by J. David Osborne
I don’t think it’s wrong to want to set your novel in a different country, at a different time. It does, however, carry with it some very specific responsibilities. On a deep level, I think that you owe it to the people you’re writing about to get it at least sort of right. Ghosts are pretty spooky and you don’t want to have a bunch of pissed off spirits haunting you because you’re lazy. On a more present note, you owe it to your readers to not sound like a 21st century American (or Canadian, or whatever) telling people what things might have been like at a certain point in time. People are investing their time with you because they think you are going to fuck their brains but good, and no one wants a limp-dick fiddle fucker poking around the sweet spots.
The best way to write historical fiction is to read. A lot. It’s not good to take extensive notes or anything. You don’t want to sound like a history paper. I live in present day Oklahoma, but I could probably tell you very little about the facts on the ground as they pertain to Oklahoma politics or whatever (which says a lot about me). What I can tell you about modern Oklahoma is what it’s like to go to a grocery store and have Mr. Truck Nuts hollering about Nobama this and that whilst buying eight bags of Fritos and a box of frozen corn dogs. I can tell you what it’s like to go fishing and what it’s like to walk outside every day not knowing if you’re going to need SPF 500 or a ski mask. And I get all of this information by living in it.
So, you need to live in the world that you plan on writing about. The best books for this aren’t the dry historical accounts of things, which are only really good for discovering historical events that you might want to place characters inside of, but rather the oral histories, the books that tell you what it was like to live at that time, in that place, from the mouths of those who lived it. I got lucky with By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends. Gulag by Anne Applebaum reads like a novel. The details that she put into her book, the spoken parts from the prisoners, all of it not only helped me to establish a setting and the things that go on inside said setting, but what the prisoners were actually feeling when they were stuck there.
The other books had nothing to do with gulags per se, but were more designed to help me hear the voice of the prisoners. Pushkin’s Children by Tatyana Tolstaya is an excellent collection of short stories full of the inner monologues of Russian people. Different cultures think differently, obviously. Reading these stories helped me to hear that voice, and internalize it, and forget it. I was writing with a sort-of “Russian persona.” If you read my second novel, Low Down Death Right Easy, the reason it feels so different is because two different people wrote it.
The “facts” aren’t really important; there are a metric fuck-ton of books out there already, written by stuffy folks with big libraries and lots of time, that intricately chronicle the straight-up “facts” (whatever those are) of certain places and times. What you want to do, being a fiction writer, is immerse yourself in the people of the time, make it so their voice is the voice in your head.
It’ll feel authentic, because to the best of your ability, it is.
J David Osborne lives in Norman, OK with his wife and dog. His work has appeared in WARMED AND BOUND, JOHN SKIPP’S DEMONS, and several other online and print publications. He is the winner of the 2010 Wonderland Award for Best Novel for BY THE TIME WE LEAVE HERE, WE’LL BE FRIENDS. His newest novel is the pitch black Oklahoma noir LOW DOWN DEATH RIGHT EASY.
Demons: Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessedis available now on amazon.
J David Osborne discusses his story “Three Theories on the Murder of John Wily” in the Velvet Anthology Warmed and Bound,By The Time We Leave Here We’ll Be Friends, kindle induced anxiety, and his upcoming novel Low Down Death Right Easy in Episode #31 of The Booked Podcast: Warmed and Bound Sessions.
Warmed and Bound: A Velvet Anthology featuring stories by J David Osborne, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Cameron Pierce, Steven Graham Jones, and Bradley Sands is available now.
The latest issue of The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction is now available! This one is guest-edited by Cameron Pierce.
Feature Novella: The Obsese by Shirley Jackson Award-winner Nick Antosca. Imagine The Birds with obese people instead of birds and you’ll have a slight idea of what this brilliant social satire is all about.
Fiction by Stephen Graham Jones, Bradley Sands, Andersen Prunty, R.J. Sevin, Matty Byloos, J. David Osborne, Kirsten Alene, a collaborative story by Alan M. Clark and Jeremy Robert Johnson, and an exclusive excerpt from Sam Pink’s forthcoming novel, The No Hellos Diet.
Non-Fiction by Douglas Lain, Molly Tanzer, Patrick Wensink, J. David Osborne, and Caris O’Malley.
The author spotlight this issue is on multi-talented bizarro favorite Andrew Goldfarb.