I didn't get very far today--sidetracked by some Story Circle work (the "secret project" that Paula Yost and Peggy Moody and I, and now Linda Wisnieski, have been working on) and by some other writing-related stuff (talks I'm giving that need descriptions and bios). I'm probably putting off writing, but that's okay. I've been at this long enough to know that something's always cooking on the back burners, and pretty soon it'll boil over and I'll be back in business again.
What's cooking right now is the issue of time. You probably know that I love historical fiction. One of my very favorite mysteries is The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, in which the detective, confined to bed, solves the murder of the princes in the Tower--and Richard III didn't do it. I enjoyed writing as Robin Paige with Bill, doing those Victorian/Edwardian mysteries (some of those historical mysteries had historical back stories!). And I'm having fun with the Cottage Tales, set in 1905-1913 in the Lake District. I've also been playing with historical back stories in the past several China novels. The death of her father, which threads through Hearts, Dagger, and Nightshade, takes place 16 years before the time of the story. China's job, as detective, is to recreate the past, to find out what really happened 16 years ago.
So I love fooling around with narrative time. And when I decided to set Nightshade in a Shaker village, I thought (probably too confidently), that it would be fascinating to set one mystery in Shaker time, a second in China's time, and tie the two plots together--somehow or other. (Don't ask me, because I don't know yet.)
But when in Shaker time? When the village--Zion's Spring--was first established, around 1820 or so? Or when it was flourishing and the herb business was in its prime, in the 1850s? Or I could set it during the Civil War, which in Kentucky was a cataclysm, or after the War, when things were beginning to fall apart, or in the first decades of the 20th century, when the Societies were closing, one after another. Or even in the 1930s, when Deborah Woodruff set her Kentucky Shaker mysteries. I can see a different story in each of these periods, can't you? Any one of these eras would have its own special interest, special appeal.
But I have to choose one. (Yes, I do, since this is only a back story, and can occupy only a third to a quarter of the whole novel.) After letting the question stew for a while, I've chosen the 1890s. There--you see? Just a couple of days ago, I was thinking the 1870s! And when I actually start putting down dates, it may slide into the early 1900s. It's still a bit unclear at this point.
But whether it's 1895 or 1905, my reason is the same: in all of the 19 Shaker villages in the country, this was probably the most conflicted period. It was clear that things were falling apart. There weren't enough strong young people to do the work, there was thievery and embezzlement and worse, and the World's People were encroaching upon the peace of the village. Some people are trying to hold onto the quiet center of their faith, keep everything together, but it's difficult, it's really impossible. Like the very beginning of the Shaker Societies, the ending was a chaotic, unsettled time, the stuff of good fiction. If I can't make a story out of this material, I'm not much of a writer.
So now I have a setting--Zion's Spring--for China's main story and the Shakers' back story, and a time for the back story, more or less. Of all the elements of fiction, I always think that the place and the time are definitive, because they control so many of the other elements: the way people talk and work and live, the way they relate to one another, their issues and concerns, even the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the tools and technologies they use.
While we're talking about this, I want to mention Sue Grafton's S Is For Silence, which I wrote about some time ago. I like the way she brings together two stories: the story of what happens on four days in July, 1953 (told from the point of view of the people involved) and the story of Kinsey's investigation in 1987, told (as usual) from Kinsey's first-person point of view. Her development of the 1953 plot is very strong, and her use of period detail is excellent, A+++. Grafton is very much worth studying, for all kinds of reasons. And if you're writing a first-person mystery, of course, she's the first writer you should turn to.
Enough for tonight. I got a new book today, Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals, and I want to skim through it. In the next entry, I think I'd like to talk about research, resources, that sort of thing.
From my log book: 6 writing days, 7800 words. Some days I've made my 1500-word goal, some days I haven't. But I'm making progress.
Reading note. Why send to Europe's bloody shores/For plants which grow by our own doors?--from the cover of the first Shaker herb catalog, printed in 1830