Writing Right with Dmitri: True to Life
Created | Updated May 18, 2014
Writing Right with Dmitri: True to Life
I've just done an amazing thing in the US history course I'm writing for. It was a privilege to get to do it. I got to tell the students how to write fiction. Now, don't you think that was fun?
A brief explanation: I'm working on a history course, and I write lessons that tell stories, and analyse, and give the students exercises to do, so they can learn to 'think like a historian'. That's cool. But most of the time, we stick to the pure and simple facts. And you know me – I have a runaway imagination. It's the bane of my existence. I'm always asking 'what if', and stuff like that. So imagine my glee when the activity I got on my assignment involved writing a fictional account of a historical experience. Whoo, boy. Now, this was great.
Of course, the activity had a serious purpose: to get the students to research, think, and synthesise their knowledge of the period. But writing the sample essay was an illegal amount of fun. And it got me thinking about how we could use this exercise to our own advantage.
A few weeks ago, I suggested something similar by throwing up an old theatre poster and asking if anybody wanted to try making up a story about it. Freewayriding responded with a tale that made the hair stand up on the back of our collective necks. That was great, and showed us how it's done. He did some cool research, too. Now let's see if we can take it to the next level. But first, a side trip into horror. Have you seen this TV show?
How Not to Climb out of a Tardis
Are you Brits getting the TV series TurN? (I can't do the title justice, the N is printed backwards, isn't that cute?).
I sincerely hope not. This series could set Anglo-American relations back 200 years. Which is about where we were when you burned the White House.
Now, What Was I Saying?
Oh, yes. Historical fiction. No, I'm not talking about thrilling novel settings, violence, and bodice-ripping. I'm also not bringing up the dreaded research bugbear again. No need to read census reports and graphs. Instead, let's do some fun research. What kind of research is fun for writers?
Why, reading, of course.
Suppose you want to tell a story about a working-class family in Chicago in the 1880s? What were their lives like? What kinds of choices did they have? What inspired them?
Here are some links for you.
- Try a bestseller novel from the period. It's by Horatio Alger, and it's called Ragged Dick. (Quiet in the back.) No lie, it was a big hit. Dick goes from rags to respectability. What will reading this novel do? It will get you into the mindset of the time, so you avoid the Hollywood trap of trying to move Twitter-era teenagers back onto the sidewalks of old New York.
- What were the economic circumstances like? For one thing, in the 1880s, there wasn't a lot of cash around. You want to know how much money they had to play with? And what they ate for breakfast? Go to 'Six Families Budget Their Money, 1884'. You get an extra bonus there: the snotty comments of the social workers about people being 'ignorant in the full sense of the word.' Learn from, and use.
- Now, here's the best: try reading Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was there. And he tells you all about it: the sights, the smells, the money problems, the clothes, the restaurants…
- Branch out on your own. What do you know about child labour? Have you ever heard of Mother Jones? Yeah, we know it’s an online periodical, but who is it named for? Have you seen 'the most dangerous woman in America'? Not quite five feet tall, and born in County Cork.
Speaking of Dreiser: his novel tells us where Don Draper of Mad Men came from. The 'drummer', or traveling salesman, was invented back then. And they got that kind of reputation right away:
Here was a type of the travelling canvasser for a manufacturing house – a class which at that time was first being dubbed by the slang of the day "drummers." He came within the meaning of a still newer term, which had sprung into general use among Americans in 1880, and which concisely expressed the thought of one whose dress or manners are calculated to elicit the admiration of susceptible young women – a "masher." His suit was of a striped and crossed pattern of brown wool, new at that time, but since become familiar as a business suit. The low crotch of the vest revealed a stiff shirt bosom of white and pink stripes. From his coat sleeves protruded a pair of linen cuffs of the same pattern, fastened with large, gold plate buttons, set with the common yellow agates known as "cat's-eyes." His fingers bore several rings – one, the ever-enduring heavy seal – and from his vest dangled a neat gold watch chain, from which was suspended the secret insignia of the Order of Elks.
Would you do something with an Elks meeting? Dreiser did. But I'll leave you to find out what. See? Painless research. Carrie's such a great character, and the story is every bit as fascinating as Mad Men. It's just about as amoral, too. Dreiser took a lot of flak for that.
But at least it was nothing like TurN. Seriously, you can learn a lot from old fiction. And it's public domain, too. Explore the ideas of the past, compare and ruminate. Then launch your own stories.
Oh, my sample essay about industrial history? I stole Elektra's granddad's bio. He left Lithuania in 1908, and worked in a foundry. True-to-life, and ripped from the annals of the past.
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