On Writing Historical Fiction

On Writing Historical Fiction

One day this period that we are living in will be the subject of historical fiction. Our Instagram, electric cars, and smart phones will seem like medieval devices. We will seem backwards in our dress and old-fashioned in our thinking. People will think the 2020s were populated by small-minded simpletons, that the people were afraid of science and new ideas, that the governments were stuffy and the class divide was great.

I write westerns under the name, Elwood Flynn (they will be published next year, but you can find Elwood on Instagram if you are interested in following that journey) and so I spend a lot of time thinking about how people thought back then.

It is easy to write two dimensional flat characters, stereotypical and slightly less intelligent than our far superior future selves. To write engaging real people in historical fiction you have to keep in mind one very important thing: Every person who has ever lived believed that they were living in the most modern times in all of history.

Cowboys photographed in grainy photographs in the late 1800s, in bowler hats and waistcoats; how old-fashioned their minds must have been. But even though these were gunslingers in a lawless land, they were wearing the highest Victorian fashion of the time, dressed like the British upper-class. Even outlaws were trendy, just not to us, not now.

Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch were some well-dressed dudes.

Maybe people will look back at teenagers in DCs and hoodies, and wonder, “Why were the teenagers back then dressed so formally?”

That’s how I dressed when I was a teenager, twenty years ago. When people were afraid of youths wearing hoodies. Front page news: BEWARE THE HOODIE! And now there are photographs of politicians wearing hoodies to make themselves seem more normal. More like the average working class man. Rishi Sunak, the British MP, trying to fool us in his hip garb.

Could you imagine Winston Churchill wearing a hoodie?

We think the ideas we are having now about people being scared of vaccines, or getting angry at cancel culture, are modern problems. And they are, just as they have always been.

This is a classified ad from 1952 –

There are articles from the 1800s about the new smallpox vaccine. One article from the Chamber’s Journal, July 31, 1886, reads, “The newspapers constantly remind us that there are many persons in the kingdom who object to vaccination…”

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Comedian’s from 1903 declaring we can say, “good-bye to comedy” because racial and ethno stereotypes were banned on the stage.

In 1957, comedian George Gobel said, “…a TV comic nowadays needs the soul of a seismograph to know where the rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers.”

It has always been this way, and so it will remain. Nothing changes. Not really. We are not advanced. We have not learned from our ancestors.

We have always been, and will always be, modern.

There is a film from 1971 by Ken Russell called The Devils. It was banned pretty much everywhere for its blasphemous sex scenes (the infamous raping of Christ being the main problem), and has still not been released in full by Warner Bros. But that film did something very interesting. If you watch it, it looks weird to the eye. The sets are all so… modern. The prison scenes have bright white tiles, brand new bars. The town walls and the castle are clean and built with new stone.

The film is set in 17th century France and when the set designer came to build the sets, he went, as one does when making a historical film, to create moulds of crumbling walls. Ken Russell stopped him, reminding him that at one time these old castles were not old castles, but modern architecture. And so they built them as new. When we watch The Devils, we are not watching old fashioned people in the past being barbaric, we are watching modern people in the present raging against new ideas, just as we do now.

People have always had complex thoughts. There has always been extremes in outlook. There have always been people who are racist and bigoted, but there has also been people who are against those things. Not everyone in the 1800s was racist, otherwise the politicians, who sink or swim in an ocean made of popularity, would never have been able to abolish slavery.

This post has gone on longer than I had planned, and it’s all to illustrate one point. One lesson about writing historical literature. We must view them with a modern eye.

The thing is, about those cowboys I write about in my westerns, they have no idea that they are living in the past.

Would you like a gun with that ice cream?

In researching gun shops in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1870 I came across this ice cream shop. (It didn’t help in my research but it did make me smile).

Top Google review – “Ice cream and gun shop, what more could you ask for.”

Isn’t America a weird place?

I remember meeting my parents in America once and as we travelled from Boulder City to Las Vegas we drove past a burger restaurant with a sign outside that read, “Enjoy a burger and fire a machine gun.”

I think it was called Burgers and Bullets.

And people think the western is a dead genre. In a place where you can ask for extra pickles and ammo, a scoop of vanilla and a Glock G19, the Wild West is still alive and kicking in the unbridled hearts of a number of its inhabitants.

His Name Was Shane

I’ve been going back and reading the classics of the western genre. The cornerstones of gunslinging pulp.

(The following contains spoilers. So if you just want my reaction, I loved it. I recommend you read it).

Shane by Jack Schaefer was first published in three parts in Argosy magazine in 1946. Pulp to the core. It came out as a novel in 1949 and has never been out of print. Literature with a capital W.

It’s a small book that takes its time. A slow burn. Told from the viewpoint of a boy, Bob Starrett, who watches this mythic rider come into town. The man on the horse stops at his farm house and asks for water for him and his horse. His name is Shane. The boy becomes infatuated with him. His father, Joe Starrett, offers the stranger a bed for the night and he ends up staying for much longer.

They spend time on the land. Shane helps Joe remove a tree stump. It takes a long time and Schaefer keeps with it. Showing each swing of the axe.

Shane doesn’t talk about his past and much speculation is made of him.

Soon that past, or knowledge of who he is, catches up to him. A man flees town upon merely setting eyes on Shane.

Bob and his parents are being run out of town by a rancher who needs their land back. They are homesteaders who staked their land on Luke Fletcher’s ranch. Land Fletcher had never claimed himself.

Shane stands up and defends his new home.

At first I wasn’t sure about the book. You’re spending time with these characters without a lot happening. But the writing won me over. There is something about the farm and the people that pulls you in. I liked spending time with Shane, and Bob, and Joe.

It rewards you for your patience with a great final act.

I would read it again. If you love westerns and haven’t read this one yet it’s well worth it.

5am Writing Blues

Getting up at 5am to write stopped being fun this week. It was hard. The words came out like stone toothpaste.

Next week will be different. I will get up with that same verve that I started with. The excitement of being amongst gunslingers while the house slept.

This week was difficult because the story stopped being a western. It was always meant to start in New York and wind its way west. I’m halfway through and can’t find my way out of the city. Gritting a 6’9″ pissed off lawman and a percheron horse halfway across a country is harder than it sounds, especially when you’re trying to maintain a certain level of pulp action.

I should have picked a city closer the the lawless frontier.

This is Robin Castle’s origin story. He’s a marshal in New York. Something terrible happens to his family and the guy who did it flees. Castle gives up his badge and the rule of the law to take after him.

He finds himself in a dry unforgiving land with vengeance in his heart and a gun on his hip.

Sounded simple when I came up with it.

Author Interview with Elwood Flynn

It is no secret that Elwood Flynn and I are the same person, which makes interviewing him slightly tricky. I write literary horror and he writes pulp westerns. He is my penname, but our styles are different. I wanted to sit down and talk with him about his process.

I met him on set of his first novel, Hell’s Ridge. A small frontier town near the Colorado River. It was 1875. I found him in a dark corner of the saloon. He had a typewriter on the table with a page loaded. He had stopped mid-sentence. Loose tobacco littered a short stack of typed pages.

He was fishing a tooth out of his whiskey. I took the seat opposite him. He didn’t look up or acknowledge me. He let out a sigh. His shoulders sagged. He stared at the elusive molar.

I knew his temperament. I waited for him to initiate the conversation. I looked around at my surroundings. I felt out of place in my t-shirt. A piano played by the bar. I thought maybe I’d go and get a drink. Then Elwood came to a decision. He put the glass to his lips and drank, tooth and all. He put his fingers back to the keys on the typewriter and noticed me.

“What do you want?”

“It’s time we talked.”

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

ELWOOD: No.

ANDREW: It won’t take long.

ELWOOD. No.

He started to type.

I waited.

ANDREW: What are you writing?

ELWOOD: You know what I’m writing.

I decided to get a drink. When I came back he was smoking a badly rolled cigarette.

ELWOOD: I don’t like your books.

ANDREW: Why not?

ELWOOD: You try too hard.

ANDREW: What do you mean?

ELWOOD: You write “literary” horror. That’s how you describe it.

ANDREW: Yes.

ELWOOD: Do you know how pretentious it is that you feel the need to include the word “literary”? Carpenters don’t describe a table as being “wooderary”.

ANDREW: We write in different styles. I write long form horror that adheres to literary convention, you write pulp fiction. I spend hours labouring over the language, ensuring there’s no repetition or-

ELWOOD: Repetition? If your “literary sensibilities” are shaken because you had to read the word “gun” twice on the same page you don’t deserve to be entertained by me. I don’t care if you read it three times. All I care about is the story, which, if I’ve done it right, will be dragging you along by the hair so fast you won’t have time to count the words.

ANDREW: So you don’t care about good writing?

He ignored the question.

ELWOOD: You want long descriptive passages? Tough luck. Use your imagination. All you need to know is Robin Castle has a gun and a bad guy is about to die. And I do care about the writing. I just have different opinions about it to you.

ANDREW: Robin Castle is a great character, how did you come up with-

ELWOOD: Don’t brown-nose me. I’ve read that horror book you wrote, Jack’s Game, is that what it was called? You know you don’t need to describe the curtains, right?

ANDREW: I’m sure I didn’t describe the curtains.

ELWOOD: Nobody ever read a Jack Reacher book and said, “Do you remember the curtains in that one scene? They were great curtains.”

ANDREW: I don’t describe curtains in my books.

ELWOOD: You’re stopping me from writing.

ANDREW: Can I ask one more question?
He didn’t answer.

ANDREW: Is this where you normally write.

ELWOOD: No. I normally get up at 5am. I write for two hours. And then I go to work.

ANDREW: I write in the evenings, when I get the chance.

ELWOOD: You’re lazy.

ANDREW: I’m you. I guess I’m just grumpier in the mornings. That might explain your attitude.

He pulled a gun on me. It was an old six-shooter.

ELWOOD: I will shoot you if you keep speaking.

ANDREW: This is ridiculous. We’re the same person. I just thought it would be good to get inside your head a bit. Try and understand how you think. Why you write the way you do? What made you decide to pair the language down? To write novellas instead of proper boo-

ELWOOD: Proper books? There’s no such thing as a proper book. Long novels are just indulgent. All I did was get rid of all the boring bits. Rip the curtains down. It’s all about movement and dialogue.

ANDREW: I’m not trying to offend you.

Elwood pulled the hammer back.

ANDREW: You can’t kill me.

He pulled the trigger. I felt the bullet smash through my ribcage and lodge in my lung.

He fired again.

Everything went dark.

END OF INTERVIEW

Join the Elwood Flynn Facebook group for news about his upcoming series of Westerns starring Robin Castle, the 6’9″ lawman turned feared bounty hunter.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2868086283473638/?ref=share

Researching the Wild West – Black Elk

Black Elk

It always surprises me how recent events in American history are. In my imagination, fighting between Native Americans and the settlers ended hundreds of years ago.

Black Elk witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn. He toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was around when 200 Sioux were massacred at Wounded Knee, putting an end to Native American military resistance in the West.

In 1930 he told his story to writer, John Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks was published in 1932.

He died in 1950.

When Black Elk was a twelve year-old boy he and a small band of Sioux set off to meet Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull on the Rosebud River. This is his account of a run-in with some white men.

“We were a small band, and we started in the night and traveled fast. Before we got to War Bonnet Creek, some Shyelas (Cheyenne) joined us, because their hearts were bad like ours and they were going to the same place. Later I learned that many small bands were doing the same thing and coming together from everywhere.

Just after we camped on the War Bonnet, our scouts saw a wagon train of the Wasichus ( white men ) coming up the old road that caused the trouble before. They had oxen hitched to their wagons and they were part of the river of Wasichus that was running into the Black Hills. They shot at our scouts, and we decided we would attack them. When the war party was getting ready, I made up my mind that, small as I was, I might as well die there, and if I did, maybe I’d be known. I told Jumping Horse, a boy about my age, that I was going along to die, and he said he would too. So we went, and so did Crab and some other boys.

When the Wasichus saw us coming, they put their wagons in a circle and got inside with their oxen. We rode around and around them in a wide circle that kept getting narrower. That is the best way to fight, because it is hard to hit ponies running fast in a circle. And sometimes there would be two circles, one inside the other, going fast in opposite directions, which made us still harder to hit. The cavalry of the Wasichus did not know how to fight. They kept together, and when they came on, you could hardly miss them. We kept apart in the circle. While we were riding around the wagons, we were hanging low on the outside of the ponies and shooting under their necks. This was not easy to do, even when your legs were long, and mine were not yet very long. But I stuck tight and shot with the six-shooter my aunt gave me. Before we started the attack I was afraid, but Big Man told us we were brave boys, and I soon got over being frightened. The Wasichus shot fast at us from behind the wagons, and I could hear bullets whizzing, but they did not hit any of us.

I do not know whether we killed any Wasichus or not. We rode around several times, and once we got close, but there were not many of us and we could not get at the Wasichus behind their wagons; so we went away. This was my first fight. When we were going back to camp, some Shyela warriors told us we were very brave boys, and that we were going to have plenty of fighting.”