Sunday, March 14, 2010

SETTING IN HISTORICAL FICTION:The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Dear Heather and Meg,

I’m going to begin by sharing two anecdotes that, taken together, lead to the point about writing I wish to make as a result of a close read of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

First, when Deborah Noyes, writer and Candlewick editor, read the first five pages of my novel about a Mexican girl who had recently emigrated to the US, she pointed out that my main character seemed to be noticing things about her home country that only a tourist would notice. Aha!

Second, when working on a novel set in the mid-1920’s I was tickled to find a Montgomery Ward catalogue from 1924 at an antique shop in Seattle. In it I found all kinds of information useful to make the time and place in my novel feel more true to my readers. I learned that my boy character might wear navy blue serge knickerbockers and a checkered woolen cap. The lady running the shop in town might wear a Chappie coat with a jacquette blouse and a neat pair of two-strap patent-leather Slippers. Her hair might be styled in a Venetian Wave. There could be a nickel plated alarm clock by the bed—one that only needed winding once a week. And in the kitchen, a Windsor refrigerator which Costs less money! Uses less ice! And Saves more food!

The problem was, when I stuck these precious tidbits into my story, they sounded exactly like that—precious tidbits. Aha!

Here is the link between these two anecdotes. In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, author Janet Burroway says, “If the world itself is in some way exotic, you will need to work in the opposite direction, to make it seem as familiar as the nearest mall.” (p. 131)

Whether I am writing about a different culture (the young girl from Mexico), or a different era (1924), the things I discover in my research are exotic to me. My job as a writer is to afford these things no more reverence or notice than the main character would. This boils down to an issue of how we treat setting. Again, I turn to Janet Burroway for a definition:
setting involves everything that supports and impinges on your characters. The props of the world—artifacts and architecture, infrastructure, books, food, fabrics, tools and technology—create and sustain identity. (p. 131)
The details of setting and the way our characters relate to them dictate how true the story will feel to our readers—is this the main character’s experience? Or is it the experience as told through the filter of a middle-aged white woman living in rural Washington in 2010?

I went back and thumbed through my tattered copy of L.M. Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables to see how she treated the “props of the world.” That book was written in 1908 as contemporary literature, or at least literature set in the lifetime of the author, who was intimately familiar with the setting. It is roughly the same time period in which The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is set. Here is what I found.

In that book, the main character Anne is picked up at the train station by Matthew Cuthbert who is driving, “the buggy and the sorrel mare.” (p. 10) No details are given about what the buggy looked like, because anyone living in that time would have known what they looked like.

When Anne is given chores to do, “she made her bed less successfully, for she had never learned the art of wrestling with a feather tick.” (p. 39) At the time this book was written a feather tick was a common household item and did not bear defining.

When it is time for Anne to tidy up before going to the picnic she flies “to the washstand.” At the time the story takes place, indoor plumbing was not something enjoyed by all, especially not in rural settings. Because it is common, the author does not point to it as if to say, “Look! Notice this! I have inserted something factual about the place and time!”

And finally, when Anne recounts for Marilla her unpleasant day at school she says, “Mr. Phillips said my spelling was disgraceful and held up my slate so that everybody could see it, all marked over.” (p. 103) There is no fuss made about the fact that she is working with a slate instead of pencil and paper, and no reference to its size or color is made, because any child of that time would have been intimately familiar with this object and it would require no further description.

In order to be true to her character and her setting a writer placing her story in the past needs to make as little fuss about her character’s interaction with everyday items as Montgomery does in her novel. That said I will add a caveat: when writing historical fiction I do believe that a modern writer needs, from time to time, to add a definition that a writer of that era would not have needed. If Jacqueline Kelly had chosen to have Calpurnia sleep on a feather tick, for example, she may have chosen to find a clever way to explain what one is (a cotton or linen sack filled with feathers and sewn shut, in case you are interested). The job faced by a writer of historical fiction is to add those definitions in an unobtrusive way.

Now, finally, I turn to my focus to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a book in which I believe the author does a great job of setting the reader in a place and time that feels genuine because of the well crafted setting. There are places where she adds a definition that a writer of 1899 would likely not have, but I believe she does so judiciously, and in a way that feels true to the story. Apologies in advance for the lack of page citations—I read this on a Kindle and have not yet found a way to cite pages—anyone reading this who knows whether this is even possible – I would love to hear about it!

Kelly’s opening line leaves no question on the reader’s part about the time in which the story is set: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.” (p.1) But throughout the story the props she uses, and more importantly her character’s interactions with them, remain true to the time defined in her opening line. Consider these quotes:

“We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns.”

While Kelly could have simply said, “We used kerosene lamps,” this would not have felt true, because a character of that time would not tell someone such a thing – of course they used kerosene lamps, that was all that was available to them. It would be like Rebecca Stead making a point in When You Reach Me of telling her readers that her characters used electric lamps. Instead, Kelly shows the characters using the lamps.

“The heat was a misery for all of us in Fentress, but it was women who suffered the most in their corsets and petticoats.”

Kelly, the author and the historian, wants her young readers to know that back in 1899 women wore corsets and petticoats, but rather than telling something which would have been obvious at the time, she slips it into a comment about the weather. She uses this technique again here,

“We went into the house. I managed to wash my hands and change into a clean pinafore without notice.”

She is sharing with us a tidbit about Calpurnia’s day in which she must change her clothes, slipping in the fact that the clothing for a young girl of that era was a pinafore.

Another time Calupurnia mentions clothing she says, “For once I was glad of the sunbonnet Mother made me wear to prevent freckles.” I suspect that if Anne had sported a bonnet on that buggy ride with Mathew Cuthbert there would have been no mention made of the purpose it served—to prevent freckles. Any girl of that day would have known why one wore such a hat. Here, Kelly is slipping in a bit of extra information to educate the modern reader—again something I applaud as long as it does not feel like such, and I think Kelly does an excellent job of it.

I could go on and on but will stop here!

StorySleuths Tip #54: To create a setting that feels true to the period of your story, treat objects now considered unusual with the same level of disinterest they would have received in their day. Be judicious when offering definitions, fitting them into an active use of that object.