During my stint as a middle school media specialist (aka school librarian) a thirty-something 6th grade teacher came in and blurted, “Books set in the 1960s are historical fiction, right?” I felt as if he’d slapped me. I remember the 1960s! Historical fiction is ancient Rome or the Civil War or at least World War II—not something I remember getting dressed for! But according to some sources, he may be right.
It’s a toss-up as to whether or not The Cavanaugh House is considered historical fiction. Set in 1968 in upstate New York, it’s based on memories that are very clear to me. But despite how it’s classified, writing in a past time and trying to keep it accurate is sometimes like ice dancing without skating lessons. Here are the dilemmas I’ve encountered.
Jesse Graham is fleeing her hometown of Rochester, NY after breaking off her engagement to a famous local musician. She wants to escape to a quiet life where no one recognizes her, but, as an English teacher, she must finish out the school year. Thus begins my problem.
To establish the setting, I have Jesse think about the assassination of Robert Kennedy just two weeks earlier. That puts her move to the Cavanaugh House in mid-June where she meets an essential character who invites her to a July 4th celebration. Events at that party are critical to the plot. So what’s the problem? In New York State, school calendars end in late June (I graduated high school on June 27!) so she would not have time to move, get the house habitable and meet this character before July 4. My choices are: 1. Have Jesse resign her position early, perhaps right before exams, and move in mid-June, or 2. Rearrange my plot structure and timing. I tried writing solution #1 into my manuscript and the blood in my teacher veins curdled. Jesse is a dedicated teacher. Dedicated teachers don’t resign their positions early because of broken engagements. Ergo, Jesse stays through the end of the year. That means I move on to solution #2.
In solution #2 I have decided to change the July 4th party to a Founder’s Day party celebrating the establishment of the Wyndham family estate and vineyard. A pretty easy fix, but it will require many extensive changes because the event is referred to throughout the novel. Plus, the timeframe of the novel is just the summer months, so I have to double-check the domino effect of changing the date of the celebration on subsequent events.
Another change I had to make was easier to accomplish, but harder to accept. Jesse has moved into the Cavanaugh House which has been abandoned for 28 years and is mice-infested. She supports the Woman’s Liberation movement and is sensitive to any remark that sounds chauvinistic. In this scene, Joe, her eventual romantic interest, teases her:
He glanced at the items in her shopping cart.
“Looks like you’re going to be a busy lady—woman,” he corrected. “I can’t get this new terminology down.”
Pleased that he tried, heck, that he even was aware of it, she smiled.
“I’m getting ready for Erik to bomb my house. He said the subsequent clean-up effort could be daunting.”
“When is he coming to do that?” he asked.
“He’s bombing on Monday, we’re cleaning up the carcasses on Tuesday and I can move in and start to clean on Wednesday.”
Joe stifled a grin. “Wow, it used to be laundry on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, shopping on Wednesday. ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’.”
Annoyance flared and she leaned her face into his. He held up his hands in a defensive motion.
“I was just pulling your chain,” he laughed.
She realized he had anticipated her scolding.
“You were earning some brownie points a minute ago, but you just lost ‘em.” She scowled at him.
I love this exchange, but there was one problem…it takes place in June 1968 and Virginia Slims came out with the “You’ve come a long way, baby” slogan in late July 1968. One month!!! In order to be historically accurate, I had to change the line, “You’ve come a long way baby” to “This women’s lib thing is really working.” Arghhh!
But what I love about writing historical fiction is the ability to immerse readers into a time period that is so
My release date for The Cavanaugh House will be delayed a bit because of this additional editing, but I believe the story will be stronger for it. No revisionist history, here. I’ve come a long way, baby.