I’ve been thinking about ‘Making Up the Past’ since the fourth grade. That year we studied North Carolina history, and my best friend Sam and I wrote a play about the Lost Colony. We didn’t worry too much with the details of writing in the past; we would have had no idea what ‘anachronistic’ meant, if a critic had lobbed that charge.
Later that year, though, I wrote a story of my own about World War II fighter pilots. As I was writing what was supposed to be the climax, an odd and unexpected thought crept into my head. Without warning, the notion occurred to me that young men in the 1940s probably didn’t talk to each other the same way fourth-grade boys talked to each other on the playground.
Of course, having become and then been a young man, I now know that most young men in any era or circumstance talk to each other almost exactly as they talked to each other on the fourth-grade playground. The vocabulary changes (not for the better, all in all), but the conversational essence stays about the same: “Watch this!” “That’s nothing, watch this!” “You suck.” “No, you suck.”
Still, little fourth-grade Ed was onto something. I was writing characters who spoke the same slang words my friends and I used, and somehow the writer in me knew that while some words are made to last, these words were transient, unstable, and would not have been used forty years before.
Many years later, I remember that early effort every time I write something set in the past. Now I know about things like the Oxford English Dictionary, and how to find and study contemporary accounts of times and places. I know how language can change, how the looping, discursive narratives of the early colonial era become the more rational, less artful descriptions of the Revolutionary era.
I’ve learned how just one or two ill-advised, inauthentic word choices can break the spell of a book. One author, writing about NASCAR, described Dale Earnhardt as the governing body’s bête noir, and the crowds in the Darlington infield as hoi polloi. Earnhardt may well have been NASCAR’s dark beast, but he sure was nobody’s bête noir; infield crowds usually are common people, but they are never hoi polloi. That book lost more than a bit of its enchantment, and I lost a little respect for its author.
Keeping the reader enchanted is the goal of any story, whatever time or place it’s set in, and that has less to do with strict historical accuracy than with an unbroken sense of authenticity (only a miserable pedant would fault Shakespeare’s references to striking clocks in Julius Caesar) and good old-fashioned storytelling. How do you achieve the two? I can’t wait for the third week in September, when we’ll try to answer that question.
Ed Southern will be teaching “Making Up the Past (And Getting It Published)” at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, September 19-23, 2011. For details, see http://tablerockwriters.com/instructors/instructors-southern.html