REALIZE THAT HISTORY IS PERSONAL.
Historical novelists think a lot about what makes the period of their novels different from present day. They research it endlessly. Indeed, many historical novelists say that is their favorite part of the process. When the research is done and writing begins, though, how do they create a sense of the times on the page? “With details” is the common answer, but which details, exactly, and how many of them?
And what if the period of your novel is not terribly far back in history? If your story is set in the 1970s, is it enough to mention Watergate, or do you need to be even more specific about disco, VWs, horizontally striped polo shirts, and oil shocks? How about contemporary stories? Does one need to convey a sense of the times when the times are our own?
To start to answer those questions, read the Op-ed pages in the newspaper. Does everyone see our times in the same way? No. Outlooks vary. That should also be true for your fictional characters. What is your hero’s take on our times? As in so many aspects of novel construction, creating a sense of the times first requires filtering the world through your characters.
Joseph Kanon’s richly layered debut mystery novel, Los Alamos, won the 1998 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He followed with The Prodigal Spy, The Good German and the tragic and complicated Alibi.
Alibi is set in Venice in 1946, immediately after the close of World War II. Rich Americans are returning to Europe, among them widow Grace Miller, who migrates south to Venice, having found Paris too depressing. Grace invites her son Adam, the novel’s hero and narrator, who has been newly released from his post-war service as a Nazi hunter in Germany. As the novel opens, Adam tells of his mother’s return to the expatriate life:
After the war, my mother took a house in Venice. She’d gone first to Paris, hoping to pick up the threads of her old life, but Paris had become grim, grumbling about shortages, even her friends worn and evasive. The city was still at war, this time with itself, and everything she’d come back for—the big flat on the Rue du Bac, the cafés, the market on the Raspail, memories all burnished after five years to a rich glow—now seemed pinched and sour, dingy under a permanent cover of gray cloud.
After two weeks she fled south. Venice at least would look the same, and it reminded her of my father, the early years when they idled away afternoons on the Lido and danced at night. In the photographs they were always tanned, sitting on beach chairs in front of striped changing huts, clowning with friends, everyone in caftans or bulky one-piece woolen bathing suits. Cole Porter had been there, writing patter songs, and since my mother knew Linda, there were a lot of evenings drinking around the piano, that summer when they’d just married. When her train from Paris finally crossed over the lagoon, the sun was so bright on the water that for a few dazzling minutes it actually seemed to be that first summer. Bertie, another figure in the Lido pictures, met her at the station in a motorboat, and as they swung down the Grand Canal, the sun so bright, the palazzos as glorious as ever, the whole improbable city just the same after all these years, she thought she might be happy again.
There are several things to note in this highly atmospheric opening. First, Kanon weaves an undercurrent of tension through these two paragraphs, a tension that derives from his mother’s longing for … well, what? Paris is dissatisfying. Venice, seemingly untouched by the war, is full of sunlight and memories. A mood of nostalgia would be enough here, but Kanon himself is not satisfied with a mere rosy glow. Venice is “improbable” and Grace’s lift of spirit is tinged with doubt: “She thought she might be happy again.”
That word might is a calculated choice. Do you get the feeling that Adam’s mother will not recreate in Venice the happiness of the pre-war party of the 1920s and 1930s? You are correct. Grace is courted by a distinguished Italian doctor, Gianni Maglione, whom Adam immediately dislikes—with good reason, as it turns out. When Adam begins a love affair with Claudia Grassini, a Jewish woman who survived the camps by becoming a fascist’s mistress, he is drawn into a tragic conflict. Claudia accuses Dr. Maglione of wartime collaboration and, worse, condemning her own father to death at Auschwitz. Adam’s mother wishes to leave the past buried, but Adam, given his background and love for Claudia, cannot leave it alone.
Kanon’s opening also effectively evokes Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. Paris is “grim” and “grumbling.” Grace’s Paris is specific, too: Kanon mentions not just the city’s streets, cafés and markets, but Grace’s flat on the “Rue du Bac” and the market on the “Raspail.” For all I know, Kanon could be completely making up those places. It doesn’t matter. It is their specificity that brings this Paris of food shortages and long memories alive.
Venice, by contrast, is full of false sunlight and sweet memories. These memories themselves are highly specific: afternoons on the Lido, striped changing huts, Cole Porter. Kanon plucks from his research a few choice tidbits that hint at a life of gay carelessness and privilege. His narrator’s casual familiarity with them contributes to the passage’s reality. But it’s not only that. The details and the mood, Grace’s naive longing and Adam’s cynical foreknowledge all roll together into a couple paragraphs that create a unique moment in time.