While doing research for my current work-in-progress, I wanted to find vintage photos of teenage boys in the 1945s. Fortunately for me, Life magazine published a photoessay on teen boys in 1945. Fast forward to the 1.54 mark of the this video.
Category Archives: Writing Historical Fiction
When I was a teenager, every summer we would go to a picnic hosted by the company my mother worked for. One of the features of the event was a watermelon-weight-guessing contest, and it was because of this game that I learned about a peculiar skill of my father’s.
Anyone who wanted to play would pick up the designated watermelon and guess its weight. I clearly recall the first time it happened. Dad walked up to the watermelon, picked it up, moved it up and down a few times, and said, “Twenty-seven and a quarter pounds.” People laughed at how precise his number was. After everyone had a turn, my mom’s boss revealed the melon’s weight. It was exactly 27.25 pounds. Dad’s on-the-noses guesses happened several years in a row.
You see, in the decades before UPS became a nationwide shipping service, the United States had the Railway Express Agency, and sometime in the years before I was born, my father worked for them. So he handled a lot of packages in his day and learned to judge their weight with uncanny accuracy.
My parents, decades after Dad worked for Railway Express, but still enjoying watermelon!
The agency was founded as the American Railway Express Agency in 1918, soon became American Railway Express Inc, and for most of its existence (1929–1960), operated under the name Railway Express Agency.
The agency shipped packages all across the United States by way of special railcars attached to passenger trains and by trucks to the nearest train depot from towns that weren’t on the railroad. After World War II ended, a coal shortage hit the nation, forcing the railroads to cut back on passenger service. That made the agency’s job of routing shipments more complicated because Railway Express didn’t have trains of its own.
The shipping agency faced other difficulties during the postwar years. Toward the end of the war, the federal government authorized the creation of a system of interstate highways, which would make truck shipments more feasible than before. Also, during the postwar boom, more families bought automobiles, and family road trips became increasingly popular. This caused a further decline in rail travel.
To keep its indispensable place in the nation’s economy, the agency acquired a fleet of refrigerated rail cars, known as reefers, for express shipments of perishable goods. That strategy bought the agency only a short-lived reprieve, however. Shipping by truck increased, and UPS began to ship by air. Railway Express failed to keep up, and in 1975, the agency (by then called REA Express, Inc.) terminated operations.
Because of the family history, in the new novel I’m writing, I’ve decided to have the father of my main character work as a package handler for good old Railway Express. The novel is set in the 1940s and 1950s, the last glory days of a bygone American institution.
While working on a chapter that deals with the death of my main character’s uncle in the Italian campaign during World War II, I decided to look up how long it took to bring back the bodies of dead members of the U.S. military. Having grown up during the Vietnam War and seen the televised footage of caskets returning home, I assumed that it might take a few weeks or months at most. But the answer stunned me. The United States did not bring home the first shipment of World War II dead until October 1947, a full two years after the war ended.
More than 400,000 U.S. military personnel died during the war. The government offered the surviving families two burial options: 1) they could choose to have their loved ones buried in an overseas military cemetery, or 2) they could ask to have to the remains returned to the United States for burial.
World War II was a much more widespread and complicated conflict than any the United States had fought before; battlefields ranged across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The government realized that because the dead were found in such far-flung regions—and because not all of those places would be in friendly hands at war’s end—it was likely that many more families would want their loved one’s remains returned than had occurred after the end of World War I, which took place primarily in Europe.
Not all the dead were recovered. The remains of more than 280,000 Americans were found. (Some are still being found.) As it turned out, more than 171,000 families chose repatriation. In a little more than three-quarters of those cases, those who died were buried in private cemeteries, with the rest being eligible for burial in national cemeteries.
Why did it take so long to return the bodies?
- First the war had to be won. The government had a policy against transporting remains while the conflict continued.
- Second, after hostilities ceased, the military had an enormous job to get the live troops back home safely.
- Third, recovering the bodies of the fallen, buried in temporary graves around the globe, was in itself a logistical nightmare.
- Fourth, the government had to contact all the families of the dead to learn their wishes. The questionnaires did not go out to the families until 1946, and then the government had to compile the results so it would know what to do in each case.
Next week, I will write about the process of bringing the remains home.
One thing I love about writing a novel set in the mid-twentieth century is researching the characters’ clothes. Currently, I’m having fun dressing my main character’s mother. She’s a self-absorbed character who feels overwhelmed by her large number of children, so her clothes are one of her few methods of self-expression. Here are two of the outfits I chose for her. The time period is early to mid 1940s.
The following outfit is one that she wore to a doctor’s appointment: the navy polka dot dress on the right, but with a different hat than the one shown on the pattern. I see her wearing a saucer hat like the one shown, but in navy with a white bow at the back.
The outfit below is one she wore to church in the summer. It’s a sleeker style because by 1944, fashions were trying to accommodate the need to use less fabric because of the war. The shoes I chose are made of fabric, not leather, for the same reason. White gloves not black. And her shoes are the red sling-back pumps with pom-pom bow in the lower left corner.
I’ve started writing my next novel. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll continue with this storyline, but for now, I’m working on a possible prequel to Katie, Bar the Door that tells her mother’s story. Because it’s set further back in time (1939 to 1956), I’m having to do more research the way I did with my two historical novels. The other day, I was trying to figure out the process Marietta’s uncle would go through when he was inducted into the army during WWII. Lo and behold, I found this great little informative film.
For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. One of the many reasons for my interest in this topic is that I happen to live in a community that was founded as a religious utopia at the turn of the twentieth century. Zion, Illinois, was founded in 1901 by a faith healer named John Alexander Dowie.
Dowie was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to a religious family. His father worked as both a tailor and minister. In 1860, the family moved to Australia to better their economic situation. The young Dowie became interested in the spiritual aspects of healing at an early age. An experiment with his father’s pipe at the age of six made him feel so sick that he swore off the use of tobacco or alcohol. He developed digestive problems once they moved to Australia, a condition that he claimed to heal by praying and trusting in God.
When Dowie was 21, he returned to Scotland to enroll at Edinburgh University, where he studied theology and English. His father called him back to Australia before he obtained his degree, but once there, he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, a denomination he served for nearly ten years. During this time, he published an anti-Catholic work called Rome’s Polluted Springs.
He became an independent minister once he began to preach divine healing, the belief that he could cure people through prayer and the laying on of hands. He was briefly involved with the Salvation Army and later got in trouble with the Melbourne, Australia, authorities for leading unauthorized processions. Fire destroyed his church under questionable circumstances, bringing the suspicion of arson down upon Dowie. He used the insurance money to pay off his debts and then moved to the United States.
He held services up and down the West Coast for a couple of years and then visited Chicago in 1890 for a convention on divine healing. A successful experience healing a woman with a fibroid tumor convinced him that God wanted him to stay there. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he rented a nearby property and held services of “Divine Healing.” Many scholars believe that the majority of the healings that took place were entirely staged, although there is some evidence that Dowie was able to relieve people of psychosomatic illnesses.
He continued his work in Chicago after the fair, gaining quite a few followers—and substantial opposition from those who thought he was a fraud. In 1896, he founded the Christian Catholic Church in Zion. (At this point, Zion was a reference to the mountain in Israel, not the later community in Illinois.)
Because of the continuing controversies about his work, Dowie secretly bought 6,000 acres of land in far northern Illinois (45 miles north of Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan. On that land, he founded one of the only completely planned communities in the world. The streets were laid on a grid with a circular drive surrounding the church at the center of the town. All north-south streets except two were given Biblical names. (The two non-Biblical names were chosen to honor his native Scotland.) East-west streets were numbered, starting with 1st Street on the Wisconsin-Illinois border and going south. A great deal of land was reserved for parks, a feature that continues to distinguish the city today.
The government of Zion was a theocracy, controlled by Dowie’s church, which prohibited consuming alcohol, tobacco, and pork, or practicing modern medicine. Dowie owned all the land in town and offered settlers 1,100-year leases.
The town, supposedly built as a community where believers could lead a perfect Christian life, turned out to be a giant economic fraud. Dowie’s followers were required to deposit their money in Zion Bank, which was not a legitimate financial institution but was wholly under Dowie’s control. He also sold worthless stocks in various Zion businesses. The town was continually in financial trouble, and in 1905 when Dowie traveled to Jamica for health reasons, he was deposed. The town came under the leadership of Wilbur Voliva, Dowie’s lieutenant. An investigation discovered that somewhere between two and three million dollars were missing.
Gradually, the church’s hold on the town diminished. Other churches were founded in Zion, as were new businesses. It remained a dry community for nearly a century, but in 2000, the city council passed an ordinance allowing liquor to be sold within the city limits.
Dowie’s fame, however, will live on as long as people read great literature. James Joyce was so intrigued by the man that he made him a character in his novel Ulysses.
Ever wonder what I think of Henry VIII? What historical period I’d like to visit? What historical figure I’d want to be in a past life?
You can read the answers to these and other questions in my interview on the Pittsburgh Examiner.
It feels as though I’ve been very slow at starting the new novel, mostly because of the distraction of cancer treatment. This week, however, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. That’s because I stopped just reading about the historical background for the book. I actually started on the outline.
My method is pretty direct. I start by listing chronologically the main events from the life of the woman I’m writing about—at least, the ones that pertain to the period of the novel. Unlike The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which covered a time span of more than 30 years, the next book will cover only a few months. Once I have my list of actual historical events, I’ll start adding fictional episodes as needed: events that fill in the gaps of motivation and character development. The third and final step will be to sort those roughly into chapters.
I still have a lot of reading and research to do yet, including a trip this summer to the area where the action of the novel took place. But as a writer, I’m happiest when I’m juggling research and more creative activities.
I also received some really terrific news today. I heard from a state historical society that they have three photographs of the interior of my main character’s house (taken before the attacking Indians burned it). And I can purchase copies. That’s going to be an invaluable help to me as I write.
This past week, I started doing serious research for my next book. For some reason, I’m finding this upcoming project more intimidating than The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which is odd because the new book will cover a much more condensed time period. Maybe I’m nervous because I have a better idea now of what researching a historical novel actually entails. Last time, I went into it with a certain naïveté.
At any rate, I want to organize my research more efficiently than I did last time. One thing I’m doing is to highlight the books I read. You have to understand that I’m someone who NEVER marks up books. This time, however, I’m highlighting important facts and details in yellow highlighter and even writing an occasional comment on the side–so far, mostly connections to other events or questions about the author’s objectivity/interpretation.
I also bought several packages of colored flags, and I plan to use them to indicate the different categories of information. Yellow for plot events, blue for information about my main character, green for details of daily life in the late 1800s, etc. Of course, I’ll do a lot of Internet research and probably set up a system of folders for book marks, maybe using the same categories, maybe others.
I’ve also realized I’m going to have to create a list of minor characters. There will be a lot of people in this book, although most will appear for only a page or so. It can’t be helped because of the nature of the historical conflict I’m portraying. Making a list will help me decide who to include and who to ignore.
That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far. Do those of you who are writers have any other helpful tips for organizing research?