WHEN I WAS AT THE WHEN WORDS COLLIDE FESTIVAL this past August, I was lucky enough to speak with Sharon Wildwind. Sharon writes nearly historical novels set during and after the Vietnam war, where she worked as a nurse with the U. S. Army Corps. (If you're not impressed by that alone, you should be.) Since we both love writing and think it's important to remember what the past has taught, I asked Sharon if she'd be interested in contributing to Suzenyms. (I'm so pleased she said 'yes'.) What follows is the first segment of her two-part post:
THANKS TO SUSAN FOR ALLOWING ME an opportunity to talk about writing nearly historical novels. When does a book become a historical novel? The Historical Writers of America has one simple rule: if your setting is at least 50 years in the past, it's historical.
2017 minus 50 equals 1967, so anything set in 1967 or before is historical. Considering I was in my third year in university in 1967-68, I find that date disturbing. I must be older than I think. So what about that - to borrow The Doctor’s phrase - wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey period - between, say 1967 and 1997? Can you remember life in 1971? Were you even born?
When I planned my first mystery series arc, I knew there was an absolute, fixed end-point: April 30, 1975, the day the Saigon American embassy fell. My protagonists were veterans who had served in the U. S. Army, and I wanted the last book to explore their lives in the two weeks after the Vietnam War ended.
I thought, maybe five books in the series? If I backtracked five years, that would set the first one in 1971. Serendipity. In the late spring of 1971, I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, having just come off of my post-Vietnam leave. Wiggle the time a bit and start Some Welcome Home with Captain Elizabeth Pepperhawk, U. S. Army Nurse Corps, just back from Vietnam, arriving at Fort Bragg on July 1, 1971.
(Yes, the photo to the left is me the previous year, a first lieutenant at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam.)
Problems and perks of nearly historical novels:
1. Nobody knows how to classify the book. It’s not truly historical, it’s not contemporary. I had more than one person 'in the know' say that setting a book in the 1970's meant it would never sell because it couldn’t be pigeonholed. It wasn’t like I could change the date the war ended, so I knew I had to go with what I had. Turned out I was right and they were wrong.
2. There were a lot of people around who remembered 1971 to 1975, and most likely, remembered it wrong. Ask any cop: four witnesses to the same traffic accident will tell four different stories of an event that happened in the past hour. To build my authentic historical shell, I started with Wikipedia because it had a (likely) reliable historical timeline for each year. Then I went to the library and looked at all of the Newsweek and Time issues from January to August 1971, paying particular attention to the coverage of the Vietnam War.
3. A nearly historical writer can’t afford to take anything for granted, especially things everybody knows are true. The nice thing about near history is that there are likely to be numerous resources to verify facts. The downside is having so many references available that it sometimes turns the nearly historical writer into the nearly hysterical writer.
Here’s a photo taken the day before Saigon fell. What building has the helicopter landed on?
Most people will say The American Embassy in Saigon. They’re wrong. It’s actually 18 Gia Long Street, which was a house that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may or may not have used as an apartment for some of its operatives. When I found that out, I realised I had a perfect location for an event that happened to one of my characters.
4. I was very fortunate that I’d kept a journal in Vietnam and had taken over 1,000 photos, mostly black and white. And I had buddies with whom I could check not only the facts, but the sense of time and place.
When you sat around in the evening over a beer, what did you talk about? Answer: home and food.
What did you order from a Sears catalogue and have delivered to Vietnam that you couldn't do without? Most frequent answer: an electric blanket because it kept your blankets and sheets from mildewing.
During basic training, what songs were helicopter pilots most likely to queue up on the juke box in the basement snack shop? Answer: Sky Pilot by Eric Burdon and the Animals and Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers.
In the end, the five book/five year span worked. I had loads of fun writing the series, and when Saigon fell, me and my characters were satisfied and happy to go our separate ways.
Two sites I recommend if you’re writing historical or near historical fiction:
Historical Writers (UK)
Historical Writers of America (USA)
(Thanks, Sharon. Great post, and I look forward to your next one. - Susan.)
Sharon's Bio: Sharon Wildwind is a Calgary mystery writer. Although her Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen mystery series is currently out of print (she has some print copies available), the series will soon be out in electronic format. Ditto for her non-fiction book Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, based on the journal she kept and the photographs she took while serving in Vietnam.
You can find more about Sharon and her books at http://www.wildwindauthor.com.