Sunday, May 2, 2010

Truth in writing historical novels

Writing of any kind takes effort. Police procedurals require research into how the police function in the real world. Legal thrillers need a firm understanding of law and courtrooms and what takes place in them. Same with medical thrillers. Writing an historical crime novel takes another level of research and decisions, above and beyond knowing how the police operate at the time.

One question that has to be faced and answered before any words are put to paper is how real are you going to make your novel? Will you try to be true to the day's mores or will you be more politically correct and give your characters some of our modern day beliefs? What about language? Language is powerful. Using strong racial words can be both jarring and hurtful, but if you want to write a story true to its time, do you avoid those words? Or play it safe and avoid the whole mess?

In my newest novel, Color of Shadows and Smoke, the main protagonist, Billy Brewster is an LAPD sergeant in a time when the only difference between the cops and the gangsters in town were the badges. Billy and his fellow cops and just about everyone else in the city of Angels were racists and wanted Los Angeles to be the 'best last white spot in the west'. They did this through overt racism and more subtle methods like housing covenants that didn't allow undesirables to move into white only areas. The LAPD's Chief of Police had gun squads and 'Red' squads set up to rid the city of gangsters and communists. But not to protect the citizens, no, these efforts were to get rid of the competition.

But in writing Color of Shadows and Smoke I had to decide whether to let Billy speak in his own language or clean him up and make him more palatable to modern readers. Would that be honest? Billy's not a nice person. He's not well educated, he's a bigot, a grifter, a misogynist and a killer. But not totally irredeemable. I want to be true to that. So I decided to put it all out there. Show Billy and all his myriad warts. Does it work? Yes, I believe it does. Of all the books I've written over the years, I think Color of Shadows and Smoke is my best one yet. To read a sample, go here, but be warned, it does contain all that language I talked about.

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