Car Shopping for My Characters

Cars are often one indicator of a character in a novel. Black ops characters usually drive something with many tactical advantages in a fight; other characters are often described by their sports cars or family cars, most of which cost more than the readers of the novels make in a year.

In my novel Lena, (set in 1954) I introduced a new character to the Florida Folk Magic Series named Pollyanna. The name made her sound like a spoiled brat who lived at the estate of wealthy parents. In fact, she grew up at a fish camp and knew her way around the business and everything that went with it. She needed a practical vehicle:

This is a 1949 Ford F-1, 1/2-ton Silvertone Grey pickup truck. It was the lowest of the line of Ford F-series trucks made between 1947 and 1952. Perfect for a fish camp, though Pollyanna would have gotten a 3/4-ton F-3 if she could have afforded it. Pollyanna always had a 1935 Smith & Wesson model 27 .357 magnum revolver in the glove box or in a thigh holster.

Since she lives near a small town, everyone recognizes her truck. This  isn’t helpful when she’s spying on bad guys. So, along with a blonde wig, different clothes, etc., she drives the family’s seldom used Blue 1949 Dodge Wayfarer coupe:

oldcaradvetising photo

When I visualize a character, I try to see what kind of car fits who they are. The town storekeeper drives a 1949 2R clover green Studebaker pickup. The Sanctified Church uses a Buick Roadmaster hearse. The fuel hauling company drives an Autocar surplus tanker truck. The police drive Chevrolet Bel Air squads.

Finding the right car for each character is sometimes a thrilling treasure hunt and sometimes an exasperating search when years and models seem to be missing from the Internet.

For me, tracking down cars is a heck of a lot more fun than trying to figure out what kinds of clothes my female characters would be wearing years ago.

–Malcolm

The Kindle edition of Malcolm R. Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer is FREE on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NSA probably thinks I’m a women’s clothing designer

When I was a child, I was told that women wore dresses, skirts, and various kinds of things that I called trousers but that women called by magical names depending on the styles and fabrics. From snippets of conversation, I learned that dresses and skirts are not generic, that they had names/uses/purposes, that they came from different designers, factories, stores, were either last year’s fashion (no longer in use) or current fashion (in use).

The bottom line is this: I know that the women in my novels have to wear something, but I don’t know what it is. That is, I can’t just say, “Alice wore a dress.” If it’s a high-scale dress, then I’ll need to know a designer. I’ll need to know what kind of dress it is and under what circumstances it’s worn. I always assume that the kind of dress suitable for a PTA meeting isn’t suitable for a New Year’s Eve party aboard a royal yacht.

The NSA comes into play because not knowing anything about anything, dress-wise, I’m online a lot. Multiple clothing searches. The plot thickens, dress-wise, when I’m working on a novel (as I am now) set in the 1950s. Unless some kind of a retro fad is going on, dresses from the 1950s aren’t being worn today, even to a PTA meeting.

The good thing about searching on, say, women’s clothing of the 1950s, you not only come across articles discussing how fabrics/styles changed from the war years (if you’re young, I should tell you World War II on the homefront meant utilitarian clothes, rationing, etc.) to the 1950s. (For example, the Vintage Dancer site was a nice place to start. So was Fashion History Timeline.)

This gives me a general picture–including what the clothing was called. Moving on, I can then search on the names of the clothing, finding vintage ads, catalogue pictures, and even Etsy shops that specialize in retro clothing from certain eras. So, while Brad Thor, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and other black ops novels are keeping up with weapons and tactics, I’m desperately trying to find out what my characters should wear and when.

People always ask why research takes longer than writing. It all comes down to the fact that I learned only the difference between a dress and a skirt, but none of the thousand styles or accessories. It was, I suppose, a lapse in my education and/or upbringing.

Malcolm

P. S. –  My older woman character named Sparrow wears a Kitty Foyle dress that was popular in the 1940s. If you’re not sure what the dress looks like, you can watch Ginger Rogers in the film “Kitty Foyle.” Rogers won an academy award and the dress she wore in the film endured.

 

 

No, I don’t need Khaki trousers

If you’re online a lot–including social networking–you’re probably used to the fact that if you ever mention (or think about) a product, you’ll suddenly see dozens of ads for that product. At present, Facebook is deluged with ads for toilet paper. Gosh, I wonder why? Those who checked out these ads, unfortunately, found that the projected ship dates were in June.

Writers see ads others don’t see because we’re always researching something. For the novel in progress, I checked on the kind of Khaki a middle-aged person might wear in the early 1950s. Now, Khaki ads are showing up on Facebook, on news sites, and everywhere else I’m going on the Internet. At least, on Facebook, you can make the ad go away if you say you’ve already bought the stuff.

(We go through a lot to bring you the most accurate books on the planet.)

When I was researching hitmen, I started seeing ads for contract killers until finally the FBI called up and asked if I wanted to kill anybody. I said “no” and they said, “fine,” but I wonder if they’ve really gone away. No doubt the NSA scoops up my telephone calls and searches for words like “rub out,” “concrete shoes,” and “kick the bucket.”

Some writers share Facebook accounts with their spouses and get in trouble when these kinds of ads appear: “Honey, why are we suddenly getting ads for brothels?” The proper response to that is “Somebody hacked into our account.”

When writers talk on forums about their research, they wonder how many watch lists they’re on for researching nefarious stuff for their novels. While the famous writers can visit the police department and learn everything they want to know, little-known writers are stuck with Internet searches.

“Honey, I got a letter from the FBI and they told me you want to know how to kill your spouse by putting a pinch of something in his/her coffee.”

“Don’t worry, sugar, I saw that in a movie called ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ when I was a kid. The FBI has me mixed up with somebody else.”

“Whew.”

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s short story collection, Widely Scattered Ghosts, is free on Smashwords during the company’s “give back” sale.

 

 

Ad Hoc Writing Research

If I were writing historical novels, I would probably do a lot of research before I even committed to writing each book. My novels are written without an ourline or any idea how they will end up. This means I do the research for each scene when I get to it. While the novel in progress is set in 1955, the fact that I was an elementary school kid in that year doesn’t mean I know a lot about the time period.

So, it’s time to Google everything.

  • The last scene took place at a grocery store. Okay, when somebody entered the store, what kinds of posters, die-cut signs, and hand-written specials did they see on the window sill or window? I found a great Noxzema suburn cream sign, a nice Planters Peanuts poster, and a list of the meat prices per pound.
  • The current scene takes place in the backyard of some well-to-do people. While we had cheap pre-Weber metal barbecue, the fru fru people often had barbecue grills made of brick, 44 inches wide are larger.
  • What are they having to eat? I knew part of this already, but did a bit of online checking. The menu: porterhouse steak, corn, collards with ham hocks, baked potatoes, corn bread, and macaroni salad. The men are drinking either Jax Beer or Old Overholt Rye whiskey. I would enjoy all of this except for the Rye which I never liked.
  • The family wanted music. So, after verifying that long playing records were, in fact, available in 1955 AND that RCA had a three-in-one (78, 45, and 33 and 1/3 rpm) record player, I needed to make sure they had something to listen to. Since the men in the family are KKK members, they won’t be listening to jazz, blues, or gospel. Glenn Miller seemed like a safe choice.
  • Now, if I can, I’d like to find out how long each of the tracks is so I can time the action with which song would be playing at five minutes into the dinner and ten minutes into the dinner, etc.  (I did this once before when I timed the cuts on a Scott Joplin CD with a ride between Tallahassee and St. Marks, Florida. Probably nobody checks these things, but I wanted to know what song would be playing as Emily and her father (in Widely Scattered Ghosts) reached various landmarks along the way. Heck, I even check the weather reports for the dates and cities where my novels are set to make the weather in the novel the same as it was in “real life.”

Okay, I only have one more thing to check. What happens if somebody gets shot in the arm with a target arrow? There’s so little history taught in med school, that doctors can’t tell me what they would have done in 1955. I was e-mailing back and forth with a medical museum curator who admitted that doctors seem to believe that their speciality “rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of ignorance” just before they got out of medical school. So, on treatment, I need to skirt around the specifics I don’t know. I’m not happy about that, but as Vonnegut always said, “so it goes.”

Malcolm

 

 

It probably got your Grandfather LUCKY

It may have even gotten your Father LUCKY
Keep Up the Tradition – Lucky Tiger Company

We all know what it means when somebody says, “I hope I get lucky tonight.”

While researching the brand of hair tonic a sexist pig woud use in my novel in progress, I came across some ads for Lucky Tiger hair tonic that were (apparently) “OK” to run in the 1940s and 1950s but (no doubt) might cause a bit of social media flack today. Here’s one example from 1949:

And another from the 1950s:

So, the man here is just back from Africa after killing numerous animals for sport, and the first thing he does is use this hair tonic to prey on women. Needless to say, all the women in the Lucky Tiger ads I found were just delighted.

I don’t think women in “real life” had much in common with the women in these ads even though it was common in those times for “a man to pursue a woman until she let him catch her” (or so they said). Looking at ads like these, it’s obvious that patriarchy fueled our purchasing decisions as well as our view of ourselves and the opposite sex.

Even though high school and college-age individuals see the 1950s as ancient history, the deeply ingrained attitudes of that “ancient history” continue to impact men’s and women’s roles today. I can’t imagine how women seventy years ago reacted to these ads–along with all those happy housewife commercials that made cleaning the house look like fun.

Today, things are different, but not different enough.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two contemporary fantasy novels, “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande.”

 

 

Looking for an image of an old Rosetta Tharpe recording – UPDATED

If you’ve been around for a while and/or like vintage gospel, jazz, and blues, you know who Rosetta Tharpe was as well as how influential she was. As Wikipedia notes, “Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1963 with a stop in Manchester is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.”

So, one would think that finding a picture of a 1951 Decca release of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with Marie Knight would be easy to locate on the Internet. Perhaps, but I can’t find it and would really like to see what it looks like so I can mention it in a novel. I could fake that, I suppose, by assuming that it looks like the other Decca recordings of the era, but I don’t feel comfortable doing that.

I spent a couple of hours this morning looking for the image. So far, I’ve found everything but. Seriously, I’d rather be writing the novel that pulling teeth, research-wise, for every fact I use. I’ve mentioned Tharpe before in my “Florida Folk Magic Series” because my character Eulalie was a blues singer and knows who all the singers of her era were. In the novel in progress, the main character is named “Sparrow” so that’s why this recording is important. Plus, I like the song, one that everyone and their brother or sister has recorded. Since the book is set in 1954-1955, the 1951 recording is the most reasonable release to use.

If you’re thinking about becoming a writer, obsessions like this will often take over your days.

UPDATE:

And here it is, compliments of Sandy Daigler who picked the one method of searching Google’s images that didn’t occur to me:

 

 

Malcolm

Write what you know: but I’ve never been a bag lady

“BAG LADY: A poor woman, often homeless, who uses bags or shopping carts to transport her possessions and collect things that might be of use or traded for money.” – Urban Dictionary

Authors often joke about the feds tracking them down after they (the writers) use the Internet to learn how to kill people in various ways, break into banks, and commit other nefarious deeds for use in upcoming novels.

Yesterday, I looked at dozens of sites to learn more about bullet and arrow wounds. I found a wealth of information. So far, the police haven’t knocked on my door to talk to me about cold cases involving arrows in the ass.

Years ago, I asked a vet on a pet forum how much chocolate it would take to kill a large dog. Figured I’d get turned in ASPCA. I was surprised that we actually had a good discussion about it: he knew I was an author and not a nasty pet killer.

And then there the time I asked a forensic scientist what a dead lady would look like after she’d been buried for three months. He told me and asked for a copy of my book in which I gave him credit in the acknowledgements. Apparently, I didn’t sound crazy enough for him to suspect I was a grave robber.

It just goes to show, authors not only write what they know but write what they don’t.

So now the novel in progress has a bag lady in it. Needless to say, I’ve never been a bag lady. I once knew a lady that people in town thought was a bag lady. She looked like she was 150 years old (she wasn’t) and had the dried out look old people get who’ve smoked ten packs of cigarettes a week for 80 years. She was the cashier at a small grocery store. One time when the credit card reader was taking a long time, she asked that the screen was saying.

“Waiting for bag lady,” I said (because she bagged the groceries as she scanned them). “Most people around here think I’m a bag lady because I walk everywhere when my car won’t run which is near about always.” After that, she got ticked off if I didn’t come to her register or take her advice on my grocery buying habits. Seems like I saw her everywhere in town and about every time we’d stop to chat, somebody would ask me a few days later why I was talking to “that old bag lady.”  I told people she was giving me brokerage tips.

She’s long gone now, but I think of her as I try to come up with what the bag lady in my new novel will look like and act like. Whenever I have a female character in a novel, I have to ask my wife what kind of clothes she’d wear. I’m aware that women wear clothes, but I have no idea what any of the clothes are called or what for what occasions they’d be appropriate. My wife can’t help me as much this time out because my 1950s bag lady is wearing clothes from the mid-1940s.

Government restrictions seriously impacted the clothing people could buy. My wife wasn’t around then, so I’me learning about color and fabric restrictions, knitting socks for troops, and the no-nonsense styles men and women wore then on line. Even Mrs. Roosevelt was purportedly knitting socks for the war effort. Needless to say, my bag lady doesn’t look like the lady on the cover of that sheet music.

If there’s a crime spree in your neighborhood targeting bag ladies, I have an alibi–enough browser history to prove I’m here in my den doing research.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”

 

 

Having fun with my research

Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.

Typical poster used to get the public to do their own knitting and donate a lot of it to the cause.

Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.

Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages.  A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves).  So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.

While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.

My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.

Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.

When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.

I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.

Malcolm

 

Never go drinking with your muse

My muse and I recently went out to a local biker bar and slammed down a case of Budweiser and several guys wearing badass tattoos and dirty clothes who thought we didn’t belong there.

We probably shouldn’t have made fun of the bikers who were drinking lite beer or were riding Mopeds.

My muse does not look like this.

The good thing about going to a biker bar is this: nobody asks what you do for a job. They assume the answer is either nothing or something illegal and that asking is a good way to get beat up. Suffice it to say, biker bars don’t have Enya on the jukebox. So, don’t expect much empathy there.

The bad thing about drinking with your muse is that she doesn’t like excuses. When you explain why you haven’t been writing lately due to __________, she says “So what?”

Yes, I’m trying to juggle three writing projects at the same time. That’s a first for me. I don’t like it. When I try to tell my muse why I don’t like it, she laughs and comes up with profanity so bad I didn’t even hear it in the navy.

As I told another writer years ago, “I don’t have a muse because high school literature courses portrayed muses as women who looked like they were dying of consumption or thought they were princesses.”

After saying that, a lady named Siobhan showed up and announced that she was my muse. The first thing I learned was that if I mispronounced her name, she’d kick the crap out of me. The second thing I learned was that she’s more psychic than I am. (For those of you who didn’t grow up speaking Gaelic, her name is pronounced “Shivahn.”)

“I want the best for you and your writing,” she always tells me. My response is usually, “You’re the lady who invented tough love, right?”

After a few Buds, we’re saying things that shouldn’t be said. Yet, I have to say, muses are more forgiving than spouses. You can tell as muse to “_____ off,” and she’ll always be there. You can’t say that to your wife or husband.

Basically, my muse thinks I’m hiding behind the research. That is, that I’m doing research long after it no longer matters and that it’s time to start writing the story. Okay, she may have a point. I do have a tendency to over-research everything I write. Maybe that’s because I started out as a journalist and a technical writer. Or, maybe that’s because maintaining that I’m still doing research is a good way to avoid doing any real writing.

I don’t think I’m the only writer who does this even though I’d probably buy a Harley if the main character in one of my novels rode a Harley. Accuracy’s important, right?

My muse said, “that’s a crock.” She also said, “Why aren’t you writing the story yet?” My answer is always, “Because I’m scared that I can’t.” Suffice it to say, she doesn’t buy that.

Malcolm

When does the research for a novel get out of hand?

If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know I take issue with fiction that spends a lot of time teaching its readers something rather than telling a story. In different ways, The Da Vinci Code and the Celestine Prophecy are examples of this. Actually, I enjoyed both books–probably because I liked the messages. I’ve also like Katherine Neville, whose 1988 novel The Eight more or less introduced the heavy-on-teaching/mystery-thriller/ancient-secrets approach to fiction that Brown, Raymond Khoury, and others have used  in a fair number of other novels. When one finds the secret and/or the message fascinating, it’s easy to forgive the fact that these novels have too much lecturing in them.

researchFor the rest of us, our research gets out of hand when we become so fascinated by it, that we left it take over our fiction–presumably, this happens when think our readers will love that research as much as we do or when we’re just sloppy.

Before I write, my research always gets out of hand, as others see it, because I insist on knowing a lot more about the novels’ subject matter, location, and characters than I can possibly use. My conjure-related, blues-related, and other historical notes for Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman are longer than the combined word count of the books.

I do this because I want to internalize the information so that whenever and wherever it’s needed in the story, it naturally appears there without seeming to intrude. In “real life,” most of us act in accordance with our views and beliefs without the need for a Dan Brown-style lecture in the middle of an event that explains to others who are there why we’re doing what we’re doing.  I do too much research because I want the result of it to be a correct novel that doesn’t have to tell the readers why it’s a correct novel insofar as, say, conjure or the blues or the Florida piney woods go.

One never wants a reviewer to say “the research shows” about a book. When it does, it’s gotten out of hand.

One thing one learns when writing nonfiction is that the more often one quotes other people (other than in research papers where you have to do it), the less one understands the material. If you understand it, you don’t need to tell it through others’ words. I believe the same thing about research and the novel. If you have to keep pasting in globs of research, then you probably don’t understand your own subjects, locations and characters well enough to just tell the story.

Yes, it’s easy to say a little too much here and a little too much there and only realize later (probably after the book has been printed and it’s too late to change it) that while correct facts and ambiance are important, they need to support the story and the story’s wont to be continuously moving forward. Right now, my research for an upcoming novel is almost out of hand because I’m fascinated with the subject matter and could just as well keep reading about it if I don’t admit that–past a point–I’m delaying writing the book rather than creatively getting ready to write the book.

So, it’s almost time to stop and to let what I’ve learned become a part of me. Only then will it help the story. Just a few more pages to read, and then I’ll start writing, oh and just quickly check another book or two, yeah, right, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

–Malcolm

To learn more about my two conjure novels, read my spooky web page.