Technology, gay rights, the Confederate flag, and other cool ways to date your novel

It’s exhilarating to be living through so much change, especially when it seems to be going in the right direction. But what if your books become dated because of it?

Earlier this month at the Glens Falls Public Library Julia Spencer-Fleming, my favorite living Episcopal mystery romance novelist*, took a question from the audience about coping with changes in technology in her books.

As she pointed out, cell phones have made mystery writers’ lives a lot harder. She also noted that she is fortunate in her setting — a place an awful lot like Argyle, New York — because if necessary her characters can encounter poor or no signal in the local wilderness. (I’m thinking Clare and Russ really need to avoid Verizon, because so far I’ve had no trouble up north.)

Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rico Shen, via Wikimedia Commons

Spencer-Fleming also mentioned advice she’d gotten to keep technology as unspecific as possible. In other words, perhaps your characters should just call someone rather than doing something with a “phone.” Specific devices or ways of using them can become obscure in a couple of years.

I had to deal with this as I spruced up (AKA finally coming up with decent endings for) some short stories I used in “Missionary Dating and Other Stories.” Cell phones hadn’t even been thought of when I first drafted one of them. Some beta readers told me I needed to clarify when these stories were set, or update them, because they were no longer realistic.

This week another of my books got dated in the way I had always hoped it would. “The Awful Mess: A Love Story”  has a sub-plot involving gay rights which is centered largely on Winslow the cop’s support of his lesbian sister, and suspense over Winslow’s conservative father’s ability to cope with the discovery that his daughter Laura is not only gay, but she and her partner Carla are having a child.Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love Story

One of the issues is that Laura would have no legal rights to a child born of Carla if something happened to their relationship. But as of this week, the Supreme Court has made marriage equality the law of the land. Laura and Carla wouldn’t need to worry that their marital or parental rights wouldn’t hold up simply because of where they were living.

So if the need for nationwide marriage equality had been my A plot, my book would have just become a bit quaint. Such are the risks of dealing with current events. But that can also add a depth of truth, assuming one can avoid stooping to mere propaganda.

ManfieldPark1999One of the reasons I enjoy the take on “Mansfield Park” in the 1999 movie is that it links the Bertram family to slavery in the West Indies, whereas in Austen’s novel you’d have to be pretty aware of the history to even suspect it. (It also spices up Fanny by crossing her with Jane Austen herself — an unforgivable sin in the eyes of some Austen purists, but personally I think this particular Austen novel needs a bit of tinkering before it will work on screen).

I’m also conscious of history changing as I work on my third novel, “Bardwell’s Folly.” It’s about the daughter of a famous dead Southern novelist who was raised in the North, almost completely ignorant of her family roots. When she gets caught saying something racially insensitive, she is forced to try to better understand her Southern legacy.

And oh boy. We have we seen some fast changes in that regard this week, especially in regard to the Confederate flag. Good changes. Way overdue changes.

Of course, the flag is the least of the issues involved, as opposed to the continuing institutional and social racism endemic in the South and the rest of the country, almost as if the Civil War continues to be fought — and sometimes even won by the wrong side.

Still, having people like Strom Thurmond’s son proclaim that the Civil War was fought over slavery is a good step forward. For someone who grew up in Florida watching people like Thurmond and George Wallace win elections using racist code language (or out-and-out hatefulness), it’s astonishing to see the Confederate battle flag so quickly lose supporters.

Sometimes it’s a minor thing that can mess you up. I’d been toying with the idea of having my heroine and her traveling companion, the daughter of a distinguished African American, meet up with a figure very much like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to explore their ancestry, much as is done in the fascinating series Finding Your Roots.

But that show has just been suspended. Gates is in hot water because the show left out Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at Affleck’s insistence.

My reaction to this: Affleck is a wuss. Part of what inspired “Bardwell’s Folly” is my own infamous ancestor, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (yeah, that guy who built his fortune trading slaves, massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and served as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan). My maternal grandfather’s first name was Forrest, after him. And Forrest, along with the Confederate battle flag, is more popular than ever on Confederate bling marketed to that anxious subculture of white Americans who say they “want their country back.”

I find that deeply disturbing, frankly. Especially in a country where, since 9/11, domestic terror is taking twice the toll of the foreign-inspired terrorism we’ve just spent vast fortunes and thousands of American lives trying to defeat.

In other news…

Summer blog post schedule

I’ve been keeping dutifully to a Saturday posting schedule for this blog since I started following a regular schedule in February, but as of this week I’m switching to summer hours. (Part of this is because I was with my lovely grandkids this weekend and vastly over-estimated the energy I’d have left after my return.) So, through August I’ll post every other Sunday. I may also have some interesting guest posts for you soon.

Requisite book flogging

Cover of Missionary Dating and Other Stories“Missionary Dating and Other Stories” goes live Tuesday, which (I just learned) is the absolute worst day to launch a book, because that’s when traditionally-published books release.

It’s always fun to learn these things.

Anyway, it’s currently available for pre-order in e-book format only at all the retailers.


* Dorothy Sayers is my favorite dead Episcopal (technically, Anglican) mystery romance novelist.

 

 

 

Showing some love to … Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

Novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980). From the home page of The Barbara Pym Society.

If you don’t know who Barbara Pym is, you’re missing out. I’m going to give you a quick introduction here in the hope that you may enjoy her books as much as I have.

(This is the debut of a new series of blog posts in which I share some of my appreciation for my favorite authors or books or other cool things out there. My theory is that if you’re curious enough about my stuff to pop in here, you’d probably like some recommendations of stuff I like. I may be inviting some fellow authors to guest post in this series, too.)

If you love Jane Austen for her social commentary and not just her romance, you’re likely to love Pym. Like Jane Austen, Pym was English, though she was born over 130 years later. Both write about gentlewomen in distress. Their heroines struggle for dignity and love in a society that has little concern for single women of limited means.  Many of their heroines have either seen a reduction in their status, or are at great risk of it.

Austen and Pym are also both very, very funny.

In Austen’s novels, a love-match to a good man of property is what signals the heroine’s ultimate triumph. In Pym’s novels, first published mostly in the.1950s and 60s, there is not always that definitive a resolution, but there are certainly plenty of romantic longings, and much finely observed social comedy along the way.

Pym finds both delight and absurdity in the rituals of daily life. Her characters are often fellow parishioners in the local Anglican Church (either in villages or London neighborhoods) or anthropologists on the hunt in one way or another. Her men are caddish or hapless but somehow still appealing. Her supporting women exhibit various degrees of thoughtlessness, clumsiness, competitiveness, or eccentricity, while her heroines strive to maintain a sort of cheerful, desperate dignity.

Pym’s take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Here she is in probably the first book I ever read of hers, Excellent Women:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Jane and Prudence might have been next, or perhaps A Glass of Blessings, but I really became enthralled when I got to An Unsuitable Attachment.

In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.

Ha! It boggles my mind that this was the novel, after six others found publication, at which her publisher and all other British publishers balked, sending Pym into an exile from her readers that she found baffling and distressing, as any author would. She didn’t stop writing, though.

Where to start reading Pym probably depends on your tastes, but if they are anything like mine, do not begin with either The Sweet Dove Died or Quartet in Autumn, the more modern novels that she published after both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil called her “the most underrated novelist of the century” and rescued her from obscurity. These are not typical works of hers and definitely not my favorites, though I do not regret reading them.

My favorite Barbara Pym novel of all — and I am probably in the minority in this — is A Few Green Leaves, the one she rushed to finish before she died of breast cancer in 1980. In this village story, a lonely anthropologist longs for a close relationship with any man, though the sweetly hapless local vicar is clearly a better sort than another potential candidate. As in many Barbara Pym novels, love and the local parish are a source of both comedy and pathos, but their treatment strikes me as more affectionate here than in any of her other books.

There are many other books I haven’t even mentioned, of course. Crampton Hodnet was released posthumously, but it was an early one by a younger Pym and it’s quite funny.

I can’t help reflecting that if Barbara Pym had hit that brick wall with the publishers in our time, she could have turned to self-publishing to keep her loyal  fans reading. (Of course, I suppose we could also worry that she might have published the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle too soon and never gotten properly edited or found a wider audience at all.)

If you can’t find Pym in your local bookstore or library, you can find her in the online bookstores today, though not all of her books are still in print, or even available on Kindle, at least in the United States. I hope that is changing, since I do see a few available that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that in a world gone so crazy for Jane Austen (who well deserves it), Barbara Pym isn’t at least fully in print.

Pym’s work also strikes me as great fodder for some fine comedic British costume dramas set in the 50s, like Call the Midwife only less sappy. I’m surprised no one has done it yet (unless they have, and they just haven’t made it to the United States). I do think she could be a little hard to translate onto the screen as fully as one might like, because so much of the humor is going on in people’s heads. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall a la Frank Underwood in House of Cards (but, of course, not at all like Frank Underwood in House of Cards) might help.

(If there is anyone out there who wants to pay me handsomely to have a go at it, just let me know.)

Barbara Pym's take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Click To Tweet

If you’ve read Pym, let me know your favorites. If you have another favorite little-known or out-of-print author, I’d love to hear about that, too!