Social History: Putting the Human Element Back into History

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Photo Credit: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, 1872, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust, UK: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

I’m starting out this year as a revisionist (in a sense). I’m revising my perspective on my writing and my passion for history by examining what really makes them tick. For those who have been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve had several transformations in the past years. I started out in 2017 as a contemporary literary fiction writer believing in psychological reality in fiction, something I am still fascinated by and still incorporate in much of my fiction. Then I discovered a way to transform my passion for history, especially women’s history, into stories about resilient women and the nooks and crannies of history that don’t always come up in historical fiction. 

Last year, I completed the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga set among San Francisco’s elite. I discovered that my real passion for history lies more in its social and psychological aspects rather than its politics and events. Those terms can sound a little vague and academic, so this month, I’ll be talking about what social history is and what it means in my fiction.

Let’s begin with a simple definition: Social history is history with the human element thrown in. Not that political or economic history isn’t about humans, as all history inevitably is. But you’re more likely to read a book about or set in the Civil War, say, where the people or characters are players in the big event. Social history looks at the people who participated in history, how they were affected by it, and how they influenced it. In my Civil War example, a novel might be about African American soldiers (actual or fictional) and their daily struggles not only with the war itself but with the racism surrounding them on the battlefield, forsaking a more blow-by-blow account of the events of the war. Social history gives us a window into the way people lived and breathed in their time and, sometimes, the values and beliefs they held that we want to acquire or release in the 21st century.

Social history is actually an academic field of study that emerged in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t much of a surprise, since much of the social awareness that emerged during these times required knowledge of the past. For example, the Civil Rights movement was built on the oppression and heinous crimes of slavery and on racism not only of the present but of the past. Similarly, the second-wave feminist movement, as I discuss here, took the issues the 19th-century suffragists were fighting for to the next level.

When I say I focus more on social history than on political and economic history, I mean that how my characters live and relate to their environment matters to me. The more academic perspective of social history often looks at the bigger picture, like the movements, systems, and structures of history. These are important, but I also find the way people related to these social structures and lived within them (or rebelled against them) is part of what makes history so fascinating and relevant to us today. 

Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the Waxwood Series, is a great example. Like many 19th century women, she is locked in social systems and structures with very rigid definitions of what women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a member of the Nob Hill elite, adhering to the social norms of the aristocratic class (which is especially true in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women). Later, she moves into suffragism and progressivism, but, just as she had to revise her position in her Nob Hill world, she also has to examine her values and beliefs against those of her new world (which you can read about in the last book of the series, Dandelions). 

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, social history plays a huge role. The series begins in the first years of the 20th century when many people were still reluctant to leave behind Victorian values for the complexity and fears of the modern. Like Vivian, the series main character is a social reformer, and when she moves from San Francisco to the small, dusty town of Arrojo, her forward-thinking ideas aren’t always embraced, appreciated, or understood. 

You can find out more about that series here. The first two books of the Waxwood Series, which were re-edited and refreshed in 2020, are here and here

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Ghosts From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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Photo Credit: Photo Credit: evdoha/Depositphotos.com

My historical family saga, the Waxwood Series is about more than just an affluent Nob Hill family coming to grips with the startling changes happening in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s also a story about a Gilded Age family whose lies, half-truths, and myths force every one of its members into change. It’s about the psychological ramifications that go with the personal and social baggage of history.

The series changed greatly from the novel in three voices I started out with in 2014 (something I talk more about here). Similarly, many of the characters, including all the members of the Alderdice family, went through their own evolution. This is especially true because expanding the original novel into a four-book series gave me space to really explore the psychological reality of each character and tell his or her story. 

Penelope Alderdice, the Alderdice family matriarch of the older generation, is one of the most evolutionary characters in the series. When I wrote the novel, she wasn’t even a character. That book was about the current generation only (and a few other stragglers who will be appearing in a novella I have in mind as a series off-shoot one of these days). To turn the novel into a family saga, I had to add characters from the older generation because, by definition, family sagas go back for several generations. Also, I knew older generations leave their wounds upon the younger, whether they want to or not. At that point, Penelope was still a shadowy character, someone in the background who was, predictably, a product of the separate spheres. I had, to put it bluntly, no interest in exploring her life further, since my series was about the more revolutionary journey of her granddaughter, Vivian.

In 2017, I started my newsletter and wanted to give subscribers a free gift that would give them a little extra about the Alderdice family. So I took a scene from the old novel and expanded it into a short story called “After the Funeral”. The plot took place at Penelope Alderdice’s funeral where an uninvited guest claims to have known “Grace” in her youth, revealing things about the Alderdice matriarch Vivian and her brother Jake never knew. I realized the story could and should be expanded into a book that kicks off Vivian’s journey to self-discovery. That book became The Specter, the first book of the Waxwood Series.

I realized my earlier mistake in dismissing Penelope as just another Angel in the House. She was, in fact, a much more complex character, emotionally and socially. She was also the engine that begins Vivian’s journey to maturity and her ghost and its secrets bring the entire family to self-awareness. Penelope’s story, which begins about halfway through The Specter, tells of the sort of woman you would expect to see in Gertrude Atherton’s The Californians, a book about  San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850s and 1860s. Penelope’s angelic demeanor prepares her for the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman, but there is more to her than that. Her one moment of rebellion has ramifications for the entire family for generations to come.

To find out more about The Specter, which will be revised and updated later this year, go here.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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The Story of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Diana and Actaeon, Francesco Albani, 1617, oil on copper, Louvre Museum, Paris, France: JarektUploadBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

For Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, the mythical hunter Actaeon and the story of Diana and Actaeon become metaphors in the book. At one time in the writing process, they were so important I gave the book the title Tales of Actaeon. I talk about that a bit in this blog post. In order to understand how the metaphor is important in the novel, it’s necessary to know a little about Actaeon and the myth.

In the book, the male secret society that plays a role in Jake’s coming-of-age is named The Order of Actaeon. When I was looking to name the fraternity, I had the idea of using a mythical character that represented some of the fraternity’s values and also lent itself to the theme of masculine identity, which is so prevalent in Jake’s story. I came upon the story of Actaeon, the grandson of Thebes’ founder and first king. I was intrigued by Actaeon for several reasons. Unlike many mythical characters, he is rather a mystery. Little is known about him except that he was a hunter and well trained by the centaur Chiron. He’s identified as a Theban hero, but there is no record of a specific deed or act of heroism on his part (at least, none that I could find). All accounts of him focus on the same thing — his encounter with Diana (Artemis) and his fate in her hands.

Diana was known as the virgin goddess of the hunt. She abhored the idea of marriage, and she and her maidens were none too kind to any man who dared try and court them. Her life was about freedom and independence, as this suited her wild nature. Any man who tried to mess with her or one of her maidens did so at his peril. 

The story goes that, one day, Actaeon was wandering in the woods with his dogs and came upon Diana and her maidens bathing naked in a stream. As noted above, Diana and her nymphs were modest ladies, and the idea of a man invading their private sanctuary did not please them. Diana, in her rage, splashed water into Actaeon’s face and cursed him. Almost immediately he began to sprout horns and, within moments, he had turned into a stag. Stumbling back into the woods, he came upon his hunting dogs (which, according to some accounts, number in the 20’s). They did not recognize their master and took him as game, jumping on him and devouring him. Thus, the dogs the hunter had trained to kill had now turned him into the hunted.

The story is generally considered to be a metaphor for human sacrifice to the mythical gods and goddesses. But to me, this is too simplistic a reading. Diana didn’t sacrifice Actaeon — she punished him for daring to impose upon her and her maidens in their moment of nakedness. He compromised their chastity, and this was severe enough to warrant his fate in Diana’s eyes. So there is quite a feminist side to this story when we look at it in modern terms.

How much Actaeon was responsible for his own end has been highly debated. Many versions of the myth show Actaeon as an innocent victim of Diana’s wrath, a hunter who was just wandering around the forest and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, others point out that Actaeon was known for his arrogance and predatory skills (both with game and women), and he may had had a rivalry going on with Diana, since they were both skilled hunters. It would stand to reason that, as hunting is generally considered a “manly” sport, Actaeon would deem himself as the superior hunter to Diana.

In False Fathers, the idea of the hunter plays a role in the theme of masculine identity in the Gilded Age, which is Jake’s is struggle. The fraternity he is invited to join capitalizes on the character of the hunter as part of their masculine identity — cunning, wily, skilled, but also ethical in terms of how and why they hunt. Hunting was more accepted as a necessity for many living in rural 19th century America than it is today, so it would have been more about utilitarianism than sportsmanship. The Order of Actaeon believes in all this, so much so that hunting is one of their main fraternal activities.

There are also some references to the myth of Diana and Actaeon in the characters of Vivian and Stevens, the older man who becomes Jake’s father figure in the book. Stevens sees Vivian, with her rebellious nature, as a modern-day Diana. In fact, he refers to her often as “Diana with her crown of thorns.” Vivian, in turn, reminds him that the wrath of Diana is nothing to be toyed with, referring to the story of Actaeon’s fate:

[Stevens] then turned to Larissa and Marvina and explained, “I told Jake his painting of his sister matched my impression of Diana, the Grecian wood nymph. I don’t think she cared for the idea.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” Vivian said. “That wood nymph turned a man into a stag and let his own hunting dogs eat him alive.”

Stevens looked at her with amusement and fascination, the turbulence gone. “She had good reason. Actaeon came upon her in the woods, and she was compelled to punish him for violating her chastity. If one has committed a crime or a sin, one must pay for it.”

These metaphors of Diana and Actaeon will come back in Book 4 of the series, Dandelion Children.

To read more about False Fathers, which will be out on December 29, 2019 and is now available for preorder, you can go to this link. I also have an excerpt from the book that involves Jake with The Order of Actaeon in my readers group here. And to read more about the characters in this upcoming book, you can check out the series page here.

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Knowing Characters: Inside and Out

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Photo Credit: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard), 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired  

In any kind of fiction, for authors to know their characters is essential because stories are (duh!) about characters. Plot, setting, themes, and narrative are all important, but they come out of who the characters are. The process authors take to know their characters really varies from author to author.

New authors are often told to create or find online a character dossier or character questionnaire like this one which forces them to create a character down to the last detail. There is sometimes, I think, an expectation that authors know these things about their characters even if they never make it into the actual book. An awesome writer’s group I belong to on Facebook recently had a series of posts related to these sort of character details, posing questions like “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and “What’s your character’s favorite drink?” These questions can certainly be helpful for an author to know a character, specially if that character is running through a series where he/she will appear many times in many books. But I often think they don’t tell the whole story.

My fiction is about characters who face their past so they can find their future. They face their personal past and their collective past, the historical era in which they live. I talked about this in my blog post for this year’s OWS CyCon blog tour. Because there are deeper issues that my characters have to face on their journey to finding their future through their past, I have to be selective about the sort of details that make up their character and discover who they are through the process of writing and rewriting.

Therefore, I rarely do character dossiers or questionnaires. When the posts went up in the Facebook group, I honestly couldn’t comment on them because I don’t know what drink or color Vivian Alderdice (the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series) prefers. These details were simply not important in my construction of Vivian as a character for the series. They may become important for the series later on and if they do, they will come up on their own. Vivian herself will tell me, in the writing and rewriting process, the answers to these questions if they become vital to the story and to her character. But until then, I feel like trying to impose this sort of detail onto Vivian  as a character would feel artificial and contrived.

Author Anais Nin wrote about this sort of selectivity in details in her book on writing, The Novel of the Future. For Nin, such details as what the character drinks or what he or she has in her closet do not add to the reader’s knowledge of the character and, in fact, take away from it. She describes here an example from one of her books:

“A reviewer said when I wrote Stella (novelette included in the collection Winter of Artifice): ‘Stella is not real because she does not go to the icebox for a snack.’ This kind of reality I take for granted and would distract me, the author or the reader, away from some other more important observation.” (Nin, location 846)

For Nin, authors need to use the sort of selectivity with character details that I spoke of earlier. It’s not about quantity, but quality:

“A concentrated lighting thrown on a few critical or intense moments will illumine and reveal more than a hundred details which dull our keenness, weary our vision.” (Nin, location 496-502)

So discovering who the character, whether over the span of one book or several, is, for authors and readers, a process of selectivity and focus.

From a more psychological perspective, it took me quite a few drafts to get to know Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, Tales of Actaeon. I did several rewrites (not just editing and tinkering with scenes, but actual “throw most of it out and do it again” kind of rewrites) of the novel, all based on the kind of character Jake was evolving into. The details of his plight in coming of age during the last years of the 19th century come not only from his position as a twenty-one year old young man in 1898 but from who he is, what his psychological reality is, how he was raised, what he’s discovering about his beliefs and values, and what his relationships are. Small, concrete details do matter, like the fact that he’s an artist who favors wooded landscapes as his subjects. But, like Nin, I include less of the details that would prove to be irrelevant to who he is in the story, like what drink he prefers or what his favorite color is.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, due out in December, go here. And you can find out more about the series itself here.   

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

Want more fascinating information on history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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