Looking back on the theme of transported in time and place

For the last year or so, I’ve invited many authors to describe how they do the work of transporting readers in time and place. Today I’m looking back on  some of those posts.

Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard on writing Temptation Rag – “A novel’s setting is not just something physical; it is intrinsically tied to the deeper meanings of a story.”

Stephanie Thornton on writing American Princess – “One of my favorite distractions while writing is researching exactly what life would have been like for my characters. For turn-of-the-century America, that often meant looking up menus and digging through grainy black-and-white pictures in online archives so I could add verisimilitude to every scene.”

Fiona Veitch Smith on writing The Cairo Brief – “Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process – I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period … for my latest book, The Cairo Brief, I signed up for a six-week online course in antiquities theft, run by Glasgow University through Future Learn.”

JP Robinson on writing In the Shadow of Your Wings – “I typically take about two days to research names that were popular in the era I’m writing about before naming my characters.”

Nicola Cornick on writing The Phantom Tree – “I’ve never been able to paint but I visualise the process of creating my imaginary world as a picture in which layer upon layer of detail is added, from the frame that surrounds it to the tiniest figure in the corner.”

Sue Ingalls Finan on writing The Cards Don’t Lie – “Free women of color in New Orleans in the early 1800s were often involved in placages, or left-handed marriages with wealthy white men. Their mothers, thanks to their own placage benefactors, sponsored grand balls to arrange permanent financial settlements for their daughters.”

Arthur Hittner on writing Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse – Research for a non-fiction book prompted Hittner’s fiction. He “traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum … Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.”

Harald Johnson on writing New York 1609 – Johnson made an amazing discovery “It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.”

M.K. Tod on writing Unravelled and the power of a photo: “Suddenly, there it was: a red Tonneau with just the right blend of style and uniqueness. Not only was it quirky but it fit my notion of the woman who originally owned it – a fiercely independent woman who’d never married but had had many relationships, particularly with one or two of the impressionist painters of the time.”

Sophie Schiller on writing Island on Fireduring a visit to Musée Volcanologique “On the walls are various photographs of the city when it was known as the ‘Paris of the West Indies’. The pictures reveal a town full of French colonial grace, carriages crowding the cobblestone streets, rum barrels lining the waterfront, planters in panama hats, and barefoot market women carrying baskets on their heads. Interspersed among these photographs are artifacts, including broken china, a crushed pistol, melted scissors, charred spaghetti, stacks of drinking glasses fused into misshapen columns, and a human skull reportedly from the prison.”

Elizabeth St. John drew inspiration from visits the Tower of London for her novels The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided – “What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window– just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.”

Glen Ebisch on writing Dearest David which is a novel about Henry David Thoreau – “A fairly high level of historical accuracy is necessary in order to convince the reader that he or she is actually living in that time. In addition, the author must try to recapture the concerns, the issues, and the view of life that was prevalent for people living then.”

Carol Bodensteiner on writing Simple Truth, which is a contemporary novel – Carol writes that place is as complex as a human being. “In addition to the town itself, the other most significant location in the story is the poultry packing plant … The work that goes on in packing plants may be difficult for some people to stomach. Yet it is important to know the place to understand why people choose to work there. In the plant, as in the town, the situation is complex, made more so by the diversity of countries, languages, religions, and cultures represented.”

Dana Stabenow on writing Silk and Song – “One of the most delightful discoveries during my research was The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days, a daily diary which features illustrations from illuminated manuscripts current to the time in which I wrote featuring women…working. Yes, they are sweeping and spinning and weaving and cooking. They are also selling and painting and and laying brick for city walls and defending their castles crossbow in hand.”

Jeffrey K. Walker on writing None of Us the Same – Jeffrey focuses on finding authentic voices “Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities … I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period.”

Some serendipity, many personal visits to the places of their novels, much deep digging into history and reading a wide range of non-fiction sources. All to serve the purpose of writing stories that transport readers in time and place. I’m grateful to these authors and many other who contributed to the series.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left 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.

A WRITER’S JOURNEY INTO AN ARTIST’S WORLD

Arthur Hittner and his wife are longtime collectors of American art of the Depression era. To share his passion for the topic he’s written an intriguing novel ARTIST, SOLDIER, LOVER, MUSE set in the New York City art world of the late Thirties.

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A large wooden crate arrived on my doorstep on a winter morning in early 2006.  Inside was the painting Eventide, a 1936 work by the artist Harold J. Rabinovitz (1915-44), a poignant depiction of a crouching young mother in a rose-colored dress clutching her naked infant, the child looking out the open doorway at the approaching figure of his father, a lunch pail in his hand, an expression of exhaustion on his face.  As a collector of American paintings executed during the Great Depression, this 1936 work was irresistible, though I’d never before heard of the artist.  That so talented a painter could have gone unnoticed for much of the seven decades since Eventide’screation mystified me—and motivated me.

Years later, I self-published a brief biography and catalogue raisonne, At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz (The Rabinovitz Project, 2014; rev. ed., 2017).  I’d traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of his nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum. Many were brilliant works, very much the product of the times in which he painted: a blind beggar in a subway car, his hand turned upward in supplication; a jobless man on a curb, his face etched with dejection and hopelessness; an old woman, clad in rags, selling pretzels outside a subway station. Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.

Not surprisingly, no market exists for a biography of a long-forgotten artist, however talented. Except for the Frick Art Reference Library and the Yale University Library (where Rabinovitz obtained his degree), I could count the proud possessors of the fruits of my labor on two hands.

But no matter.  I wrote that book out of a compulsion to discover the story behind my painting. Yet I learned much more: I’d become immersed in another time and place—the New York City art world of the late Thirties, a metropolis teeming with struggling artists, many surviving on meager paychecks from government-sponsored artist support programs. At some point I had an epiphany. I realized that I could share this world with a wider swath of readers by turning to historical fiction.

Inspired by the life I’d just documented, I created my own young artist, Henry J. Kapler, placing him in the heart of the world I’d uncovered in my research. Buoyed by further research and honed by an endless succession of drafts, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (Apple Ridge Fine Arts Press, December, 2017) was ready for publication.

Henry J. Kapler is not Harold Rabinovitz, although their lives share a number of salient facts, a common timeline, and even some of the same artworks. Henry is a figment of my imagination, as are his thoughts, desires, motivations, quirks, and foibles. Beyond this, I sought to portray the world in which Henry resides, the New York art world of the late Depression, including the artists, athletes, politicians, events, and institutions that contributed to the rich history of the period, with as much historical accuracy as possible.

In tackling historical fiction, one often uncovers little known characters and facts that prove the adage of Mark Twain that truth is stranger than fiction. In seeking a villain, an author could have done no better than New York Yankee outfielder Jake Powell, whose on-field belligerence was the perfect resume for his violent encounters with Alice and Fiona, the two women in Henry’s life, and whose ill-fated radio interview in 1939 and the events that followed are little-known footnotes in the shameful history of segregation in professional sport.   Similarly, the saga of “Bunny” Taliaferro, the gifted African-American athlete from Henry’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts and target of a 1934 racial incident in Gastonia, North Carolina, seemed a natural inspiration for Henry’s imaginary masterpiece, Gastonia Renaissance.

Scores of artworks make at least a cameo appearance in Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse. Paintings by artists other than Henry Kapler are works that might have been seen by a young artist in New York City at the time. Some are monumental murals that still adorn important buildings in New York. The paintings attributed to Henry are about evenly divided between purely fictional creations and works painted by Harold Rabinovitz, although the inspiration behind all of Henry’s paintings, as well as the details of their creation, derive solely from my own imagination.

As many writers of historic fiction will attest, it is a delight to experience the will of the characters we create. They gradually assume their own personalities, dictating their actions in ways that are often serendipitous. Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse became their story, and the journey on which they took me was gratifying, mystifying, illuminating and, at times, heartbreaking. I invite you to share the journey.

What an intriguing story, Arthur. You’ve given us a great insight into the spark that lights historical fiction.

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse by Arthur Hittner – Freshly graduated from Yale, Henry J. Kapler parlays his talent, determination, and creative energy into a burgeoning art career under the wing of painters such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. The young artist first gains notoriety when his painting of a symbolic handshake between a young, African-American baseball player and his Southern white rival is attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Yet even as his art star rises, Henry’s personal life turns precarious—and perilous—when his love for Fiona, a young WPA muralist, collides with his growing attraction to the exquisitely beautiful Alice, an ex-chorus girl who becomes his model and muse.  Alice is the girlfriend of Fiona’s cousin, Jake Powell, the hotheaded, hard-drinking outfielder for the New York Yankees baseball club whose jealousy explodes into abuse and rage, endangering the lives of all three.  While Henry wrestles with his hopelessly complicated love life, he also struggles mightily to reconcile his pacifism with the rabid patriotism of his Jewish-Russian émigré father.  As war draws near, Henry faces two difficult choices, one of which could cost him his life.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left 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.