Where or When — ?

25 May

Where or When is a show tune from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical Babes In Arms. It was first performed by Ray Heatherton and Mitzi Green on Broadway. Frank Sinatra gave it new life in a different style a few years later.

But really, those words are also of the utmost importance to the novelist. The first few paragraphs of your story must convey to the reader the where and when of the story. After that, your writing style and skills will add to that initial ambiance creating an entire package that can not happen anywhere or anytime other than what you say it is. If it doesn’t, you risk losing your reader. I know. I sometimes belabor that point, but what good is it to have a book that the reader can’t lose him or herself in? Trust me, you do NOT want the reader to be throwing your book against the wall!

Here’s a good word to remember in this instance: verisimilitude. According to my trusty Webster’s Tenth, it means: 1. having the appearance of truth: probably. 2. Depicting realism (as in art or literature). Here’s one of my favorite examples: Jane Austen’s Emma was updated in the 1990s and re-titled Clueless. That’s fair game. The book is in the public domain, so the characters and plot are able to be borrowed for such an adaptation. Imagine, however, if the language as spoken in Clueless, were to come out of the mouths of the properly costumed actors in the A&E/BBC production of Emma! Well. That would put the cat amongst the pigeons, now, wouldn’t it?

Or how about this one? Tarzan’s parents were English aristocrats, but he didn’t know the language. How could he, having been orphaned as a baby and brought up in the deepest jungle by caring and nurturing great apes. He could hardly be speaking the Queen’s English while swinging on vines, while traveling from one end of the jungle to the other. I doubt if the apes would have understood him!

If you want to know how people spoke during a certain time, try to read something written during that period. Contractions (I’m for I am, he didn’t for he did not, she can’t for she can not) may not seem like much of a difference to today’s reader, but it definitely marks the time as now, rather than then. Speech was much more formal even 50 years ago than it is in these rush-rush, texting times.

Clothing is also much different, and having your characters dressed properly for their time frame, will help them speak and behave as they should. (Hopefully, at any rate!) In addition to the hundreds, perhaps thousands of books on the topic, look at contemporary or nearly-so paintings in the museum, or ask for art books at your local library.

If your story is set in the last 500 years or so, there are numerous books available at libraries and museums that can clearly demonstrate the speech patterns of various eras. Read Will Shakespeare, for example, to find out how people spoke in the 17th century, or Jane Austen, for the turn of the 19th. However, you don’t necessarily want to carry that pattern throughout your entire book.

You do need to begin with the archaic speech (but not carried over board or exaggerated, please) to help establish the time frame. And then, gradually, you’ll ease up a bit, until near the end, your characters may be speaking almost entirely modern. You should still sprinkle a few archaic-isms here and there, just to remind the reader where he or she is really at in this book!

A major invention that can be of enormous help to authors researching the 20th century is – film! Indeed. Contemporary movies can be fun to watch, but once ‘talkies’ came in, you can also find little bits of speech differences, too. (By contemporary, I mean a movie that’s meant to take place very close to the time it was filmed. For instance It Happened One Night was set in 1933, which is when it was made. The clothing is accurate, as are the actions and speech of the characters.) We laugh at the quaintness of these things when we watch them now, but remember that 1933 was just 77 years ago. Lots of people who are still alive saw it then when it was new, believe me!

One small word of warning: don’t put too much reliance on costumes worn in ‘costume flicks’. All too many times, they’re chosen for how they look rather than how accurate a depiction they really are! (I think it’s safe to think a period piece that wins an Oscar for costume will be more accurate than a non-winning film.)

But paintings and/or a costume museum are the most reliable sources. There are carriage museums (not too many, but some) that can demonstrate close-up and personal the various types of carriages used during the last several hundred years. Look at furniture, too, as well as newspapers or magazines (if available). And, be sure to match occupations to the era. You might be surprised by some of the things you’ll find as you go exploring through history.

Although they are older books, now, if you can find them, I would highly recommend any books by Will and Ariel Durant. Not only are they very readable, but every page (every paragraph, even!) has some interesting tid-bit for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

Of course, if you’re writing (or planning to write) a contemporary story, then you have other worries. Try not to use too many current celebrities, for instance. By the time your book comes out, that person may be only a figment of someone’s imagination or fodder for a ‘whatever happened to . . .’ trivia contest. Songs, books, films and other media might last a bit longer in the popular memory, but—really–who among us can predict the future?

Have you started your book yet? Hmmm.
If you have questions about any of this, please ask? My e-mail is: bookmechanic@gmail.com
Thanks for reading, and please feel free to tell others about this blog! Happy writing!


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