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02 September 2012

Capturing a Moment in Time


I just returned from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my daughter Mélanie (there we are at the Member Lounge, though Mel is still a little young to actually go the plays). Along with some wonderful Shakespeare my friends and I saw a great new play OSF commissioned, All the Way, by Robert Shenkkan, about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. Very much in the style of a Shakespeare history play, it's set on a broad canvas, with a wide cast of characters - politicians from both parties, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, J. Edgar Hoover.

I came home to Lauren's wonderful blog about Regencyland and the difficulties of
"winkling out those elusive distinctions" of a specific year within a larger time period. As Lauren said, "Letters and diaries are even more revealing, the unmediated product of the moment." All the Way uses the actual words of the characters in many cases. It's set from November 1963 - November 1964. And though we talk about "the sixties' as we talk about "the Regency" or "the Victorian era", 1960 was certainly very different from 1969, and 1963-4 was very different from either. All the Way gives a richly detailed portrait of a specific moment in time. The start of the LBJ presidency, the maneuvering over the Civil Rights Act, Freedom Summer, the presidential campaign, Hoover's vendetta against Martin Luther King, the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Yet it creates this complex portrait of the time period through the personal portraits of the characters - their goals, personal and political, their alliances and conflicts, in many cases their relationships with their spouses. Some of the most haunting moments are personal snapshots. LBJ telling Lady Bird to fix her lipstick just before they get off the plane where he's been sworn in after JFK's assassination. Coretta King helping MLK pack and telling him the kids are starting to see him as a stranger. LBJ telling his aide Walter Jenkins he's the closest thing he has to a son and Jenkins gently removing LBJ's glasses, visibly touched, shortly before Jenkins is photographed in a tryst with another man and shunted off to a mental hospital.

I realized that it's similar personal details that evoke a time and place in our books. In The Garden Intrigue, Lauren captures Napoleon's court just before it becomes an actual court when Napoleon makes himself emperor. Napoleon is at the height of his power, still married to Josephine though he's under pressure to divorce her. Hortense Bonaparte is unhappy in her marriage to Louis, pregnant with her second child, not yet in love with Charles de Flahaut. Some of the informality of the Consular era lingers as while Imperial formality begins to creep in. A couple of years before or after Paris would be a different place. In Vienna Waltz, I tried to use the circumstances of the characters to evoke the complexities of the Congress of Vienna. Prince Talleyrand holding on to power in the restored Bourbon government and using all his wits to keep defeated France a player in the international game. Dorothée Talleyrand feeling her wings in love and politics. Wilhelmine of Sagan desperate to recover her daughter and using both Prince Metternich and Tsar Alexander to do so. These characters appear again in my forthcoming The Paris Affair. It takes place only a year later, but in the post Waterloo world their circumstances and goals have changed.

What are some favorite books of yours that capture specific moments in time and what detials evoke the time period?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Murder in Peking by Paul French is non-fiction but it reads like a novel. It's about a young Englishwoman who was murdered in Peking immediately after Christmas 1940 and a Beitish police inspector is sent from Shanghai to solve her murder, assisted by a Chinese policeman.

The British detective's instructions vary according to exactly what's going on during the London Blitz. Even more eerie, the murder victim was in Peking because she'd been sent down early from boarding school due to sexual abuse. Investigating that abuse was difficult because the witnesses - both teachers and students - kept evacuating to "safer" parts of the world. I kept wanting to scream at them, "don't go there!"

The final solution and hopefully justice was finally reached in a forum that was only possible in that particular year. Unbelievably bittersweet, yet somehow perfectly true to the characters and setting.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I heard a piece about this book on NPR, Diane. It sounds fascinating and incredibly sad. It also made me realize Peking during the war would make a wonderful setting for a novel.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I can't wait to read "The Paris Affair" and see the way the historical characters/atmosphere has changed and developed. I think that's one of the strengths of a series, that you have the wherewithal to trace these subtle shifts in the background as you pursue the stories of your main characters.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Lauren! I do think that's one of the advantages and challenges of a series - tracing the way the setting and the characters (both historical and fictional) change and develop even over relatively short spans of time. Speaking of which, I always agonize about getting the clothes right for a given year. Thank goodness for newspaper and periodical fashion notes with dates!

12:58 PM  

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