, I've read your books that have a sports theme perhaps riff is better word. I was surprised to know that your newest manuscript is a step in a different direct. How did this new story call to you? Is it a complete change of genre?

Monte - 
Let's see. Let me try to remember how Cowboys Come Home came about. I'm a fan of Larry McMurtry. One of my favorites of his novels is Leaving Cheyenne, which is a 20th-century western. Cowboys Come Home has little to do with it, though it's set not too far away. I came up with the idea of writing the adventures of a couple war heroes returning to Texas after World War II. I'm fond of "closing of a man's frontiers" story. 

The story is based in a part of Texas with which I have some similarity. I first started this because I was encouraged to write a western. I first rejected it, but then I happened to take a long driving trip shortly afterwards, and I kind of daydreamed this story. I wrote a few chapters, and the potential publisher wasn't interested. I think it was looking for a more orthodox western. In other words, I think my story lacked sufficient sagebrush and tumbleweed. So I abandoned it, but the story was on my mind, and I put enough pieces of it together in my mind that I went back to it when my current crime novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, was going into the editing-proofreading-dickering-back-and-forth stage.

Fiona - 
Have you been to Texas?

Monte -
Yes. Many times. A part of my family settled in central Texas. I have a close friend in the town on which my Janus, Texas, is based. I spent a lot of time in Texas researching a non-fiction book called True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed. Each year I emcee a town charity event in that town. I traveled to the DFW area for NASCAR races during the two decades I spent writing about auto racing for a living. As a boy, I went to livestock sales, rodeos and horse shows out there. The culture and heritage of Texas is prominent in me, even though I am a South Carolinian.

Fiona - 
And the tug about WWII?

Monte - 
I gradually became a war buff over the years. I majored in history (and political science) in college. I discovered that, no matter how much one reads, it's no substitute for looking at the lay of the land. First, I started going to Civil War battlefields. Lots of them are near NASCAR venues. Then I got curious about the American Revolution. Then I became interested in World War II. I haven't walked those battlefields, but I've done a lot of reading over the past, oh, five years. Cowboys Come Home begins at Peleliu in the Pacific, but the scene moves quickly to post-war Texas, where Ennis Middlebrooks and Harry Byerly come home hoping for peace but things don't work out that way.

Fiona -
I have an undergraduate degree in history degree; but to be honest, the thought of writing a historic fiction is daunting, especially when people from that era are around and someone could say, "Hey Gramps, is this right?" Did you feel brave starting the journey? What were some of your concerns?

Monte - 

I guess the difficulties are both big and little. I spent a lot of time as a boy talking with my father's uncle, who was stationed in the Pacific during the war. Imagination is involved, too. The book has a lot to do with the relief of war's sacrifice, both at home and among the soldiers (the major characters were Marines). There's an element of post-war corruption and profiteering. The folks back home are tired of rationing and repression. The soldiers are tired of military discipline. A certain desire to go wild hangs in the air. A lot of this involves me trying to put myself in their places. The little things are so much easier to research with the Internet at my disposal. I look up the various models of cars, the brands of beer popular and available, the history of roads and when a dam was built. The real town adapted in the story had a large training camp during the war, and I put some effort into what really went on. The corruption involved in parceling out that land is a major catalyst to the story. I'm not trying to conform with real history, but I'm trying to make a story that is plausible.

Fiona - 
What surprised you the most about the process of researching your book. And what road maps can you give other writers?

Monte -
This is my second trip back in time. My second novel, The Intangibles, was set in the South during the turbulent sixties. Though I wasn't as old as the characters there, I was alive and had many memories to draw upon. This is a greater leap. 

  • I'd start out trying to gain a broad overview of the time. For instance, in the past few years, I've read biographies of FDR, Churchill, and MacArthur. They're not characters in my novel, but their stories gave me a feel for life in that time. 
  • The next stage is to apply and envision the mood of the time. I have to feel like I know the characters so that I can have a firm grasp of what each would do in the pertinent circumstances.
  • Study the language of the time. 
  • Try to talk the way people talked. Watch old movies. Use words like "swell" and "scram" and cliches of the time. 

I just got my first one-star review of Forgive Us Our Trespasses. The reason was that the reader didn't like the foul language. I got it from overhearing the kids of today and monitoring their social media and the like. I don't feel comfortable trying to censor and tone down. I doubt many will quibble with the language of Cowboys Come Home. These characters are harsh in other ways. They don't waste time on their Twitter feeds. They waste time drinking liquor and chasing women. They brought home both the audacity and the fatalism of war. Live life to the fullest, for tomorrow may be your last!

Fiona - 
You mentioned physically visiting places - that's huge. I am a big proponent of experiential research. What are some resources that you've used and can recommend?

Monte - 
I'm a photographic person. To write this, I needed to know what it's like to sit on a horse and chat with your buddy while pondering the sunset. I needed to know what the banks of the Red River looked like. I needed to know what it was like to live in a house with a party line. I needed to look up the harsh weather conditions of the 1946 Cotton Bowl, which was played in ice and snow to a scoreless tie between LSU and Arkansas. I needed to know what high school cheerleaders wore in 1946. You can't recreate what it was like in 1946, but you can imagine by visiting places that haven't changed all that much. The Fort Worth Stockyards. An old Texas town with buildings that have been around since that time. An old school building, preserved for history. A lot of these experiences were just stored away and, what do you know? A need for them arose.

Fiona -
Can you talk about your genre change?


I feel as if, as a novelist, I'm flitting about, moving from one genre to another. Part of it is to find a niche. Another is that I'm not suited by nature to stay in one compartment. Writing a novel is both damned hard and damned rewarding. To do it effectively, which is my goal, I have to be absolutely in love with my story and characters. I love my characters. Writing about Riley Mansfield, the pot smoking songwriter of The Audacity of Dope, was fun. So were Chance Benford, the converted football coach of Crazy of Natural Causes, and Denny Frawley, the murderous politician of Forgive Us Our Trespassess. I get tired of all of them, though, by the time the tale is told. My curiosity takes me to something else. Ennis and Harry aren't much like anyone I've written about previously. I've really enjoyed getting to know them.

You can stay in touch with Monte through his
Web Page and Twitter.

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you 
helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

1 comment:

  1. Monte, thanks for posting. Many writers work in different genres and it's a great way to develop your craft and voice.