“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

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Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

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Those who ignore history . . .

As I’ve been working on my young adult historical, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the local area. This includes reading the local paper for 1924 – the year that most of my novel takes place. Since my protagonist, Nicky, is a bootlegger, I’m focusing especially on any articles that have to do with those issues – local stills being raided, etc.

But the KKK was also active in this area. There were, as far as I can tell, chapters of the KKK in Winfield (approximately 15 miles north), Newkirk (about 10 miles south), and Blackwell (about 35 miles southwest). I suspect there were numerous other small chapters for which there’s not much documentation. Heck, I even found this rather creepy advertisement in the Winfield paper:  klan barbershop

(This is actually pretty typical of Klan advertisements. A student even told me that there’s an abandoned building in her hometown that used to be a grocery store that still has a sign in the door that says “Klan Friendly!” I admit, as a historian, part of me wants to salvage it. Part of me wants to burn it at a crossroads.)

But there was one article that has continued to haunt me. I know it well; it features prominently in a major scene in my book. On February 7, 1924, Z.A. Harris, a ‘Klan lecturer’ (who knew there was such a thing, right?) appeared at the Fifth Avenue Theater to a “capacity crowd” and gave a rousing speech. The Fifth Avenue Theatre was THE theatre of Arkansas City in 1924 – it was the most upscale, the most lavish. Or, as my protagonist Nicky says, “Only four theatres in town, and I knew they wasn’t gonna be at the Rex. The Strand – maybe. The Isis – not big enough. That left the Fifth Avenue Opera House, and it was the biggest and nicest theatre in town and I reckoned the Klan didn’t do nothing by halves. They wanted to recruit people, they’d get the best.”

Though the article doesn’t quotefifth avenue theatre Harris verbatim all the time, it gives enough quotes to get the majority of the speech. So I want to post parts of this here. I put the actual quotes in italics. As you may pick up, the reporter wasn’t terribly keen on the guy. 🙂

‘Like any other secret society there are restrictions placed on membership. We have a right as Americans to form such an organization. Our membership is confined strictly to white, native born, gentile, protestant American citizens.’ He spent twenty minutes or so in defense of the organization . . . In his defense of the United States constitution and Americanism he directed his shafts, by innuendo or inference only, against Catholicism, the Jews, and another clement ‘constituting a membership of one and a half million,’ which probably alluded to the IWW or the Bolsheviks or perhaps the socialists.”

So far, not so bad. But! Wait for it . . .

“He pictured a big task which is to engage the attention of the Klan organization – ‘the preservation of American nationalism, American ideals, American institutions, the preservation of the flag and the liberty, freedom, and manhood for which the flag stands, as understood by the founders of the American government.’

AHA! Here we go! The usurpation of ‘American ideals’ and God help me, the ‘founders of the American government.’ Written clearly by people who don’t understand a bloody thing about the founding of America. I’m waiting for someone in Trump’s campaign to find and plagiarize this.

But it goes on!

“In the last twenty years we have been taking in more immigration than this country can assimilate. We have, according to the last census figures, 94,820,915 white inhabitants. Of these, only 58,421,987 are of native born parentage. There are nearly 15,000,000 of foreign born parents, 6,991,665 had one parent born abroad, while 13,712,754 were foreign born.

“He pointed out that laws passed to restrict immigration were evaded by reason of the fact that the nations restricted did not include Mexico and Canada. ‘Something like 750,000 foreign immigrants have found their way into the United States by the Canadian or Mexican route, being “bootlegged” into the country by law evaders for profit,’ Harris charged.”

See? Not much has changed. ‘Coyotes’ still charge outrageous fees to bring people across the border. Sometimes, those people are left to die in the deserts. But back to the program:

“‘Of these hordes who come, speaking a foreign language, many of them are so ignorant that they would never be able to learn the English tongue. The east is overflowing with foreigners. Eighty percent of the population of New York is made up of foreigners. To get into America, in fact, it would be necessary to come west of the Allegheny Mountains.'”

Harris claimed that in 1924, the Klan had membership of 5 million. That number might seem high, but it certainly was over 3 million members by 1923, so 5 million might not be too far off the mark. Today, we might think that these people were whites against blacks, but that’s actually not entirely true. As you can tell from this lecture, the Klan of the 20s was against everyone who wasn’t Just Like Them. Catholics, Jews, divorced people, men who were unemployed, Eastern Europeans (Commies, you know!) – and, of course, bootleggers. Sure, they lynched blacks as well, particularly in the South, and burned black churches and homes – but the major push of the Klan was pretty simple:  enforce Prohibition, keep ‘undesirables’ out of America, and keep America as white and Protestant as possible.

What scares me the most is not that we still have this crap going on – of course the Klan still exists, and so do neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups, each one as hateful and ignorant as the next – but that we have a presidential candidate that is spouting the same godforsaken nonsense.

Now Trump is encouraging his followers to go to the polling places on Election Day and ensure that there is no voter fraud. Hmm. The Klan did this, too, in the 1860s and 70s, and again from the 1920s – 60s. To ensure there was no ‘voter fraud.’ Dressed in their hoods and robes, grabbed their shotguns, and stood in front of polling booths. Imagine you’re a black man in the 1920s coming to vote for the first time, and that’s the first sight you see when you get there. Of course you’re going to turn around and go back home.

Because if you don’t, you’ll get a cross burning on your front yard – or worse.

What strikes me as I watch Trump and listen to his ignorant, fictional rhetoric is how very, very close he comes to being Z.A. Harris. How very, very close he comes to being the spokesperson for hate. You can tell from the original speech that Harris 100% believed every word he said. Though the Klan of the 1920s attracted all kinds of people for all reasons, one thing remained the same:  the purpose of the organization. Which, of course, boils down to just one thing:

Hatred.

The same hatred Trump shouts in every single speech.

The same hatred his followers seem to embrace.

Just like people did in 1924.

 

 

 

Buried: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

It’s Memorial Day.

And in Tulsa today, they are remembering one of the worst incidents of the 20th century – the Tulsa Race Riots.

In fact, it got started just about the same time as I’m writing, late in the evening of May 31, 1921. But let’s back up for a second, because I’m pretty sure most people have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. And that’s because for years, it was kept under wraps as much as possible.

This is a story I never heard until I started to teach US History. As I was preparing to teach the 1920s, I kept running across the race riots of other places – like Rosewood – and of course the KKK. But then I stumbled across a website that discussed the Tulsa Race Riot.

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Greenwood, before the Riot. From hoodline.com

After World War II, Tulsa was actually two cities:  Tulsa proper, which was predominantly white; and Greenwood, known as the ‘Black Wall Street of America.’ A beautiful African-American community, it boasted a thriving business district with theaters, shops, restaurants, milliners, clothing stores, banks – everything a city needs. Tulsa had a population of more than 100,00 at that time; an exact census for Greenwood is difficult to find, but certainly at least 20,000.

But all that changed. Because of one man and one woman and one scream.

According to the story, Dick Rowland worked in Tulsa as a shoe-shiner. Sarah Paige operated the elevator at the Drexel building in Tulsa. Stories vary, but the fact is, at some point that day, they were alone in that elevator together. Since she was white and he was black, this was already an issue.

Then she screamed.

If Sarah Paige ever said why she screamed, it’s not recorded. By all accounts, she refused to explain. It didn’t matter. Whites immediately jumped to one conclusion:  a black man tried to rape a white woman. Rowland was arrested, and on the night of May 31, a white mob gathered at the jail. Leaders from Greenwood went to the jail to help protect Rowland, but the sheriff told them to go home; when they tried to leave, the mob attacked them. They fled to Greenwood, with the mob in hot pursuit.

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I think the caption speaks for itself. This image is found all over the ‘net; probably in the University of Tulsa Collections.

Over the next fourteen hours, thousands of whites, probably led by the local KKK, systematically destroyed Greenwood. Blacks were rounded up and kept in ‘concentration camps’ while houses were searched, robbed, and burned. Those who tried to escape were shot. They even set up a machine gun on a grain elevator at one end of Main Street. At dawn on June 1, airplanes dropped homemade bombs on Greenwood. There was even an effort to go through the wealthier areas of Tulsa and force white home owners to send out their black servants – which, thankfully, most refused to do.

It wasn’t until noon that the state troopers arrived – but by that time, it no longer mattered. The riot had fizzled.

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And Greenwood was gone.

Thirty-five square blocks had burned to the ground. More than a thousand homes, 21 churches, and 600+ businesses were gone. The Tulsa Fire Department had tried to get through all night long, but were held at gunpoint  by the attackers. Likewise, anyone trying to get through to give first aid to the blacks was held at gunpoint. tulsa_riots_theater.1406030191283

Now, there were whites who tried to help. A family outside Tulsa hid more than thirty people in their barn for a week. One woman at the local YWCA saved their porter’s life by hiding him in the walk-in freezer and then standing up to the whites chasing him with shotguns. Red Cross workers moved in as soon as they could to help the wounded and bury the dead.

Because there were dead.

But the sad thing is, we have absolutely no idea how many died that night.

Most who fled Greenwood never returned, so just doing a census doesn’t help. For decades, it was known that somewhere between 39 and 55 graves were dug in cemeteries for riot victims – the lucky ones who got headstones, anyway. It was also known that there was at least one mass grave, but as one Red Cross worker admitted, they were told to bury the bodies as quickly as possible, and didn’t keep track. Then in the early 1990s, another mass grave was discovered in a vacant lot that is presumed to be from the riot as well. So estimates range between 55 and 300, with many believing that number to be much, much higher.

The Tulsa Race Riot was, we know now, the worst of the 1920s. An entire town, destroyed in less than 24 hours. All because one woman screamed. All because some people thought they were better than others.

Tulsa buried this story. Who can blame them, really? It was never discussed. Never published. The KKK still had enough sway in the area to keep it hushed up, and the city officials swept it under the rug. Later, reporters who tried to tell the story said they were threatened. It wasn’t until 1997 that Oklahoma finally published a report on the riots, and today, a small museum in Tulsa commemorates the event.

And, because I know you’re dying to know:  the charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. He left Tulsa, never to return. And as far as I know, Sarah Paige never told what happened on that elevator.

One thing I always ask my students is do you think this could happen today? Before Michael Brown, they always said NO. They always said that America had grown beyond this, that such wanton destruction would never be allowed to happen.

Now? Now they look at me with eyes that say otherwise. Now, before they speak, they remember Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, and all the riots that have ensued over the last two years. They think about all the Trump rallies where minorities are beaten for daring to protest his policies. And they hesitate.

Because they know the truth.

 

More on the Tulsa Race Riots:

http://tulsahistory.org/learn/online-exhibits/the-tulsa-race-riot/ – the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum’s site for the riots

http://www.tulsaworld.com/app/race-riot/timeline.html – The Tulsa World’s page dedicated to the riots

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/19/survivors-of-infamous1921tulsaraceriotstillhopeforjustice.html – from Al-Jazeera America, a story about the riots and the survivors still seeking justice

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

“You Are Here!” – The Importance of Creating Historical Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about pop culture references in your work, and how they can be taboo to some, and ‘setting’ to others (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/pop-culture-yay-or-nay-the-shadow-knows/).

When you’re writing a novel set in present times, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. For example:  the movie Clueless turns 20 (I KNOW, right? 20? How did THAT happen?!) this summer. If you grew up watching it (I was in my teens when it was released), then the cultural references are something you totally get. When Cher says “I think they’ve seen that Tina and Ike movie way too many times” (and I think I just got that quote wrong!), you know exactly who she means and why she’s saying it. It’s context. And let’s face it:  who hasn’t said “That was way harsh” in the last twenty years? 🙂 The designers (“This is an Alaia!” “An A-what-a?” “It’s like a totally important designer!”), the cell phones, the gay best friend – they all date this movie to one very specific time period.

The same is true of your novel. You have to remember that even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, some day it will be a historical. There, did that blow your mind? But it’s true. Think about it. Think about the books you had to read in high school:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice . . . written by people who were writing about their own era, and yet today they are historical. Some day, the same will be true of Gone Girl.

But if you’re writing a historical novel, getting the details right is key, because you’re not throwing around pop culture references:  you’re creating setting.

Currently, I’m reading City of Women by David R. Gillham. Set in 1943 Berlin, it’s a fantastic glimpse inside that city and the lives of the people just trying to survive the war. Gillham hasn’t just plunked down a few facts here and there to add flavor; he’s immersed the story in the setting. I adore it. I feel like I’m there. This novel could not have occurred at any other time, in any other place.

Had this novel been written in the 1950s or 1960s, the references to the movies they watch, the war rations, the patriotic songs, might be considered trite and unnecessary. But seventy years removed, all these things let the reader see precisely what Gillham wants us to see:  Berlin, 1943. Harsh, cold, barely functioning, Gestapo everywhere. A place where one’s identity card must be at the ready at all times, and speaking out against the Reich is death.

The book is so well written, in fact, that I had trouble choosing a passage to demonstrate what I mean. But here’s one:

Another blast shakes the cellar, and the lamps blink frantically. But by this time the rest of the shelter’s inhabitants must welcome a bomb blast or two, if only to silence Frau Remki’s suicidal indictment (*of Hitler; she’s just called Hitler the devil, which is Not Good in 1943 Berlin, to put it mildly). And indeed when the light sputters back to a low-wattage glow, the woman has sunk back down to her place like a pile of rags. The thudding explosions grow more distant, but the cellar remains a densely silent place . . . One long, aching howl, signaling that the RAF has crossed over the line into Hannover-Brunswick airspace, and that Berlin, that vast, rambling city, is all-clear.

Gillham has it all:  the street names; the exact trains; the brand of the really good, black-market cigarettes; the German terms, unobtrusively explained either by context or within the next line.  Even the furtive, illegal act of listening to the BBC with your ear pressed to the speaker, the sickening realization that what Berlin is being told about the Eastern Front is a complete propaganda lie . . . You are there. You’d really rather not be. But you can’t escape.

Getting these details right is at the heart of any good historical novel. But as I learned at the Oklahoma Writer’s Conference this spring, you’ve got to have an agent who ‘gets’ that time period. There was a ‘first page workshop,’ where some people got to submit their first pages for critique by the agent (and the audience). We read a relatively good page, set in the early 1930s, in which the character looks at the thermometer (as I recall, it actually said that the thermometer was hanging outside the window) and notices it’s very hot, very early in the morning.

“See,” the agent said, pointing out the word thermometer, “this has to change. This should be thermostat. This is sloppy writing. This is what I meant when I said you need to proofread.”

Before I could say a word, the older lady next to me jumped to her feet. “Uh, no,” she said, “the word should be thermometer! This is one of those big Dr. Pepper thermometers that used to hang outside of buildings! I know exactly what they’re talking about!”

So writers, take note:  your readers will know, and your agent may not. Get it right anyway, and be ready to defend your word choice if necessary! But that’s precisely the kind of thing I mean. Look at maps – but look at photographs, too. Describe the buildings you’re writing about. Describe the clothes, the cars. Don’t say He was wearing a hat; be specific to your time period. Is it a slouch hat? Gray fedora? Stetson? Tweed driving cap? Is the building granite or limestone? It’s not just about the details, it’s about the right, exact, and accurate details.

Create the setting for your novel. Create the setting that your characters can live and breathe in, that contributes to the plot. Create the setting that captures readers and holds them hostage, where they breathe the foul fog off the Thames, or hear the jingle and creak of harness, or break a wrist cranking over a Model T engine. Create the historical setting that becomes a character itself.

Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel. 🙂

Digging Deep: The Perils of Historical Research

Finally. After many hours. Of driving. And photographing.

I’M DONE.

I finally finished photographing the entire case file that I’ve been working with for the past two months. I went to Kansas City on Friday with one goal in mind:  finish that last box. I was a robot. Click, click, click. Flip, flip, flip. Page after page. Not reading. Not taking any of it in. I had one box left, and by George (hah!), I was going to finish it.

But.

There were still those moments when I’d flip a last page and see something unexpected. Handwritten letters, mostly, submitted and attached as evidence. Exhibit A. Exhibit B. And those just made me stop in my tracks, and rest my fingers against the pages, realizing that there’s only what, maybe two or three degrees – and 108 years – of separation between me and George Kimmel (or whoever he was). And there was the completely unexpected rabbit hole I got dropped down, too . . . I can’t wait to see where that one takes me.

Writing and researching historical nonfiction isn’t that different from writing and researching fiction, of any genre. When you work with a single subject for so long, you become attached to them. If you couldn’t tell, you get a bit obsessed. The biggest difference is, when I talk about George Kimmel, et.al, like they’re real people, they are real people!

I was listening to ‘Snap Judgement’ today on NPR; one of the interviews was with a reporter who wrote a story about a doctor who was obsessed with the healing powers of mushrooms — so much that he did truly awful things in order to fund his research. Yet at the end of the interview, the reporter stated that he didn’t think the doctor was a bad man. He may have done questionable things, but they were all with an admirable end goal in mind. Even as I was shaking my head, saying to myself you’re an idiot, dude!, I was actually . . . understanding. Every bit of it.

The more I dig into this case, the deeper and darker it becomes. I remember when I started six – seven? – years ago, with those snippets in the newspaper, I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly never expected that all the people involved in the case — including George Kimmel himself — would turn out to be very questionable, ethically and morally. Six or seven years ago, I expected that this case would be more black and white than that. There’d be a good guy, and a bad guy, and the truth would come out, and the guilty parties would be punished.

Silly me.

Nearly every file I photographed proved to have at least one surprise in it for me, in a case that I didn’t think could surprise me anymore. Take George’s sister, Edna, for example. She held $25,000 in life insurance, paid out once George had been missing for seven years — and yet, when her uncle told her to sign over the policies to a local bank (that he managed), she did it without question. Was she in on it? Or was she so under his thrall that she literally didn’t question it? Where was her husband in all this? No idea. None. Not yet.

letter 1Yesterday, the surprises came in the form of handwritten letters, from “Kimmel” (I use quotes here because no one is sure that the man who showed up in 1906 was really George Kimmel or not). Some were lucid, neat. One was a sprawling, scrawled mess of bad spelling and shaky hands. I didn’t have to read it. I picked it up out of the box, my hands shaking a little, and just stared at it for a while, stunned. This was not a well man. Was he ill? Was he scared? Was he drugged? I don’t know.

As exhausted as I was yesterday, I still found myself wishing that I could just take time with the letters. Sit with them for a while. Look at them. Study them for stray fingerprints, for smudges, for some hint of the person who wrote them. These primary documents are the only way in which we can make a real connection to the person we’re researching. And in a very real way, they may be one of the few clues I have as to this ‘mystery man’s’ real identity. Comparing hand writing and word usage and sentence structure — those are nearly as good as fingerprints. But more than that, it’s that these letters are a way to worm my way into this man’s head. Figure out what he was really thinking. Was he a con artist pretending to be George Kimmel? In that case, why? Was he really George Kimmel, hiding from a murderous family? In that case, why come forward? Those are the questions I ponder as I look at those letters, study these depositions, dig deeper into this case. They’re the questions that will keep me moving forward.

So yes. This case file is done. But there are more to find. And that’s one of the greatest perils of historical research:  becoming obsessed. Never knowing when enough is enough. Getting lost. But if not for obsession, would any of us write? It’s hard work. Something has to drive us, chivvy us, herd us towards that end goal. Obsession is as good a reason as any.

Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:

“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”

soapboxThis is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.

Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?

As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander:  http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gabaldon.html

Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.

History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.

So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:

1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.

2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.

This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!

3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.

4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.

So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.

So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.