Please welcome author Allison Pittman to the blog this afternoon. Allison’s novel,
All for a Song,
features a young woman’s struggles in a time known for great social and cultural change, the Roaring Twenties.
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Today, Allison will speak on the importance of careful research and the lessons she’s learned as a writer of historical fiction. (P.S. For a chance to WIN a free copy of
All for a Song
, continue reading!)
I’m haunted by a wristwatch. Five books ago, somewhere in the first chapter of
a secondary character checks his watch. The problem, as a well-intentioned Amazon reviewer informed the world, is that wristwatches at the time of the book’s setting were rare. Too rare for my struggling, working class journalist to have one. The reviewer gave the book two stars, and claimed to have continued reading while on high alert for further historical inaccuracies. I was tempted to comment on the review with a few bible verses about the importance of showing grace, but instead took it to my own heart. If I’m going to invite my readers into my stories, it’s my responsibility to nail the details of time and place.
That’s the burden of the historical author, and it hits on two levels. Some things are easy to research, thanks to the writer’s gift of the internet. I’ve taken virtual tours of historic cathedrals and army posts without leaving my living room. I’ve downloaded letters and journals and newspaper articles. I’ve browsed through catalogues, family photo albums—all within the frame of my computer screen. But I’ve traveled, too, visiting restored historic buildings and towns, including a private tour of Brigham Young’s home.
I try to create layers in the verisimilitude of my stories. There’s the obvious stuff of fashion and transportation. Petticoats, bustles, buns and wagons and horses and such. That’s where my wristwatch fell through the cracks. Didn’t look it up, didn’t verify. Oddly enough, for that same book, I spent a few hours counting stitches on a pre-twentieth-century baseball. But, I digress… As important as those physical, tangible details are, they aren’t what make for compelling historical fiction. The hard work comes into creating the intangible essence of the time. No matter how well a writer describes the Victorian ball gown of a well-bred Boston socialite, the character will fall apart if she descends a winding staircase and says, “Hey,” to the assembled party. Or if she makes a mental note of something. Or if her name is Jennifer. Or if she’s really focused on finding success in her career.
Writing historicals, for me, means harboring a respect for the time period, and working within its societal outlook and attitude. The best resources are those primary ones—journals of ordinary people speak the cadence and vocabulary of the time. Texts of sermons speak from long-lost pulpits with messages strikingly different from what we hear in our modern pews. Scripture doesn’t change, the Gospel remains the same, but the emphasis and delivery show a century of separation. It’s hard sometimes to step away from Vacation Bible School vocabulary when you’re trying to fulfill the spiritual journey of a character. It’s so much easier to think about a character “asking Jesus into her heart,” but that very phrase puts an unmistakable 20
century twist on the salvation experience. I love to comb through the contemporary hymns of the time. What were they saying? What concepts of faith are they painting with their lyrics? How are they portraying Jesus? For me, the Jesus of the music needs to be the Jesus at the heart of my story.
Dorothy Lynn Dunbar, my heroine in
All for a Song
is, in fact, a song writer living in this fabulous time of sweeping revivals and the cutting edge technology of radio bringing new fire to evangelism. The social and moral upheaval of the Jazz Age gave new meaning to the idea that following Jesus, obeying his word, was a choice—something counterintuitive to the mores of the time. Her lyrics about feeling restless and unsatisfied speak not only to her own story, but to the narrative of women at the time. Another song speaks to the evangelistic urgency in the wake of super-evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. It’s a call for fervent repentance, a singular focus on the cross and the blood, and what that meant for
Directed and dramatic. Faith, here, isn’t played out through the relational hue we’re more comfortable with today. It’s a matter of obedience and commitment.
I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those warm, fuzzy writers. I don’t like to see a soft focus on my history, and everything from the smallest detail to the largest, sweeping movement plays a part in keeping my vision sharp enough to allow my readers to see the story through my characters’ eyes.
It’s funny how the most minute detail can shatter the narrative world built within a fictional tale. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here with us today, Allison!
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