As a writer, one always questions if a character is being true to their own nature or whether the author is projecting his or her own moral belief system or code of action upon them.
To be clear, you don’t want the latter. That’s called Author Intrusion. 1
Sometimes, however, it seems impossible to keep the author’s world from encroaching on their writing. And when it happens to me, I try to mitigate its effects by relegating it to the world of research.
This week’s topic of research has been healthcare.2
Or, more specifically, medicine in the late 1920s.
It really is a grim subject.
For example, in 1929:
- There were no sulfa drugs or penicillin to fight infection; if your body couldn’t fight it, you were doomed.
- While germ theory was recognized, sterilization was haphazard: surgical equipment was usually boiled while thermometers were used from patient to patient without any sort of sterilization.
- Any sort of surgery often resulted in sepsis and death.
- Severely broken bones generally required amputation.
- Common childhood illnesses were often deadly: Chicken Pox, Rubella, Diptheria, Mumps.
- Although a TB vaccine was being used successfully in Europe, tuberculosis remained a deadly disease in the United States; the US did not approve the vaccine for use until the 1950s.
- Pharmaceuticals were not regulated. As a result, many were sold that were, if you were lucky, merely ineffective; if you were not, they were often fatal.
- Other common deadly diseases included Diabetes, which at the time had no effective means of treatment, despite the discovery of insulin in 1921, and Cancer.
Nothing like a walk through medicine in the 1920s3 to make one feel better about hospitalization in the 2010s.
Not to mention all the potential destruction I, as Author, have at my disposal to set upon my poor characters.
Watch out, Rose and Harold. Trouble is a-brewin’…
- That’s not to say that a character can’t have traits that reflect those of the author’s as long as they also remain true to the actions and decisions exhibited by the character.
- My MIL has been very ill this past week. I find it hard to write fiction during such circumstances. Hence the research. It keeps the mind busy, and counts as forward movement on the work-in-progress, without requiring any real creativity.
- Despite this grim picture, the decade was not devoid of advances. The discovery of vitamins and their importance to the body’s daily functions advanced the administration of cod liver oil (a source of vitamin D) in homes across the nation. A serum was developed for Scarlet Fever, reducing the impact of that disease. And while pharmaceuticals were not required to be tested prior to public release, the American Medical Association required testing along with their seal of approval on any drugs being advertised in their journal.
Sometimes, when words are hard to find, my writing group plays a little game. We spin for prompts, which are just words or phrases that have been plucked from various sources and added to a numbered list, and then see what we can write that includes one or all of the prompts.
Occasionally, the resulting scene is actually relevant to the work-in-progress; other times it just serves to open the floodgates and remind you that you can still write.
Regardless of outcome, the games are always fun. And writing is supposed to be that, isn’t it!
I’ve been considering bank closings, and the panics that ensued,1 and how that would have manifested itself in the small town where Rose and Harold lived?
We’ve seen pictures of the mobs that rushed banks in New York after the big stock crash in ’29. But stories about smaller crowds, smaller towns, smaller banks, are harder to find.2
Some writers are blessed with the innate knowledge of where their story is going. Others just write and let the story take them where it will.
In the writing world, there are two main camps of fiction writers. Plotters and Pantsters1. The former has the story mainly plotted out, either on paper or some lucky few have all that incredible knowledge in their heads. Pantsters, however, don’t bow to the conventions of linear time. They just write whatever story bit is in their head at the moment and sometime later, by invoking some weird kind of magic, move the scenes around to create a story, i.e. they write “by the seat of their pants.”
Harold and Rose have been time-traveling.
They just returned from a trip aboard the Titanic, the latest of House Party settings at the writers’ forum I frequent. 1
House Parties are an interesting phenomenon. Multiple writers throw characters from their many WIPs 2 into a particular setting and while characters of different backgrounds, time periods, and genres interact, the writers not only have fun but often witness epiphanies.
You haven’t seen much of me lately. I apologize for that. But… well, things got a bit crazy here, what with storms and rising water and holidays and new homes.
Still, Rose and Harold are with me every step of the way. In fact, I’ve been listening to 1920s and 1930s music to get a bit closer to them… and to my grandparents who were young newlyweds during this time.
Suffice it to say that I was surprised to hear this 1925 hit about my own hometown, Peoria.
It makes me happy to think of Rose listening (and dancing, even though Harold is pretty awkward and steps on her toes a lot) to this tune. And like the singer, I often wish “I was in Peoria.” Not because of the “goils” but for the people I love who are still there.
Chorus: Oh, how I wish’t I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight.
Oh how I miss the “goils” in Peoria, Peoria, tonight.
Oh you can pick a morning gloria right off the sidewalks of Peoria.
Oh, how I wish’t I was in Peoria, Peoria tonight.
All the lyrics here (plus a bonus rendition–scroll to the bottom of the lyrics–of the song by Bill Edwards)
Old Ike once said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” 
Of course, he wasn’t talking