Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Timing is Everything

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
well-defined by everyday items such as clothing, automobiles, music or simple facts such as access to only one telephone located in the first floor hall. This kind of element allows the suspense to build because communication is not so instantly available.

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.

The Cavanaugh House will be available at Amazon  in print and ebook  in April.


  1. Wonderful post! As a reader, I appreciate that attention to detail. Since I was also around in 1968 (and I call books set in that time "mid-century" instead of "historical;" helps me not to feel like an ancient relic. LOL) I remember those events you reference. I'm one of those who might think, "Huh. Did they say 'You've come a long way, baby' in 1968? Wasn't that the '70s?" and then Google it to satisfy my own curiosity. Even though you had to change that wonderful bit of dialogue because of the timing, it makes the whole book stronger, and your fiction more believable. I thank you for that.

    As a writer, I feel your pain! My first three books are set in 1968, 1975 and 1982, and getting those details right was sometimes a pain. But it was also a labor of love to those times, and I enjoyed the research. My next book is contemporary, and I must say it's a little bit of a relief to be able to have my characters whip out a mobile phone and pull up a weather app. :)

    I'm really looking forward to reading The Cavanaugh House! Can't wait for April!

    1. You understand exactly what I mean, Juli! But I agree, as a reader I want those details to be correct, and as a writer, I can't do it any other way. The Cavanaugh House was easier than my two historical romances set in colonial Virginia though where I had to eliminate any contractions or slang! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I was one of the lucky beta readers for The Cavanaugh House and I highly recommend it. I'm looking forward to seeing your novel on Amazon and other venues, Betty! And I was in high school in 1968, so I remember it well. Compared to now, communication was so inconvenient, yet somehow we managed. I also have to agree with Juli, it's "mid-century," not historical. Historical is ancient Rome. ;)

    1. Thank you, Deb! Yes, I agree that 1968 is too recent to be historical...I was in high school then, too LOL. I remember feeling privileged that we had an extra phone upstairs and it had a long extension cord so when boys called we could take it into our bedrooms for privacy. Now I can really say, "You've come a long way baby!" :-) Thanks for stopping by, Deborah!

  3. Betty, The Cavanaugh House sounds like a delight, even though I agree with you that checking every nuance can get exhausting. I have a beta reader who calls me on it every time--too modern is her favorite phrase. I love proving her wrong, but she's more correct than I am most of the time. But historical romances, be they from 1860 or 1960, are my favorites to read.

  4. I thought I had checked everything carefully, but my editor is finding things I overlooked like using the phrase "High end" which she found wasn't coined until 1977...too late for my 1968 setting. I do love historicals despite the extra work, and one reason is the way you capture your readers and transport them back in history in your Cotillion series - it's magical! Thanks for stopping by, Becky!

  5. The book sounds delightful. Historical research can be so much fun but fraught with the peril. Part of the author's struggle is to be almost as knowledgeable as our readers.

    1. I do love the research part of writing historicals, but you are right about the peril. Tiny details can slip by if we're not careful. When I was writing Love's Destiny (1776) I had to remove the word "hello" since it came into use with the invention of telephone. Thanks for stopping by, Lola!