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Those Pesky Details

When writing historical fiction, it’s so easy to get lost in the details and never write. That’s where I’m at in my current scene. It takes place at the Plaza in late October 1924. There are lots of pictures of this famous hotel inside and out. However, I have been unsuccessful in finding a photograph or a vivid description of the Grill. Below is my process on how I mix both fact and fiction to create my settings.

# One: I knew nothing about the Plaza or where it was located. Nowadays it’s far easier to just jump online and go to the first link that pops up in your Search Engine. Not me. My first stop is still a book(s). One of my go to beginning sources are children’s non-fiction. They get to the point quickly and don’t offer a lot of details. I picked up: (1) New York: Everything You Wanted to Know (2) Eloise at the Plaza.

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# Two: My library had nothing on the Plaza at all. So I did a quick Amazon.com search to see what was available. I found five sources: (1) Sonny Kleinfield. The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza (2) Ward Morehouse III. Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel (3) Curtis Gathje. At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel (4) Eve Brown. The Plaza Cookbook (5) Eve Brown. Plaza: Its Life and Times. 

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# Three: I checked Worldcat to see if any of these five books were at my local library or libraries that were within driving distance. Nope. I was out of luck. So then the crabby cheap scape voice in my head starts whining about not spending any more money on books this month that I should intern library loan them. However, when I go to ABE.com, all five books were under $5.00 with free shipping. That’s just $2.00 more than an interlibrary loan. I decided to splurge and buy all five books.

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# Four: They took about two weeks to arrive. Playing the waiting game, I decided to search online to see what I could find on the Plaza and the Grill. I could find only two online sources that fit my needs (1) (2), but none of these offered a photograph of the Grill. Both of these sites did mention F. Scott Fitzgerald of whom I completely forgot about his obsession with New York City and the Plaza. I attempted to check out Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, but my library couldn’t locate it in their collection (even though their website said it was checked in). So, I had to go here. Fitzgerald described the Grill but in very limited terms.

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# Five: The books began to trickle in slowly. (4) Eve Brown. The Plaza Cookbook, I had been looking forward to reading thinking it would really meet my needs was a bust. More of a craft book than a cook book. (1) Sonny Kleinfield. The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza, I was actually going to have to read this book cover to cover. The events depicted were well past the 1920s (1990s), but I figured not too much as probably changed for the workers of the hotel. (2) Ward Morehouse III. Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel & (5) Eve Brown. Plaza: Its Life and Times, were okay. I could skim them, but they touched on similar things except told me when the Grill closed. (3) Curtis Gathje. At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel, provided the best photographs and images of the hotel. There were no photographs of the Grill, though. The closest thing I could find was the remodeled version from the late 1940s in the Rend-vous room.

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# Six: Now, I combine the sources I found from the internet and few tidbits here and there from the books.

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# Seven: Then the scene looks something like this with the few items I need to research put into [brackets]:

I waited a half hour after Laura and C.J. departed before heading down to the lobby with my purse and the stack of newspapers clutched beneath my arm.

Laura’s new companion didn’t even bother coming up to our suite. He had the front desk announce his arrival from the telephone. I put his rudeness aside. His presence had allowed me one night of freedom.

The gloominess outside couldn’t penetrate the hotel’s interior. The walls were painted a blinding white. The light from the chandeliers winked at me like the glint in the eye of a half a dozen mischievous boys. I had to grip the railing tighter than normal. Every step downward jarred my ribs. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken Jake so far on that walk.

In the lobby, my footsteps echoed off the elaborate marble. The perfume of freshly cut flowers dulled the odor from the unwashed bodies of the travelers grouped around the L-shaped desk. After months of rooming in cheap hotels and boarding houses on the campaign trail, the opulence of the place made a queer knot form in my stomach. Even if Walley could have afforded a place like, staying here would have alienated his voters. I felt the guilt creep back in and I tried to ignore it. Maybe another cigarette, a good stiff drink, and some food would take my mind off him for a little while.

“May I help you?” The attendant behind the desk wore a swell suit. He had parted his hair down the middle and smoothed it down with Brilliantine. His hair’s severity didn’t soften his sharp features at all. It gave him the impression he’d sucked on one too many lemons. Maybe the last lemon wasn’t so tart. He smiled at me and his brown eyes were kind.

I stepped toward the desk and told him what I wanted. A phonograph with some Negro records, a suggestion on where to eat, and where I might purchase some food for Jake. C.J. and Laura hadn’t bothered themselves with him since we’d left Chicago.

The attendant smiled and gestured toward the hallway near us. “The Grill has delectable food with a wide selection of wines and champagnes not found elsewhere in the city stocked well before that inconvenient law.”

“The place have anything stronger than wine and champagne?”

His smile widened a little bit and his brown eyes danced like the twinkling light overhead. “I’m certain that may be arranged. I’ll send someone out to fetch the records and a phonograph immediately. And as for your dog, room service has a menu strictly devoted to meeting you and your canine’s needs.”

My eye brows rose at that. Room service for pets. What else did this hotel offer?

“Thank you, Mr. …”

“Caldwell. And you are welcome, Miss O’Brian.”

I frowned. There had to be well over two hundred room in the hotel and twice as many guests.

 “How’d you know my name?”

The man’s smile dimmed, but the sparkle in his eyes remained. “It is my job. Enjoy your evening, Miss O’Brian.”

Maybe I should have found another place to eat. The clerk’s suggestion led me to the basement. With my hand pressed against my side and my pinched face, I must have given the impression that I required immediate attention.

I was seated at a round table with a placement of four. I nudged aside an empty glass, a fancy plate, and silverware to deposit my newspapers and purse onto what appeared to be a soft, white tablecloth. Clouds of cigarette smoke hung so thick in the air I had to blink away the stinging sensation. The yellow light overhead waved back and forth as I was in a giant shadowed fish bowl. I could make out the faces of the patrons closest to me. A couple [Arnold & Carolyn Rothstein] and several of the college set giggling at the empty bottles of champagne on their table. But the men in the orchestra playing Mozart’s [piece] at the back of the room, their faces were mere hazy outlines. I hoped their food and liquor proved better than the atmosphere.

What is Historical Fiction?

Looking back, I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. I know this comes from growing up on a farm. My Grandfather’s brothers and cousins all lived within a two-mile radius from us. Everyone helped each other. During these group efforts of farm work, there was always plenty of time for gossip. I always gravitated toward my Grandfather, my Great Uncle Laverne, and my Great Uncle John. I always thought they were the best storytellers.

What is historical fiction exactly?

The Historical Novel Society defines this genre as:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

Most of the stories told to me growing up were G to PG-rated. Maybe ventured toward a PG-13 rating by the time I got older (usually for language). One of my favorite stories was told to me first by my Grandfather, my Great Uncle Laverne, then my Dad last year. This story always ended the same and varied only by the point of view. Coming at this story if it were fictitious would be labeled as historical fiction because I was neither alive at the time and had to approach it through research. Whereas my Dad and Grandfather and Great Uncle would bristle at the definition because they lived during this time.

THE RAM

My Dad said he was seven or eight. My grandfather said he was ten. Great Uncle Laverne only referred to my Dad as ‘when he was a little cuss’ (‘cuss’ changed to ‘shit’ when I was older). My Great Grandmother Mamie who had retired and moved into town at this point, still came out to assist with the farm work. There was a particular ram that had taken a terrible dislike to her and anyone that wore a dress. This was the late 1950s or early 1960s (depending on who was telling the story), so every woman pretty much wore a dress. This ram had a particular animosity toward my Great Grandmother Mamie. Uncle Laverne had suggested she had ‘done something’ to the ram. What exactly she had done was never explained. The worst instance involved Great Grandma Mamie while she was milking. The ram waited until she was bent over. He butted her right into the barn wall and busted out her front teeth.

‘THE LITTLE CUSS’

My Dad was ornery. This was something he never grew out of. He knew the reputation of the ram and liked to goad it for fun. Sometimes he would go in the pen, antagonize it enough so it would put its head down and charge him. My Dad would make a game out of it waiting as long as possible to jump out of the pen so the ram hit the fence instead of him.

One early spring day, (this varied too, Dad said spring, Laverne, and my Grandfather always said summer) my Grandmother announced she was going to have a picnic on the front lawn and would be inviting all of her friends from Circle (this is what the Lutheran women called their organization at church). She made a point of making sure my Dad understood that he was to be on his best behavior.

No matter how many times I heard this part, I always thought it was a rather foolish thing for my Grandmother to do. She would have been better off saying nothing. My Dad, being his ornery self — took this as a direct challenge to her authority.

My Dad watched from the barn while he was doing his chores while my Grandmother and Grandfather set up the tables and chairs. All the food. The shiny cars began to snake down the lane and park in the grass. Women exited their cars in their finest hats and dresses. An idea began to formulate in my Dad’s brain. Something mischievous. Maybe even a little evil. But hilarious none the less.

He waited until he finished his chores. He did his usual batting to get the ram riled up. When he knew the ram was good and mad, he let it loose.

The ram didn’t hesitate. He ran straight for the group of ladies. My Grandmother saw him first and screamed. The other ladies scrambled up out of their chairs. Some of them fell. When they attempted to get back up, the ram in a fit of joy, knocked one lady in the rear then another.

My Grandmother never found the incident amusing. My Dad thought it was hilarious. He knew he would get the belt for what he did, but he hadn’t cared. It was so worth it to see the ladies looking like a bunch of bright dominos getting knocked down over and over again. My Grandfather said it was one of the hardest times he had to discipline my Dad. My Grandfather never admitted this to him, but he had laughed just as hard if not harder at the chaotic scene caused by his mischievous son and his devilish ram.

In the late 1980s I asked my Grandfather whatever became of the ram. My Grandfather paused for a minute, then offered me the usual response to the fate of any animal on a farm. They ate him. But he didn’t taste very good, he had said. The meat was too tough.

Mining the Everywhere

Writing is hard. It’s even more difficult when I have to make the historian in me go sit in the corner by themselves. They’re mumbling away: ‘”That isn’t right. You can’t change that. It isn’t true.” My writer self says: “Shut up! It’s fiction, damn it!”

The character in my current WIP has ended up in Sioux City, Iowa. What I knew about the place is minuscule. The few tidbits of history I’d gleaned from my father and husband who both attended college there decades ago. So, I bought a couple of books and inner library loaned several more to immerse myself in the city’s history.

This is what drives the historian in me bat s&%t crazy. I want to find a source–something that goes into in a depth analysis about Sioux City during Prohibition. I can’t find squat print wise. The closest thing I can find is a Master’s Thesis from a South Dakota university on law enforcement during the 1930s and a book about South Dakota during prohibition (Sioux City is rare in that it sits very close to two other states). There are a few things scattered on the internet. The myth of Sioux City being the ‘Little Chicago’ is debunked here. So, I attempt to go to Newspapers.com to see if I can find anything in nearby newspapers.

Grrr….fragments in the newspapers too. But a few things happened at once that helped me get through my current scene.

Cheesy action flicks. I like to have noise in the background, especially things I’ve seen so I won’t get sucked into something new. Commando (1985). It wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beef cake one-liner’s that intrigued me. It was David Patrick Kelly’s character Sully. The small, vicious little guy that was always waiting for the right moment to strike only to get squashed at the end. Kelly creates another intense character, Charlie, in John Wick (2014). He makes Charlie memorable with both his wicked humor and the irony of his profession, waste management. Could I create a character with the same sharp characteristics and make him as interesting as Kelly does with both of these characters (likable feels like the wrong word here)?

That one story. Cheryl Mullenbach’s violent summary of the crime committed by Ira Pavey. A local bootlegger who ended his competition by way of a bullet to the back of their head (I had to confirm the story against the newspapers of the time and it checked out).

David Patrick Kelly and the bootlegger Ira Pavey…I needed to blend these two ideas into one. There had to be an intense and funny guy in this scene. Having him would: 1) Increase tension – feuding bootleggers and my main character is caught in the middle 2) Show the steal of my character by showing the mechanisms she uses to hide her fear and disgust of his profession.

Secondary characters are there to enhance the main character. If you (or I) have done it right, these lower tiered characters can be memorable, too.

Flora’s Secret (Review)

32316856One way to create tension is to force your characters into a tight little space and let them fight it out. Davison, forces her characters to do exactly this in the first installment of her Flora Maguire Series.

This historical who-done-it had me turning pages until the end to where the murderer is revealed. Davison doesn’t make it easy. She fills the story with enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing until the end.

Looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.

Story Always Trumps Fact

“The historian must remember his research, the historical novelist must forget it.” (1)


This is one of my favorite quotes about how to write historical fiction. I feel it sums up exactly what a writer must do in order to be successful in this genre. Historical details may be tweaked or altered to fit a story. But story will always, always trump fact.

Below is an excerpt to a novel that I’m currently writing. It takes place in rural Iowa in 1924. The main character has just survived a terrible car accident with her godfather. She’s guilt ridden, injured, and the doctor is persuading her to submit to an examination. This tiny sample will show how I weave my own personal experiences and research together to create a vivid setting. I have footnoted these for a  smoother reading experience.

EXCERPT:

     I stood on the farmhouse’s porch and clutched its railing. Flecks of cold dusted my knuckles. The stench of manure still hung potent in the air despite the mummer of falling snow.
Tears dampened my cheeks. My teeth gouged by lower lip, silencing the sobs that shook my body. The excruciating pain from my ribs couldn’t compare to the breaking of my heart.
Walley hadn’t meant the things he said. It was his broken legs and pelvis talking. He didn’t regret taking me in. He didn’t hate me. I wasn’t selfish for wanting him to live or was I?
For years Walley had been my knight. His blunt square features with his crooked nose, had been the first thing I’d seen after the thick fog of shock had dissipated after I’d killed my father. It was Walley and not Ida, who had comforted me when I woke screaming from the nightmares. He’d told me he had nightmares too about two boys in a jungle when he’d been a soldier in the Philippines. (2)
Someone touched my elbow. I startled. The movement jarred my ribs. I grimaced and turned away, wiping my face on the sleeve of my leather coat so the doctor couldn’t see my tears.
“He is finally asleep.” The doctor had a thick German brogue. He was a short, balding man with a tiny mustache. Behind a thick pair of specs, his enlarged brown eyes mirrored compassion. (3)
“I hesitate to give anyone such large doses of morphine, but in this case…” He sighed and stepped toward the railing. He smelled of perspiration and a sweet sickly odor that reminded me of the doctors who had operated on me when I was ten.
“I’ve done all that I can for him. I have no x-ray machine to know the exact details of his injuries. The governor needs a hospital.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “He is the governor, is he not?”
“Yes. He—he was to have given a speech at the the high school in Templeton.(4)  We were to stay at the rectory with Father Brenahan. (5) He and Walley were friends and neighbors growing up near Corning.”
“The train does not usually arrive until eight o’clock.” The doctor reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his watch. “That—will not arrive for several hours.” He returned his watch. “I will accompany you both to Sioux City. I have a colleague, Dr. Switzer, who is a fine surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital.” (6)
I nodded. “Thank you, doctor. I will pay for everything.”
The doctor bristled before he made a disagreeable sound low in his throat. “Miss Parker described the state of the automobile to me. And by the look of you, he is not the only one who has sustained injuries.”
Walley’s words returned, echoing in my head. You ungrateful, selfish bitch! I told you I didn’t want to be a cripple. Why couldn’t you do it? You did it for him. The tears came again. I stared out into the night and dug my fingers into the railing. Tiny splinters poked into my skin.
“Take care of Walley,” my voice trembled. “I’ll be swell. I’ve been through far worse.”
“That very well maybe true, Miss O’Brian, but you do have injuries. Several to the head. You may have a concussion. I am able to see and smell the blood distinctly from where I stand. Your ribs are not doubt broken. How many and to what extend will be determined by my examination. The Governor has been seen too, now, it is your turn. I will take no further arguments.”
His footsteps were hard and steady. The hinges of the screen door squealed before he opened the kitchen door. The kerosene light made a silhouette of his stiff shoulders and the ridges of his knuckles as he gripped the door frame.
“Come, Miss O’Brian. If you do not, you will force me to do my examination out here in the cold.”

 End of excerpt

Sources:

  1. Celia Brayfield & Duncan Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction (2014).
  2. Iowa had many governors from 1900 to 1931. One thing they all shared was they were Republican. I combined many of their attributes to create Walley’s character. I used one element of former Governor Dan W. Turner’s life. He served in Iowa’s 51st K Company which fought in the Philippines for a year and a half. Many of the guerrillas he was fighting weren’t much older than fourteen. This haunted the former governor when he spoke of it in an interview years later. I used this as well when I would describe a flashback involving Pru and her father later on in the novel.
  3. This area of Iowa had a lot of German settlers. They brought their customs, language and way of life to northwest Iowa. German immigrants encountered a lot of hostility during and after the First World War. One of my favorite shows, Boardwalk Empire, had a German character, Eddie Kesslar. His accent is what I heard in my head when this doctor speaks.
  4. 1924 was an election year for the governor. I made him an incumbent riding into office on the dry ticket in 1920. Templeton was not a dry community. Much of the towns economy was based on agriculture and when the market tanked after World War I, farmers turned making money through illegal alcohol production to keep their farms afloat.
  5. Templeton is a small community located in Carroll County in northwest Iowa. It had a large influx of German immigrants in the 1880s who brought with them their catholic heritage and their love of alcohol. During 1920s and the 1930s the entire town banded together to keep the production and selling of illegal alcohol a secret from prying prohibition agents. Their brand of rye spirits became well known and desired by the bootleggers in Chicago. Two really good sources about Templeton are: Bryce T. Bauer’s Gentlemen Bootleggers and History Book, Century of Memories, Templeton, Iowa 1882-1982.
  6. Western Iowa is incredibly rural, and it still is today. Templeton is a very small town. Paved roads were not as numerous and were not as maintained as they were today. Rail service was the fastest way in and out of a town. Sioux City at the time was probably the largest city at the time equipped with a better hospital to care for someone with Walley’s injuries. However, Sioux City is 106 miles from Templeton.

Kindle Unlimited

Image result for kindle unlimited imagesI’m already a Prime Member so I’ve been debating on whether to fund another avenue in Amazon’s empire. I know there are other sites and places out there that offer better options such as Oyster and Scribd (which I already use as a sort of server function for another site I manage) or free, such as the public libraries. What made me click the ‘submit’ button, was the research factor.

I’ve been eyeing some drink guide books from the 1930s. I can’t get them through inter-library loan and I couldn’t justify spending the money to buy them (if the paper back version is anything like the ebook free sample version, both versions would be pretty hideous, however I really only wanted a few recipes out of each book anyway and the recipes are legible). I finally decided to take the plunge and join. Pretty soon I found other writing craft books that belonged to the unlimited family as well. So, by the time I pay for gas, get in my car and head to the library multiple times in a month, I’ll probably just break even. But if I can get the research books I need without too much hassle, it’s worth it.

Speakeasy Rules (1933)

I’ve been trying to flesh out one of my characters’ favorite hang outs. In the 1930s it had to be a nightclub. A nightclub could also be called a speakeasy depending on whom was talking or where one was in the country at the time (New York City had the most). One of the most famous was The Cotton Club in Harlem run by gangsters, operated by blacks and run by whites with whites only clientele. That was the way things were, unfortunately.

Researching nightclubs during the early thirties, I came across Stanley Walker’s account of nightlife in New York City originally published in 1933 and the proper etiquette to follow if one found themselves in a speakeasy/nightclub.

85th W 3rd Street Club Rules:

  1. Reserve a table in advance so as to be certain of admittance
  1. Don’t offer any gratuities to the head waiter or the captain as you enter the door. If the service was satisfactory, tip one of them a moderate sum before leaving
  2. Bring along your own ‘atmosphere’ with you. It avoids controversy and it is much safer all around.
  3. Do not get too friendly with the waiter. His name is neither Charlie nor George. Remember the old adage about familiarity breeds contempt.
  4. Pinching the cigarette girl’s cheek or asking her to dance with you is decidedly out of order. She is there for the sole purpose of dispensing cigars and cigarettes with a smile that will bring profits to the concessionaire.
  5. Do not ask to play the drums. The drum heads are not as tough as many another head. Besides, it has a tendency to disturb the rhythm.
  6. Make no requests of the leader of the orchestra for the songs of the vintage 1890. Crooning ‘Sweet Adeline’ was all right for your granddad, but times, alas, have changed.
  1. Do not be over-generous in tipping your waiter. Why be a chump? Fifteen percent of your bill is quite sufficient.
  2. Examine your bill when the waiter presents it. Remember they are human beings and are liable to error intentionally or otherwise.
  3. Please do not offer to escort the cloak room girl home. Her husband, who is an ex-prizefighter, is there for that purpose [Walker, Stanley. The Night Club Era (1933). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp 288-9].

Microsoft Word, I quit you :-p

paperclipMicrosoft Word. I quit you. Not only are you a corrupter of files for no good reason, you also suck at organization for non-linear writers. Sure I can create folders, make document for each scene. Then I hope I remember what I named you later. No more. I have divorced you. Sure I’ll use you when I absolutely have to. But HAVE TO are the big words here. I’ve moved in with Scrivener and I’m infatuated. No I’m in love.

SCRIVENER lets me move scenes where ever I want. I can even have my research there in this program. Character bios. Character locations. Notes. All there. Together. No more am I forced to have multiple documents open at the same time. And there’s so much more Scrivener can do that I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Then add in ZOTERO. Man, where was this program when I did my undergraduate thesis? You can take notes. Attach pdf documents. Heck, it even creates bibliographies, if you’re into that kind of thing. Tags for sources and notes help you find things with a quick search. You can even create sub folders to store your sources that pertain to whatever you’re working on as well as a master list (in case you need the source for something else later). It’s like Evernote’s flashier, better cousin. So sorry, Evernote. You’re gone too.

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