Living Historical Fiction by Elinor Florence

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Elinor Florence lives in small town British Columbia. After a long and varied career in journalism, Elinor now writes historical fiction and has a passion for WWII. With Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day less than a week ago, it’s fitting to feature her latest novel Bird’s Eye View, set during WWII.

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Historical fiction doesn’t necessarily mean ancient history. The broadest definition of the genre includes any novel written at least fifty years after the events took place.

Fifty years ago we were living in 1969, so somewhat alarmingly, even fiction set in my high school years would fall into the historical category.

Since I began my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View just six decades after the Second World War ended, I was able to do “living research” — that is, I didn’t have to resort to dusty tomes in a library to find out what happened. I could simply ask the people who were there.

That, my friends, was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, I gathered colourful details of personal experience from people who lived through the war, either as participants or observers, and wove them into my novel for authenticity.

On the other hand, it meant that I was figuratively mopping the perspiration from my forehead with a hanky while writing, because I knew that every page would be scrutinized by real live people who knew what I was writing about!

Bird’s Eye View tells the story of a fictional Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force in the Second World War and becomes an aerial photographic interpreter in England, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Letters from her family and friends keep her in touch with the home front back in Canada.

It is the only novel ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform as the main character. To gather information, I interviewed many veterans, both male and female. My lifelong career as a journalist assisted greatly during this process. I included so much genuine historical detail that I call my novel fact-based fiction.

The combat stuff was fairly easy to garner, since much has been published about battles and military strategy (all of it written by men, I might add.) However, my novel isn’t a mere recitation of dry facts.

I wanted to bring the power of human emotion into my story. I interviewed male veterans for their feelings of fear, and grief, and homesickness, and their tremendous longing for the war to end. Many readers have told me that the book moved them to tears.

The research got more difficult when I turned to women in uniform. In spite of the fact that 50,000 Canadian women served during the war, very little has been written about them.

That’s not an exaggeration — I couldn’t even find an accurate description of a Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division uniform, let alone the training they received and the jobs they performed.

So I relied heavily on personal interviews, and it is here that my living research really bore fruit — not only for the basic information, but for the wonderful anecdotes that women told me.

For example, a Canadian air force veteran named Lou Marr who trained as a photographer told me that when the weather was hot, and the darkroom was sweltering, the girls would strip down to their undies while developing their photos because nobody could enter the darkroom as long as the red light over the door was turned on. That’s exactly the sort of detail that never found its way into the written record — the men didn’t even know it was happening!

Another example: a British air force veteran named Eileen Scott who worked at RAF Medmenham, the beautiful stone mansion in England that served as the headquarters for photo interpretation and the setting for my novel, told me that although pets were strictly forbidden, the girls had a secret cat who climbed up the wisteria vines late at night and scratched at their windows. Hence the cat’s name: Wisty.

These details and many others gleaned from oral history made their way into my novel — that the new female recruits drilled so long and hard that many stopped having their periods; that servicewomen often threw away their gas masks and used the containers as handbags; that women back home on the farm had trouble controlling the horses and cattle while the men were overseas.

My mother, who lived near an air training base in Saskatchewan as a teenager and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the home front, was extremely helpful. Almost every day I phoned her to ask questions like this: “What was a post office savings account?” or “Did you ever dance The Lambeth Walk?” In gratitude, I dedicated my novel to her.

Finally, I wove a poignant true life story into my novel. My mother was engaged during the war to a young airman from Tasmania named Maxwell Cassidy, who was accidentally killed while still training in Canada. He never saw home again, never even lived long enough to see combat overseas. His body still lies in a cemetery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a huge air training base during the war and my hometown.

Through the internet, I tracked down the Cassidy family in Australia and asked permission to use Max’s name in my novel. They were overjoyed to learn that my mother was still alive and remembered this fine young man with great fondness — living history, indeed.

And because I wanted their stories to be preserved, I have written the true accounts of Maxwell Cassidy, plus all the other male and female veterans I interviewed, on my website here: https://www.elinorflorence.com/blog/category/wartime-wednesdays/.

Some of these veterans are still alive. I’m so thankful that I was able to record their living history, and more importantly, for the opportunity to thank them in person for their contribution to the Allied victory.

Note: I have since written a second novel, Wildwood. It’s a contemporary novel with a strong vein of 100-year-old prairie pioneer history running throughout. For this novel, I wasn’t able to interview living pioneers but instead relied heavily on dozens of personal memoirs written by homesteaders.

Many thanks, Elinor. Stories about women serving during WWII are an important reminder of those whose wartime service we honour on Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day.

PS: I love your story about the Australian Cassidy family.

Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence ~~ Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic young woman living on a farm with her family in Saskatchewan. After Canada declares war against Germany in World War II, she joins the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter. Working with intelligence officers at RAF Medmenham in England, Rose spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass.

When her commanding officer, Gideon Fowler, sets his sights on Rose, both professionally and personally, her prospects look bright. But can he be trusted? As she becomes increasingly disillusioned by the destruction of war and Gideon’s affections, tragedy strikes, and Rose’s world falls apart.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Pasadena’s Infamous “Suicide Bridge” by Chip Jacobs

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Author and journalist Chip Jacobs grew up in northeast Pasadena. He’s written several non-fiction books and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Time, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and other well-known publications. Arroyo is his first novel.

Pasadena’s fabled Colorado Street Bridge consumed eleven thousand cubic yards of cement, each one weighing roughly four thousand pounds, when city fathers christened it in December 1913.

During construction of this historical novel, there were points when I felt like one of its hefty, Beaux-Arts columns were strapped around my solar plexus.

The structure still curving over the Arroyo Seco, you see, isn’t only an ode to bravura engineering of the Progressive Age, when steel-reinforced concrete heralded a modernization kick soon to remake cities, architecture and this futuristic concept known as freeways. The bridge rested in the hometown many of my ancestors have resided in since my maternal grandfather, Hollywood musician Lee Zahler, relocated here from New York’s Tin Pan Alley in the early 1920s.

Given that ongoing familial connection, and the edifice’s split personality as a noir-ish beauty emblematic of Pasadena’s grandeur and a well-known death zone for hopeless souls, writing a historical novel was a weight-bearing excursion in a minefield. Nobody calls the roadway that helped braid Los Angeles’ two great valleys together by its formal appellation. They call it “Suicide Bridge” because of the more than 150 people who’ve leapt to their deaths from its creamy-gray ledges.

Nonetheless, I’d been mesmerized by this bridge—arguably Pasadena’s foremost beauty queen, sorry Rose Princesses—since I was a partying, girl-crazy prep high school student. On the night I crumpled the back of my parent’s Pontiac Grand Safari by stupidly backing into a buddy’s car in the parking lot below her, I swear I could feel the queen staring down at me, as though she already knew we’d enjoying a literary rendezvous later.

Source: LA Times

It wasn’t a simple journey to her. All I knew, as a former journalist and non-fiction author, was that my maiden stab in fiction would somehow involve a quixotic dreamer and a rascally dog able to occasionally read his companion’s oft-distracted mind. The spark for that concept shared my last name, just not my identity. It was my big brother, Paul, who scolded me that I was squandering my unrelenting sarcasm and affection for irony and absurdity by genre jumping, from biography to environmental to true crime in the non-fiction universe. Go with your nature, he said, and your love of the pureness of dogs. What’s annoying at family get-togethers might appeal to certain readers.

Not long after, in the course of freelancing an unrelated topic, I stumbled across an afterthought mention in a Pasadena coffee-table-type book about a gruesome construction accident that struck the bridge near quitting time on August 1, 1913. Soon I was obsessed about how the bridge saved repeatedly by good-hearted preservationists, the bridge whose romantic sightlines prop up local art galleries and organizations had such tragic origins. It just goes to show: the best story is the one you never set out to write.

I started kicking up dirt like an unsupervised Labrador, resurrecting details in the microfiche cubbyholes at the Pasadena Central Library and the subterranean stacks at the Pasadena Museum of History. I downloaded old engineering stories that tested the tensile strength of my liberal-arts brain. What I discovered about the inception of this old gal was juicy—it’s own gas-lamp soap opera rampant with feuds, missed deadlines, intrigue, and scant justice for those responsible for a semi-collapsed arch that took a trio innocent men to their demises from more than a hundred feet in the air. The citizenry, back in a time of a lapdog journalism, knew precious little about the strife and secrets, including how the tycoons living in mansions on the Orange Grove Boulevard’s “Millionaire’s Row” influenced the bridge’s design.

A pilot light flicked on in me: this is the backdrop I coveted for my man-dog morality tale.

I probably bought Jeff Bezos a new blazer with the twenty-odd books about the city and era I purchased off Amazon. From them and other sources, I saw that turn-of-the-century Pasadena held a constellation of big names I could use: Teddy Roosevelt, muckraker Upton Sinclair, Renaissance Man Charles Fletcher, and Upton Sinclair Adolphus and Lillian Busch, whose magical gardens of terraced slopes, fairytale huts and winding paths were once crowned “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Looking back, I realize I’d collected essential ingredients for a historical novel: romance, parasol-twirling splendor, political trickery, and suppressed conflict surrounding a famous bridge infamous today for suicides and ghost.

But what I was missing could’ve filled a dozen concrete vats. In my conception, my characters were feebly drawn individuals in the thick of either dangerous or entertaining circumstances. My celebrities were gaudy showpieces who played no role in advancing or arresting my protagonist, his suffragette girlfriend or his precocious dog. The bridge itself had nothing to add – a stoic royal indifferent to the escapades created in her name.

Around the time I was about to start writing, my elderly father’s health nosedived, and I used his death as a pretext to delay the inevitable rolled-up sleeves grind. So, I gushed out an overwrought 30,000-word treatment instead of a first draft doomed to fail. When I finally produced a miserable second draft, my editor critiqued my book-in-progress as “original,” “fun” and nowhere ready for publication.

He was right. I couldn’t tackle such an important and uber-delicate subject with a tissue-thin storyline where events subsumed the characters’ journeys. And I’d be damned if I was going to make the Colorado Street Bridge’s association with suicide the centerpiece when the real story was the provenance of her dark alter-ego.

A gutless historical novel about my city’s most enigmatic creature: what was I thinking?

It was a return to basics. I buried my nose into writers who’d brought history in Technicolor brilliance: Pete Dexter (think Deadwood) and T.C. Boyle (Road to Wellville). I studied how they developed their heroes, black hats, and side characters within the realm of their time. I read John Irving’s latest, An Avenue of Mysteries, to decipher how he so effortlessly integrated magical realism into his engaging morality play.

Still, the writing wasn’t as simple as the inspiration I drew from Messrs Dexter, Boyle and Irving. It was perspiration time – no more Internet distractions, excuse making, or delusions my story would materialize, to quote John Lennon, on a flaming pie. I had to accept I’d fail in draft after painful draft, in storylines that tried to be all things to all people, in prioritizing clever phrasing over crisp exposition. And when the sheer tonnage of my ambition put my bone strength to the test, I gulped Diet Coke and reminded myself that my novel demanded to be about unique characters living fishbowl existences within little-known history.

For four months starting last Thanksgiving, I buckled down like I had on no other book, pushing myself to the brink (while paying for my previous posturing as a future novelist).  I made myself a ghost to my family. I forsook weekends, favorite Netflix shows, vacations, and the sun. I cut, edited and revised through flu-bugs and a trigger-finger caused by repeated use of the delete key.

By Easter, I’d trimmed twenty thousand words and, with the assistance of my patient editor and understanding publisher, created a storyline far more nuanced and magical than I ever dreamed I could.

Suddenly, the concrete felt a whole lot lighter. I hope I made Pasadena’s weighty queen proud.

Many thanks, Chip, and best wishes for Arroyo.

Arroyo by Chip Jacobs ~~ Set against two distinct epochs in the history of Pasadena, California, Arroyo tells the parallel stories of a young inventor and his clairvoyant dog in 1913 and 1993. In both lives, they are drawn to the landmark Colorado Street Bridge, or “Suicide Bridge,” as the locals call it, which suffered a lethal collapse during construction but still opened to fanfare in the early twentieth century automobile age. When the refurbished structure commemorates its 80th birthday, one of the planet’s best known small towns is virtually unrecognizable from its romanticized, and somewhat invented, past.

Wrought with warmth and wit, Jacobs’ debut novel digs into Pasadena’s most mysterious structure and the city itself. In their exploits around what was then America’s highest, longest roadway, Nick Chance and his impish mutt interact with some of the big personalities from the Progressive Age, including Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Charles Fletcher Lummis, and Lilly and Adolphus Busch, whose gardens were once tabbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” They cavort and often sow chaos at Cawston Ostrich Farm, the Mount Lowe Railway, the Hotel Green and even the Doo Dah Parade. But it’s the secrets and turmoil around the concrete arches over the Arroyo Seco, and what it means for Nick’s destiny, that propels this story of fable versus fact.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The People of Our Past by George Dovel

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George Dovel was one of the writers I met at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. He’s the author of The Geometry of Vengeance, a novel that according to E.M. Powell “brings the violence and superstitions of the medieval world vividly to life.” Welcome, George.

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The People of Our Past

Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”

If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.

After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history is compelled to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?

And this was a problem?

Moving most of a millennium even further back in time, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.

And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.

In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.

Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.

Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?

It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.

They are in us; we are of them

The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.

There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to today. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.

Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction

The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.

What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?

And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.

The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling is surely one of the reasons historical fiction is endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.

The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp; the quotation from Barry Unsworth is from a speech given at the Key West Literary Seminar.

Many thanks for this illuminating post, George. Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction is why so many readers love the genre.

The Geometry of Vengeance by George Dovel ~~ Vital Moysett has spent half his life burying the tragic mistakes and deadly secrets of his youth, but in an instant he learns that even being the most celebrated cathedral architect in 13th-century France and a favorite of Louis IX is not enough to protect him from his enemies’ rage.

When his latest design suffers an inexplicable collapse, the terrified locals believe the devil himself pulled the daring vaults down. But Vital sees evil of a very human kind—and the threat of even greater destruction to come.

His frantic search to identify the next target turns into a maddening series of philosophical riddles and strangely personal attacks motivated by knowledge of his childhood that no one still alive could possibly have. With the help of his unusual wife and the famed encylopedist Vincent of Beauvais, he follows his tormentors to the glorious cathedral at Chartres, knowing he is stepping right into their trap.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.