Friday, September 23, 2011

We Are The Media

June 25, 2009.  Headline:  Michael Jackson is dead!  Farrah Fawcett is dead!  Source:  Twitter, Facebook, dead celebrity websites.

March 11, 2011.  Headline:  earthquake rocks Japan.  Tsunami lifts civilization off its foundations and sweeps it away, effortlessly.  Twitter.  Facebook.  YouTube.

May 2, 2011.  Headline:  Osama bin Laden shot dead by U.S. Troops.  Source:  Twitter.  Facebook. 

September 11, 2001.  Headline:  WTC rocked, destroyed, by terrorist, killing hundreds, changing the world.  Source:  radio, television media outlets, word of mouth.

In 10 short years, media has metamorphosed entirely from a strictly corporation-run system of networks of print, radio and television media, to this:  100% privatized media content.

Granted, you still have to pay big corporations in order to broadcast your opinions; and in some countries, your own publicized opinion, even on Facebook, can get you imprisoned, or even killed.

The point is, whether we realize it, believe it or do something about it, anyone with access to the internet can change the news.

We can complain about big Right Wing media corporations and laugh (or cry) about their flagrant disregard for facts or open dialogue.  We can complain about how "the media" vilifies good people, or floods us with inanities about celebrity weight gain or loss (including baby bumps, food bumps, silicon bumps, affairs and divorces).  Or, as Jon Stewart does so well...we could lambaste Glenn Beck.

But what baffles me is that few seem to realize just how much power we have in our hands, and how much responsibility.

1.  Power.  We can broadcast our own beliefs faster than ever, more visually than ever.

We can propagate our political beliefs and rally support for our cause through online petitions.  We can join chat groups where people share our beliefs; we can comment on nearly any news or pseudo-news online journal and "share" (read "beat each other about the head with") our opinions without ever having to justify ourselves with facts.  I don't have to post any links.  Go anywhere.  Read any article.  Watch any link in YouTube.  You'll see what I mean.

We can inform.  We can spread hate.

We can plead for help. And we can admire the human spirit.

Courtesy First

And we can disseminate news independently of major broadcasting corporations.

Did you know that as of today, Wall Street has been occupied by a 7-day (and counting) protest - a total occupation of Wall Street?

I did.  Someone on Facebook posted pictures.  I checked it out.  She's right - there are the pictures, there are private news outlets telling us about it.  Not a word in the "recognized" media outlets.  Do a search using the following words:  News Wall Street Occupied.  Take a look at the site addresses and see if you can spot any major national news outlet that's joining in on the fray.

Michael Moore knows.  He's there.  I have no doubt he'll make a rousing comment about how "the media" is conspicuous by its absence.

Look at the power we have.  Someone I have never met on Facebook posted a series of pictures and mentioned that mainstream media wasn't covering it.  I say, "Friend, we are mainstream media; the message has gotten out."

And we don't even need to write anything.

We can spread paranoia.

Or we can challenge each other's beliefs. 

We can uplift.


We can remember.

Courtesy Great Buildings . com

We can always remember.

2.   Reach.  More than ever, we can reach out to the entire world, simply by leaving a message on some obscure site like this one.  Don't believe me?  I have a regular reader in Germany that I've never met; just this week, I've had visitors from the UK, Australia, France, China, Russia and Latvia.  I mean, how'd they even find me?  The point is, there is now a connection made between me, here in my basement apartment in Montreal, and someone out there, on the far side of the planet.

I wish it went both ways.  I wish I could see more of what's really happening in China - I mean really.  How do people live?  I don't want to know just what their state-run media says is happening in China; I want to know what's happening in the lives of a healthy cross-section of China.

Done secretly and done well, we can know.

The question is, does anyone want to try and find out?  Or are we satisfied with what drivel we get every day?

3.  The News is Free.  

There used to be a time when the public upheld a belief in journalistic ethics; a promise by major media corporations to seek the facts and publish the truth no one wanted to hear.  Papers were accountable to a publisher and editor; publishers and editors were/are accountable to their stockholders, their advertisers and their readers.

That promise no longer applies.  The news is free - the news is no longer accountable to an editor or a publisher; anyone - whether they've been there or not - can write an article and call it "The News."  So long as we don't commit libel against anyone, our freedom of expression is protected (in North America, especially) by law.  We may get comments and insults from the readers, but they're pretty powerless in forcing us to change the content of our online publication.  We are accountable to no one.

And the news is free in terms of cost.  I'm paying for my internet; you're probably paying for yours.  But you are not paying to read what I'm telling you now.  I make no profit, doing what I do right now.

On the flip side, major media outlets are chained to monetary gain.  The bigger the headline and the louder the fearmonger, the more money large media corporations earn.  News sells. But it doesn't have to.  Not anymore. 

4.  We are the readership.  

Which are you more aware of?  That on Wednesday, September 21, 2011, Facebook made a major change to its news feed layout, and that so many people complained that it hit the news?   Or that September 21 was supposed to be the re-scheduled rapture?  Or did you know that, on the day most of us were complaining about Facebook feeds, two US hikers were released on bail after a two-year ordeal in Iran, after having been falsely accused of spying in 2009?

Your answer entirely depends on what your interests are.  Sounds stupidly simple, I know, but follow my argument for a moment.

There are two principle forces in the free marketplace: supply and demand.

The media supplies us all the drek we may complain about - the tabloids, the rumours, the fearmongering, the political machinations, the blind eyes and the one-sided arguments.

But we demand it.  The more we demand, the more media will supply.

Simply put:  if we stopped buying it, they would stop supplying it.  If we stopped watching it, advertisers would lose their power over our spending money, and the advertisers will invest in something else.

No one liked the Edsel.  So Ford stopped making them.  No one makes a product for long that no one's going to buy because it's expensive, and anything that does not generate a profit is counter to the ideals of capitalism.

Some people like Glenn Beck.  It doesn't matter who, or why, or what their level of education is, or what colour is their skin, or how thick is their wallet.  It doesn't matter.  The point is, there are enough people interested in Far Right media to represent a large base of consumers - not extremists, not bigots, not ultra-conservative Christians - consumers.  People who are exposed often enough to advertisements that go out and buy the products that sponsor the show.

Networks don't care what you believe; they care about what you buy.  If you're buying, you must want more of it.  If ratings are up, advertisers are happy and networks are happy.  If ratings went down, then advertisers would back away, and networks will try something else.

We are the readership.  We are the viewership.  If it wasn't for us, the media that we love and hate today would go away, because the media is us.  

We can control the media.

Because we are the media.

5.  We, as readers, have a greater responsibility than ever.  Independent online journalists, be they professional, amateur or otherwise, are not held accountable to anyone.  So long as they aren't criminal in nature, and so long as they pay their website fees, anyone can post anything that they want.  Writers do not share the same responsibilities as readers.  And they never have.

Savvy indy journalists can make any website look like a genuine media outlet.  Take that link I'd posted earlier, the one about the occupation of Wall Street.  Digital Journal has advertising on it, it has a great, professional-looking layout, it has sections like any other news website - it's great!

How do you know anything in that website is genuine?  How can you tell if someone just made it all up? 

I'm not saying it's fake; I'm challenging your perception of what you see online.

Since the advent of yellow journalism in the late 1800s, the line between fact and profitable opinion has blurred.  Now that anyone with a good eye for programming and webdesign can pose as a major media outlet, we are forced into doubt.  We must be doubtful.  We should always have been doubtful, because smart people test everything.

And now we see willful blindness on the part of the major media outlets.  Something's happening in Wall Street.  We know the Dow took another hit this week, and major news networks are covering why not step outside and comment on the people who have been protesting?  Where's the media presence that we actually pay for?  Do they have something to hide?  Is there something they don't want us to know?

If Big News Inc. did say something, would it be a comment on social disruption, or social revolution?  Or would they simply walk up to the protesters and report back on what the protesters have to say?  Will they give us opinion or fact?  My money is on opinion, because true journalism isn't sensational enough to sell.

Major news outlets, independent news outlets - whatever it is, take nothing for face value, and always assume there's more to the story than what is presented.

Check for references and quotations; see if you can substantiate what is being said by cross-referencing against another source.  

When watching news footage, doubt anything that has been cut off mid-sentence.  There's a big difference between "I believe cutting taxes for corporations is good - " and "I believe cutting taxes for corporations is good only for 1% of the population."  Believe nothing that is taken out of context.  Suffer through long quotations, if that's what it takes to get the full truth.

Check bylines.  There are still reputable news outlets out there.  When reading any newspaper, you may find that a lot of the news comes from Reuters.  Be careful here:  a lot of the credit will go back to Reuters, but if you read the original article and compare it against what has been "edited" in your newspaper, you'll be amazed at how subtle - and how powerful - those edits can be.

Seek a balanced argument.  Good journalism encourages you to come up with your own opinions, instead of feeding you what they think you want to hear.

Conclusion.  I can't tell you to boycott networks or the products that sponsor them.  I believe in freedom of expression - even when I fiercely disagree with what's being said.  I would rather disassemble your argument with logic and proof than drown you out with my own ignorance and censorship.  Besides, the more I say "Don't listen to that guy, he's a bigot!" the more you're going to be tempted to go see what was so shocking.

And I can't change the world.  If I make a significant and lasting impact on only two people in this world, I'll be over the moon.

But I can encourage you to make use of what you have at hand:  a remote control, the internet, and an unrelenting desire to seek the truth.

Now, I could go on forever about media, its impact on our lives, and our lives in the media.  But I don't have to.  Marshall McLuhan said it for us thirty years before the commercialization of the internet.

I leave you with a prophetic blast from the past.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Historical fiction: Brain food!

Okay, so, my budding historical fiction author, here's the tally.

You've got an infinite amount of research to do.  You've got an equal amount of editing to do.  You need to find first readers, subject matter experts, multiple sources for your research, and adequate time for eating and sleeping.  You've got to embed small but relevant details into your story without making them stand out from the manuscript as sign posts declaring "Proof I did my research!"

Then, you have to prepare yourself for the inevitable and vitriolic critics - those who know what they're talking about, and those who don't.

And on top of all that, you've got to find / create an intriguing, new and unique story line!  With lifelike characters, and with good pacing and suspense and...and good grammar!  And spelling!

Writing a story is hard enough when you're setting it in modern times!  Why add the extra layer of complexity by throwing us back into a time that may predate the author's own life?  What's the draw?

1)  Escapism.  If I'm reading a book, it's because I don't want to be on Facebook or watching the news or responding to email.  I want to get away from today.  Reading historical fiction not only takes me out of my life, but it takes me out of my world.  There's something charming about putting down your blackberry and picking up a book about a monk in his peaceful monastery garden, solving murder mysteries with plants and poisons...

2)  Perspective.  Depending on the story, it also helps to remind me that yeah, times may have been simpler back then, but they were a whole lot harder.  I would not be able to survive September (such as it's been) if I also had to deal with a coffee and sugar ration.

3)  Challenge.  In the first post of this mini-series, I'd compared historical fiction to writing with one arm tied behind your chair and your tongue tied behind your head.  But the "wows" are worth it.  If you're lucky enough to hand your book to someone who lived in that era and see them nod and remember aloud what you're describing, then every awful minute of research and editing has been worth it.  And besides, when later you write something set in the present, it's like taking off your handicap weights and soaring!  Imagine writing about stuff you don't have to research so thoroughly!

4)  Fascination.  Enough said.  Readers and writers of historical fiction have an existing fascination with a certain epoch because that era, simply said, is intriguing and exciting. And sometimes it's funny!

5)  Specialization and niche carving.  Few people write about Canada in World War II - not Canada's participation in the war overseas, but about Canada itself during the '40s - the people who were left behind.  There are truckloads of people who write about it, yes, but fewer than people who write about...say...vampires in 20th/21st century USA.  The field of competition is smaller (though just as fierce).  And name me one other person who writes about women butchers and murders among nuns in 16th century England.

To be honest, this can also work for and against you.  Specialized writers can mean specialized (read, small) audiences.  Large publishing houses want mass appeal because they survive on mass sales; smaller publishing houses are sometimes more willing to take a chance.  Be patient, and make your work so appealing even the stuffiest of editors wants to buy it.

6)  Continuing education.  Writing about somebody else in some other time and place is an intellectual exercise that involves as much learning as writing.  I have to research the time and place.  I have to research flora, fauna, geography, political allegiances, food and drink, fashion, courtship rituals and religion - I have to become a total anthropologist.  And thanks to your local public library (and the internet), you can save yourself tuition fees!

The mental exercise of seeking, assimilating, manipulating and remembering new information seems to help stave off mental health problems later in life, like dementia, or even Alzheimers.

7)  Certain historical periods resonate with personal history.  I grew up in a somewhat disadvantaged household; I never went hungry or without a roof over my head, but I couldn't go out on most field trips, or wear fashionable clothes, or play with all the fancy toys everybody else had.  From a very early age, I understood that painstakingly careful money management makes the difference between food and no food.

I looked at the Haves and Have Nots from the same perspective as someone who grew up during the Great Depression.

And then I joined the Army and learned about war.

My experience mirrors what may have been experienced during those decades, and some of the common ethics of those days (work ethic, sense of honour and decorum, faith) echo what I believe today.

Later, I discovered the fashion and style of the '30s and '40s - and liked it.  Later still, I discovered radio plays - and loved them!  In the late 2000s, I discovered swing (music and dance) - now I'm taking classes and playing Gene Krupa tracks day and night.

Discovering all the bad things that happened during the '30s and '40s (discrimination, Allied internment camps, sexism, recession and unemployment) only increased my fascination with that era.

It only made sense that I would write about those two decades.

But why I write about a female butcher in 16th century England however...not sure.  Even more of a challenge, I guess.  Maybe it's because Lady Butcher reminds me of Rosie the Riveter.

8)  History is fixed, more or less.  Unlike cell phone technology.

All technology has a life cycle:
A) new, extremely cool and prohibitively expensive,
B) cool and accessible to the military,
C) marketable to business and the consumer,
D) outdated, E) gauche!
F) retro, G) antique,
H), old, extremely cool and prohibitively expensive.

Think of iPad technology.  When you conceived your story, the iPad may still have been so new it was almost mythical.  By the time you finished writing your story, you could spend less than an hour in the Apple store to buy one.  By the time the story is edited and put to press, the iPad 2 is already cooling on the market.  By the time your book is published, Apple will have created something utterly unlike the iPad.

Almost ten years ago, I sat in a training class for work.  We were asked to design the awesomest cell phone possible.  My colleagues and I came up with a phone that could act as a fax, news source, bank machine, barcode scanner and bottle opener; you could even check the stock in your fridge while sitting on the train, and order groceries to be delivered in time for you to arrive at home.  Now, all I can say is, "There's an app for that."

Walk with me through 12 years of Blackberry history to get an idea of how quickly modern technology in your story will be outmoded (and kinda laughed at).

1999.  Blackberry 2-way Pager. cute...
2000.  Blackberry 957 PDA (Do you even remember what PDA stands for?).  You can check your emails on it.  Sometimes.  So long as it has no attachments.
2003.  Blackberry 6750.  Now with telephony! 

2007.  Blackberry 8100 "Pearl".  Bluetooth technology, and a 2 MP camera.
2010.  Blackberry Playbook.  Multi media, high speed internet access across cell towers, front and rear 3.2 MP cameras, and video fricking conferencing.  Currently does not walk the dog or fold laundry.  No wonder the iPad is selling better!

Darn it, I can't keep up with the Joneses anymore.  Let them run on ahead for a while.  

We live in the science fiction age; it used to be you could make up any technology (interplanetary travel, atomic fusion, energy pulse weapons...invisibility cloaks...the iPad) and know that it didn't exist.  Now, you actually have to research whether or not your idea has already been implemented in today's scientific research and development!  And anything that is new and modern today is outmoded and laughed at two years from now.  When was the last time a flip phone was cool?

I know that my 1935 Underwood Portable typewriter is already retro - almost antique - so I don't have to worry about my technology going out of style.

9)  Because it's what I do.  I've dabbled in fantasy, science fiction, gothic, horror, contemporary crime fiction, stage plays...poetry...everything but westerns and romance.  But this year, during the Muskoka Novel Marathon 2011, I won not only the Most Prolific Award (third year in a row!), but I was humbled to receive the award for Best Novel in the Adult category.  I'd managed to write a murder mystery set in a time period I'd known nothing about prior to this summer, and I'd done it well.  I'm officially hooked on historical crime fiction, because to date, it's what I've done best.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish two books as quickly as possible and send them out - Mummer's the Word (set in 1944) and Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint (set in 1538).

Kindly pass the tape.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

At the Crossroads of History and Fiction

In the previous post, I mention that a very wonderful First Reader named Marlene attacked Mummer's the Word with a bright red pen.  If memory serves correctly, a highlighter, pencil and blue pen were also used, so I got the works!  I still owe her a fine, fancy dinner out when this thing gets published.

But the experience taught me, not just facts, but the skills I need to make a good story in historical fiction.

Am I an expert?  If by "expert" you mean "am I published?", then no.  What I detail below is what I've learned over the past four years, and some of it is educated guessing; but if it works for you, too, then fantastic.

1)  Question Everything

Take for example a hiccup I came across in editing a couple of nights ago.  Mummer says "And now for the Sixty-Four Dollar Question."  I thought myself rather clever, remembering that before the 64,000 Dollar Question, radio stations were modest in their prizes.  Then I went back and checked the broadcast dates of The Sixty-Four Dollar Question.  It aired 1950 - 1952.  My story is set in 1944.  The Sixty-Four Dollar Question is still six years OOP (out-of-period).

So then I got clever and decided to change it to "And now for the skill-testing question..."

I stopped and double-checked again, and boy did I learn some interesting things.

First, I thought skill-testing questions were a normal part of all lotteries and contests, around the world.  Wrong!  It's a Canadian thing. I did not know that.  Secondly, it's still OOP - even worse than the Sixty-Four Dollar QuestionSkill-testing questions are baked right into the Criminal Code of Canada (I didn't know that either), but - and this took some digging to find out - this was after provincial lotteries became legal in 1969.  Definitely OOP.

So, for now I'm stuck with "And now for the real question..."  Yawn.  But historically accurate.

2)  Little Details Make or Break Your Credibility

I'd mentioned in the last post that a police detective had on his person a ballpoint pen - and I had even done my research to see whether or not a ballpoint pen was mass manufactured in 1944.

It may have been inconsequential to me, but Marlene picked up on it, though she was actually reading to check the details about Camp X.  The appearance of a ballpoint pen itched her enough to mention it to me.

The scene is not about the invention of the ballpoint pen.  The scene is about a conversation between a police detective and a man who has lost the power of speech; the pen was meant to be a kind of go-between, a translator - an inconsequential detail.  But it was enough to pull a reader out of the story, and it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of my historical detail.  The illusion of time-travel was lost.

And remember - the strangers who read your book are going to be picking it off the shelves because they have an existing interest in history and the time period you're writing about.  Chances are, they're stacking you up against other historical fiction authors, and they have a lot of background knowledge about the period.  They'll be looking to your work for two things:  to build on their knowledge base, and to enjoy a good story.  If they wanted nothing but historical facts, they'd have bought a non-fiction book; so be entertaining without writing a history text book.  If the reader learns something new, and if you are credible, and if you write a good story, they'll buy more books and tell others to buy your book too.

3)  Etymology is your friend.  So are multiple sources.

In the last post, I'd referred to a police officer as a "flatfoot".  I'd done that very deliberately, for a couple of reasons.

First, it would have been in my character's vocabulary, and I know it, because it's said in a number of Old Time Radio plays that I have in my collection.  If it's in a radio play, it's fair game (so long as it predates the time-frame of your story, of course).  We quote movies in our every day speech.  "Go ahead punk.  Make my day", "I'll be back," "You had me at hello" and "Never fight a land war in Asia" all stick out in my head as modern examples.  So what's to stop someone from quoting the radio?

Secondly, the term "flatfoot" is a very subtle but keen insult, given the context.  If you do your research, you'll be surprised to find out why.

One site says cops are called "flatfoots" (ouch - awkward grammatical construction, that) because beat cops used to walk long patrol routes, which presumably gave rise to fallen arches - flat feet.

But another site states the historical reason why I actually chose the insult.  Men with flat feet were disqualified from military service during World War II, but not from serving on a police force.  So, for my ex-paratrooper main character to call someone a flatfoot is to point out that the civilian police officer wasn't fit enough (read "man enough") for army duty - or for any kind of conflict for that matter, when pitched against a man who has seen action overseas.

Key lesson here:  if you stick with only website, you're only ever going to get one answer, and you'll be missing the bigger picture.  Worse:  you could be getting the wrong answer altogether.

Wikipedia is not the be-all and end-all of information; neither is  These are user-contribution sites; any Joe or Jane can add bald-faced lies, so long as they have an editor's membership and no one checks their sources.

Instead, go read a site or a book written by an authority on the subject.  Check their references - the footnotes are there for a reason.  Better yet, always try to get at the primary sources.  (Click here for a definition of primary and secondary sources.)  Get your hands on artefacts (antiques and vintage posters, for example), images (photos, paintings, films from that time period), and original written documents (newspapers, letters, advertisements from that time period, etc.).  If you're really lucky, talk to people who've lived in that time and in that place.

My favourite contact with primary sources:  a guided tour of the actual site of Camp X.  After the Camp was completely decommissioned, somebody, in their infinite military wisdom, took a bulldozer and literally pushed the buildings and materiel off the cliff overlooking Lake Ontario.  Now, after a big storm, bits and pieces of history wash ashore:  bits of plates, the handle of a mug, pieces of brick, water-worn glass...I even walked around for two years with a lump of coal in my purse - something I had picked off the shore that day.

By the way, Lynn Phillip Hodgson, author of Inside Camp X, is giving another guided tour the weekend of September 24th, 2011.  Great for the kids.  SO GO SEE HIM, OR ELSE!

Try to avoid historical films - i.e. movies made now, set 60 years ago.  They're great inspiration, but you run the risk of carbon copying someone else's error.

4)  Info dumps are for Wikipedia. 

I could name a few very popular authors who'd like to give you the historical background of the modern light bulb before the hero can turn one on.  Did someone die during the invention of the modern light bulb, and does it have any bearing on the plot at hand?  No?  Great, get it out of the book.  If you don't, I swear, I'll put the book down (in the recycling bin) and never pick it up again.

Historical details need to be as subtle as the chairs in a restaurant scene.  Your characters need to interact with them (actual headlines from real newspapers revealed when a character sits down to read it, dropping coffee beans into a hand-cracked coffee grinder while listening to a baseball game on the radio, or asking someone to check their stocking seams and giggling about an upcoming movie date).  Unless the character has a really good reason for it, they shouldn't treat the prop as a novelty or with nostalgia.

And for goodness sake, limit your props to what is readily and easily available in that year - and nothing more!

There are two types of historical fiction authors I would joyfully string up by their earlobes.  One has a character that says "Gee, I wish I had (this thing that is readily available in 2011)!  Wouldn't that be handy right now?"  The other has a character that says "Boy, I'll sure miss this (thing that was only available until 1952) when it's gone!"  Characters are not clairvoyant!  If they are, I don't want to read your story!  It's a lot more fun when nobody knows what's going on (except for the writer), because that's more realistic, and more suspenseful!

If you need to explain the history of a prop in your story, it had bloody well better be related to the story at hand.  Seriously.  I have no attention span when it comes to gratuitous detail.

5)  History has history.

Historical fiction needs to be written as if no time has passed since the epoch in which this story was set.  1945 does not exist in Mummer's world.  The Atom Bomb doesn't exist.  Hitler will keep on fighting until the end of time, and he might even win.  That is Mummer's world.  We may know differently, but Mummer doesn't.  This affects his every decision, and it's true to life.

But when you're researching your time frame (i.e. 1944), bear in mind that a) your characters and b) your world has had history leading up to this time.

Characters are influenced by today (1944), but also by personal history (1918-1944, primary and secondary education, a job, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, fights, accidents...taxes...).  They're also influenced by global history (the Second World War, the Depression, the Roaring 20s and the First World War).  Did his father serve in another War before him?  Can they swap war stories?  Was his mother a war bride?

Always bear in mind the character's age if you have to delve into backstory.  Mummer was between the ages of 2 and 12 during the '20s.  He's likely to remember his first bike, or his trading cards and slingshot, or the time his uncle fell off the couch in a drunken stupor, and less likely to remember world events.

History affects all characters, too, not just the primary.  In fact, your supporting characters may have had longer personal histories than your main character, and a wider global history, too.  One supporting character in Mummer's the Word is Spanish.  Did you know that between the First and Second World War there was a Civil War in Spain?  How does that affect a man's character, if he serves in World War I (1914-1918) and emigrates to Canada during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and launches right into World War II (1939-1945)?  That's a lot of war in one man's lifetime.  And he didn't even know about Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War or the Middle East!

Consider history in terms of ethnicity as well.  I had one character in Her Poison Voice that came from a country that didn't exist when he was born (Yugoslavia); and even though he emigrated when he was a babe in arms, because of his nationality, he was interned during World War I.  And that was in Canada!  Imagine how that affects his psyche during the Depression, when competition for jobs is at its fiercest, and discrimination was commonplace.

History affects different social strata differently but concurrently.  A farmer in the Dustbowl will see the '30s differently from a laid-off factory worker in the big city, who will see the Depression differently from the middle-class car dealer with a family of three daughters, who will see it differently from the spoiled rich bachelor with the diamond cuff links and the black bow tie.  Worse, each one of these characters is looking at each other through the lenses of their own troubled existence.

Fortunately, most books won't have a farmer, factory worker, car dealer and Dapper Dan in the same scene, which simplifies things for writer and reader.  But I suggest you keep a wide perspective on your time period in order to enrich the characters, the setting and the plot.

History is broader, longer and more complex than you think.  Write first, research thoroughly second, and edit like crazy.

But be careful:  you'll lose me with too much back story and too many overt cases of "Lookit me!  Here's proof I did my research!".  Balance, balance, balance - and more on this in a moment.

Also, when was the last time you thought, "Wow, I wish we had never interned the Japanese."  If you're involved in a murder, you've got other things on your mind.  Use hindsight with great caution.  You can frame hindsight in context however:  "Who are you to scream about internment camps in the Fatherland?  You interned the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians.  You confiscated their wealth and property, even when they were born in Canada.  And do I have to bring up Indian Reservations?"

6)  You can make some stuff up, but people are going to call your bluff.

There are very practical reasons why I chose to make up the municipality of Morgan City.

For one thing, it allows me to merge the Ontario-ish-ness of the towns I grew up in, with the architecture I love in Montreal.  I'm well acquainted with the historical significance of places like Ajax, Ontario, for example (a town which came about because of World War II).  I'm familiar with the flora, fauna, waterways and personality of the area.

Secondly, dang it, it was faster and easier to make up a chimerical town than have to purchase a zoning map of an actual city as it was in 1944 - and then to have to layer in the architecture, the position of the sun, the industrial buildings and the great timing chain of lunches and breaks and bank hours.

Thirdly, I didn't want to pick on one city or another, because someone's always going to know more than me about the history of any real place.  But nobody knows Morgan City, Ontario, as well as I do.  You can ask me the hills, valleys, park lands, creeks and ravines, empty lots, commercial zones and residential neighbourhoods; you can ask me where the meat processing plant is in relation to the Utilities Building; you can ask me when's the best time to get a burger, and where.  I could even tell you about the various schools and religious conflicts in the town.  I've "studied" Morgan City so well I swear I've shopped at the Farthing & Gage Department Store for my underwear and bubble gum.

Sometimes, making stuff up is just plain easier - if you do it well.

But then you get into some sticky business where you have to fuse fiction with reality.

Mummer was a Lance Corporal and later Sergeant with the 4th Paratroopers of Morgan City (a unit affectionately known as the "4 Paramours" - 4th Canadian PARAchute Batallion of MORgan City).

There are two problems with that.  For one, the real-life 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed in 1942.  Mummer was already overseas with the 4th Paratroopers by happened to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, and how come the 4 Paramours were already overseas before the 1st Battalion was even formed?

I also mention in the story that Mummer had encountered the 48th Highlanders of Canada.  The 48th is an actual Highland (kilt-wearing) unit that served in WWII.  They also used to be known as the Dirty Four Dozen, The Glamour Boys - and as one Canadian veteran told me, "The Ladies from Hell."  And I'm partial to adding the 48th Highlanders into the story, because that was the unit I served with for two years in the Reserves.  Dileas!  (I was a terrible soldier, by the way, that's why I was only in for two years.)

So I have some trouble here:  by having fictional units and real units in the same story, you cast doubt on the real units, and whether they existed or not.  The flip side is, because the 48th Highlanders actually existed, I have to wonder how many people are going to try and Google "4 Paramours" to see if they were real or not.

Blending in Mummer's involvement with Camp X is, by comparison, simple to do.  Only an extremely small number of people knew who graduated from Camp X.  There is some dispute whether Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) was one of the students there, but I have no reason to doubt it.  (I can't prove it one way or the other!)

But there's a simple explanation for why few know who went in or went out of Camp X:  they're called secret agents for a good reason.

So, until somebody tells me otherwise, we can all go on believing that some cutie like John "Mummer" Stillman could have been one of its graduates.

On top of that, I need to decide whether or not to fictionalize the actions of a person who actually existed.  I'm growing more and more uncomfortable with using this one personage in my story, though it would be a perfect tie-in between the real and the fictional.  I'm still on the fence, and even when I do make my final decision, I'll question it.  After all, what if it's public knowledge that this real life person was in Piccadilly Square at the time I have him in Morgan City?  What if the actions I'm putting him in are outside of his character, or his authority?  Can I make it up?

7)  My favourite historical fiction strikes a perfect balance.

If you're writing historical fiction, you are compelled to make some stuff up; but you also have to stick in some actual details, or else it's not historical fiction.  By definition, historical fiction is the weaving together of fact and fiction.

I have found a tendency toward laziness among some historical fiction authors (including those I've met but won't name, because I prefer stirring up trouble in person).  They carry an attitude of "Stop asking questions and just enjoy the story."  This kind of attitude allows a writer to shrug off glaring historical inaccuracies and call them "exercises in artistic license" or "fictionalization."  Blah!  Bad bad bad!  At least put some effort into it.

Draw a horizontal line, labeling one end "FACT" (coal ships sailed all over Lake Ontario) and the other end "FICTION" (Nazi-planted limpet mines blew up a coal ship in Morgan City Harbour).  Too far to the "Fiction" end, and you run the risk of being labeled "Alternate history" or even "fantasy".  Too far the other way, and I'll fall asleep.

Bisect that line with a vertical axis.  Put "HIGH DETAIL" at one end (sat in a scarlet brocade-upholstered genuine Louis XIV fauteuil smoking a meershaum pipe which had first been bought by a shady bookie in Ankara and sold for gas money in 1933).  At the other end, put "VAGUE DETAIL" (sat and smoked while reading the news).  Too vague, and I wonder why you don't just set the story in modern times; too much detail and I will tear whole paragraphs out of your book, marinate them overnight in brine and eat them.

But even I'm at risk of putting in too much.  I've done all but drawn a surveyor's map of Morgan County.  My challenge is not to describe everything in one book! Yes I know how one character lost an arm (where he was, what he was doing, what time of day it was, where he put the dynamite and why it blew up too soon); but how he lost his arm doesn't have any bearing on the trouble at hand (so to speak), so I have to leave it out for now.

In the intersection of those two lines, I think you'll find that perfect balance.  What historical fiction I've liked has fallen right in the middle of that diagram.  I want to read more historical crime fiction to see who I like best, but so far, it's Ellis Peters all the way (creator of Cadfael, among other characters).

So, given all these rules and pitfalls, why bother writing historical fiction at all?  Why read it?  In Part Three of this mini-series, I'll attempt to answer exactly those questions.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Historical Fiction and the Terrible O.O.P.S.

Writing historical fiction is like typing with one arm tied behind your chair and your tongue taped to the back of your head.  There are so many rules, so many blind spots!

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

My first serious taste of writing historical fiction was in the original draft of Mummer's the Word, which involved an ex-SOE agent (Special Operations Executive) in a Canadian city on the shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway, in the final 12 months of the second World War.  It was the same year I discovered Wikipedia, and I was very proud of myself, having done research during and after the creation of the book.

I'd been so excited about my brainchild that I contacted Lynn Phillip Hodgson, author of several books on the subject of Camp X, where my main character learned all the tricks of his trade.  It was the boldest thing I've ever done in my life, and I really didn't expect a response.  But Hodgson and his wife Marlene agreed to read the draft and provide comments.  (I'd purchased one of his books prior to contacting him, then proceeded to buy the rest once I'd met him in person.)

There were four major things I learned from Marlene and I'll be forever indebted.

1)  Yes, the ballpoint pen existed in 1944, but my character couldn't have afforded one.  I'd already confirmed that several patents had been issued for ballpoint pens and mass production had begun well before 1944, so I was in the clear (and yay me for looking up information on the patents and manufacture).  So it was technically feasible that a particular character could carry one around in his upper jacket pocket.  But as my new best friend pointed out, in 1944, ball point pens were so bloody expensive that it was unlikely that the police detective would be able to afford one on his wages.  The Biro prototype, for example, cost about £27 in 1944 - which, by my rough estimate is about $500-$600 in today's bucks.  Feel free to correct my bad math, but the point is, ouch.  He would more likely have stuck to a pencil, or used a fountain pen at his desk.  Even if the police detective did buy one, or if he had received it as a gift, he certainly would not have been carrying it around with him as he interrogated dangerous criminals - like uh, professional thieves.  It was a little itty-bitty detail that I'd taken for granted; but it was enough that a savvy history buff called me on it.

2)  Large ships couldn't pass into Lake Ontario, because the St. Lawrence Seaway and all its myriad locks didn't open until 1959.  Construction didn't begin until 1954.  I had to go back and redesign an entire scene because ocean-going ships had no means of navigating as far as Lake Ontario.  In my world, they'd always been there; it had never occurred to me that there existed a time before the SLS.  I was able to change the cargo vessel to a coal ship, though, and I didn't have to delete the scene altogether.  Any savvy boater - or anyone who's old enough to remember the opening of the seaway - could have called me out on this detail.
"You bet I'm going back to sea!  I can't get into no stinkin' ha'bour at Morgan City!"

3)  The right to remain silent isn't as old or as ubiquitous as you think it is.  Imagine - you've got a guy facing off against four armed cops, and this guy hasn't got a tongue.  During the arrest, some flatfoot says, "You have the right to remain...oh..."  Gosh - what a great line, hey? Marlene told me, Miranda Rights were introduced in the United States (not Canada) in 1966.  Anybody familiar with civil rights activism and the recent history of law would have picked up on this one; and in this case, it wasn't just a detail that needed to be adjusted - I had to make an important decision:  save the line for artistic reasons, or ditch it in favour of historical accuracy.  I scrapped the line.  Three years later, I don't miss it.

No, seriously.  You can't make him talk.

4)  You can never do enough research.  That's both an exhortation and a get-out-of-jail-free card.

My advice:  write first, then research like mad to add more tasty details, or to amend your O.O.P.S. (Out-Of-Period Stuff).  Don't do it the other way around (*kaf kaf - Michael Lorenson! kaf*), or you'll splurge all your finite writing time by following the twisty, winding paths of Wikipedia.

Stay on target.  Writing questions, like "Could someone in Canada have listened to an American broadcast of The Shadow?" helps to direct the focus of your research, so that when you do go meandering down the halls of Wikipedia, you'll know where you were supposed to be going.  Be patient, be persistent, and have fun.  It's amazing what you'll learn when you start researching - and what you'll learn might be handy at impromptu trivia shows.

Reach out to other history buffs!  Ask them questions about the time period in which they are experts.  Read forums, post questions.  Visit museums and libraries.  Old fashion magazines, by the way, are pretty useless; they'll tell you what people considered high fashion, but they won't tell you about what people actual wore.  Compare today's runway models against people in the mall; ain't the same fashion, now is it?  Photo archives, family albums, those are far better.

When you look at pictures from your time period (if they exist), always look at the background.  What do the cars look like (if they exist)?  Do the streets have curbs?  What kind of shoes are they wearing?  What does the architecture look like, and is it still in that same place today?  What advertisements do you see in the background?  Absorb these details by osmosis, and when applicable (more on this in part two of the mini-series), insert the details into your story.  These tiny brushstrokes give the reader an uncanny sense that you've recently been in that place and that time.

But no matter how much research you do, there is always going to be somebody more knowledgeable than you, and chances are, they'll find a way and a time to prove it to you - and they might not be as nice about it as my first readers have been.  There is a point at which you need to shrug, thank your reader, and remember not to make the same error in the sequel.  There is always a point at which you have to admit that you've done enough research - maybe not all, that would be impossible - and then send the story off.

My encounter with Marlene's Red Pen of Death taught me some skills necessary for writing historical fiction well.  But that's for part two of this mini-series on historical fiction.  Stayed tuned this weekend for more neat stuff you didn't know you should know.

For now, I recommend you check out Hodgson's books.  Camp X is, in my personal opinion, a much overlooked but fascinating piece of Canadian history.  We trained spies, for goodness sake, in Oshawa!  American spies, British spies, spies from all over Europe.  We were training secret agents before the CIA even came into existence - even before its predecessor the OSS was formed!  Us, Canadians!  Granted, we don't have a lot of fascinating history to begin with, but this history is incredibly cool.

And Hodgson's cool too.  He's hosting a tour of the Camp X site on the Oshawa/Whitby border on the weekend of September 24th/25th - so get out there, if you can! Awesome trip for the kids, too.  It's the only time they can stand in a crater made by a spy-in-training who had too much time - and too much dynamite - on their hands.

And buy his books.  All of them.  Seriously.  Buy them like they're collector's items in the making.  Buy two copies of each - one to keep pristine on your bookshelves, the other to underline, dog-ear and highlight.  Buy extra copies for your friends.  Buy them for friends of your friends.

'Cause if you don't...Well, we have ways of finding you.  *suspicious squint*

Oh, and if you're interested in the '30s, '40s and '50s don't forget to check out my other blog:  Theatre of the Mind, at  Film, radio and fun facts about actors you didn't know you knew!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Closing the Hobbit Door

I was only supposed to be here for a year.  I wasn't supposed to like it.

But, after more than four years, the place kinda grew on me.

Despite the long, blustery winters and the almost nightly routines of digging out of my parking spot and digging back into it again, despite the cramped quarters and the beeping toilet (no, seriously - in summer, it makes a long, trumpet-like sound when you flush it), despite that long, humbling hill to get here - or maybe because of it - this place grew on me.  It's been the subject of not one, but two of my favourite blog posts.

And it wasn't just the apartment that I grew to love.  It was the neighbourhood.  I could go to a restaurant and watch surprise reunions between friends - open smiles and shining eyes.  I could watch total strangers meet at a cafe and strike up a rousing conversation about sports, or politics, or economics - even philosophy.  To each their own language - French, English, Italian, Russian, Korean - it doesn't matter.

And it's not even just a neighbourhood.  I've lived for the last few years on the nexus between Cote-des-Neiges, Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and Westmount.  Each neighbourhood is as different from the other as cities at opposite ends of the country.

CDN - very multi-ethnic, with more new immigrants per square mile than I ever saw in Toronto; your pick of nationality of food, from Ukranian to Quebecois, to Vietnamese to African - all side-by-side for twelve city blocks, and all competitively priced.

NDG - a place that used to be tired and run-down, now gentrified and prosperous.  It's where I do my grocery shopping and the bulk of my writing (excluding at home, of course).  It's here that regulars and visitors come to drink the same coffee as me, work on laptops or read newspapers, or sit outside with their dogs and their posh cigarettes and their intellectual debates.

And Westmount - the other end of the spectrum from CDN; wealthy, predominantly White and English, but chock-a-block with some of the finest, old architecture in the city.  It has a library shaped - I swear - like a medieval castle, with an arboretum next door; sprawling parks turn the neighbourhood an iridescent green from May to October.

And this, my bolthole, so well hidden it has baffled pizza delivery guys for years.  I'd finally gotten the hang of compressing the directions into one or two well-crafted sentences - and translated, just in case.

And suddenly...gone.

On Tuesday, I came home from the gym with my tired lungs full of freshly rain-washed air.  It was such a beautiful day and fine trip through one of the parks that I was on cloud nine.  Healthy, happy, ready to get to work on a book, or a blog post, anything.  Full of inspiration.

Then, my "proprio" - the person who owns the duplex and lives above me - called me up and, with his wife sitting beside me, began to explain why he was forced to ask me to move out.  Suffice to say, it's not my proprio's fault.  It's a long, drawn out problem with the city - a zoning problem, if you would.  The only way to resolve it is by having me move out.

Just like that.  A day like any other, on the cusp of a secure autumn and long-winded winter, and suddenly, life was never going to be the same.

It took about two days for the shock to pass and the heartbreak to begin.  I fought it off as long as I could by viewing apartments on line, testing theories about getting a mortgage and a house and all that; but even after I found an apartment I really liked, I came home and began to cry.

I mean, this is the house of the Improptu Limbo; the house with the very short door; the place where we managed to squeeze in six people, a drum set, two guitars and a portable mixer; the first place where I ever painted the walls and attempted to make the place look and feel like a home.  The place where I wrote ten books in one year - writing site of the Helix Series, the novelization of the Fog of Dockside City, the place where Hawkeshaw was rewritten - twice.  To some extent it's the home of Lady Butcher and the rebirth of the Alluan series.  And most importantly, it's where the Mummer series was conceived.

Suddenly, gone.

My home had been ripped out from under me.

It was the second time, too.  The last time this happened was in 1998, between the second and third years of university - a bad year all around.  I'd moved off campus because my roommates (with the exception of Susan Gunther) were jerks of the highest caliber.  I'd found an apartment about half way between school and work, and it was big basement apartment in a house, cost-effective, in a nice suburb, and I loved it.  The day after I moved in, the proprio there put the house up for sale; four months later, I had no apartment.

Out of spite, I signed up for a mortgage with someone I should never have trusted.  That Female cost me well over $10,000 in losses and debts, and sullied my virginal credit rating by saddling me with joint credit cards that listed yours truly as the primary card holder - and therefore, the only person held accountable for the outstanding balance.  But that's another story for another day.  Suffice to say, it took years to recover emotionally, and over a decade to recover financially.  We sold the house at a loss, and I was stuck with all the periphery debts of a pathological liar who had clearly gone insane.

That was then.  This is now.  Advance a few days from the shocking announcement that I had to give up my home - again.

Saturday was the day before I was supposed to head for Ontario - and later, to Muskoka for the wrap-up shindig for the 2011 Novel Marathon.  I went to the dance studio for a group lesson.  At the end of the hour, I went back into the cloak room, where countless other purses are stashed, and found that mine was inexplicably lighter than normal.  It took seconds to realize what had happened, and two full days to believe it.  My wallet - and everything in it - had been taken from my purse, and the purse zipped up again.

I scoured the Hobbit Door apartment from the ceiling to spider haven under the desks.  I hadn't lost it.  I hadn't misplaced it.  Days after I lost my home, my very identity had been taken from me.  The trip to Ontario was canceled, and I was suddenly, utterly broke.

Worse, someone had access to all my finances and could run up the same debts That Female did a decade ago.  It had taken eleven years to be able to secure another credit card on my own merit; receiving it in the mail was like a repentant convict receiving a pardon, a job and a new lease on life.  And in the wink of an eye, it was gone again.  Paid off, but gone.  And what for?  Ten dollars was all I had in my wallet - that and a Metro Pass and my YMCA membership card.  They can't use the credit card - I shut that down within four hours of the dance lesson.  They can't use the interac card - you need the PIN for that.  Because of somebody's thoughtless greed, what I needed was gone; and what was gained was an ugly wallet and a lot of useless plastic.  Gone.  Taken from me.

And I had relied on that credit card because the sum total of my savings equaled the deposit cheque I had put on a new apartment.  I had no food in the house, because I had expected to be in Ontario for a week, and I hate coming home to have old food greet me at the door.  I had no gas in the car, either - and no license with which to legally drive.

Inside of a week, I had lost just about everything but the books on the shelves and the computers under my fingertips.

Gone.  Everything utterly gone.

Add to that some 24 hours of violent food poisoning and one busted zipper on my jeans, and I call that a perfect week!

But it's funny what happens when you lose everything - or think you do.

You take an inventory of your life.  You see what you really have left to you, in terms of finances, investments, debts and possessions. 

And you take an inventory of other things, too.  Projects that you've left outstanding.  Plans you've never accomplished - and commitments you renew.  Family and friends that are eager to back you up, lend you money, give you a hand in packing, moving and cleaning.  Good friends.  Solid people good to their word.  Responsive friends.  People who surprise you by how much they care.  People who root for you and cheer when good things come your way.

In all that accounting, you count your blessings and realize that yeah, all is not lost.  You realize that you've been underestimating your life all this time.  You discover new avenues you had been afraid to pursue because you were clinging to old dreams you didn't need anymore.

Yesterday, I got a very happy call - the first good news in days.  My credit check passed, my references all checked out, and I was the new rentor of a very, very swank apartment.

And what a place, complete with French doors, a patio, greenery outside my window, separate rooms for my bed and my office - and still another room left over for greeting guests.  And a kitchen!  And hooray, hoorah - a bathtub, for which I had been longing these last four years.  All that, plus underground parking, security cameras, great neighbours, and appliances included - even a new dishwasher!  The door is taller than I am, and I can't touch the ceiling.  It's the first time I've ever rented an apartment that has ceilings I can't touch.  And it's art deco!  I write about crime in the 20s, 30s and 40s for goodness sake - all my posters are vintage - art deco, with all the original lighting fixtures!

And I can have a dog.  I've always wanted my own dog, and I've lived 15 years without one.  Now, all this is mine.

So much to be gained, suddenly, in the blink of an eye.

All I had to do was lose everything that I had been clinging to.

Best of all, it's only about six blocks away from where I live now, on the CDN side of that very same nexus.  Granted, that doubles the length and incline of that danged hill I complain about, but I don't have to completely uproot myself from the area I have so grown to love.

And yes, I'm  now under pressure to get things packed and have all my identification replaced, and yes I had to cancel my trip to Ontario...

But if there's one thing I can say is - to borrow a phrase from ING Direct:  I found out I'm richer than I think.  Turns out I had just enough for everything I needed - nothing more, but exactly what I needed.  I can't drive without a license, so I don't need gas; but  I had enough money to cover the deposit cheque, for food, and to start replacing my ID.  I can work from home, so I don't even need my security access pass.  All my other bills are paid automatically.  The replacement credit card should be ready for pick up as early as tomorrow afternoon, so I get my buffer back.

Despite everything that's happened in the last eight days, I have nothing to worry about.

And this has been a good time for reflection and accounting.

Above all else, I've discovered that, in terms of friends and family, I'm wealthier than any of those tycoons and magnates lining the hills of Westmount.  And not just fleeting acquaintances either; if solid friends are like sure property investments, I own Mount Royal.  When things blew up, I could feel family and friends nationwide rallying about me, and even when things were at their worst, I never despaired.  Everything was going to be okay, and I wasn't alone.  I was never alone.

That said, I am sad to be closing the Hobbit Door.  It's the end of an era.  I'll be signing off and closing an extraordinary chapter in my life.  But it's far from the end of the story.

There's a twist to this tale.  See, on Sunday (taking the long walk back home from church), I happened to check my voice mails.  I had missed a call on Wednesday last week - the day after I lost the apartment and four days before the wallet was stolen.

It was a message from Visa, advising me that my card was shut down.  Someone had attempted to copy the number and make purchases.  The card was flagged as fraudulent and anybody who attempted to use the card would be quickly confronted - and if we're lucky, arrested for fraud.  Bad luck for the thief.

As my favourite Old Time Radio hero would say..."Crime does not pay."  It's so awesome that I get to say that in context and with a big, smug grin.

I'm glad for a happy ending.  The good guys win in the end, and there are more exciting chapters to come.