Creating Time and Place

Telling a story from another time requires diligent attention to historical details. What was happening in the world? I was driven to get the facts right and to avoid mentioning something that was out of time. While I love to find anachronisms in movies, I was determined there would be none in my book.

What I found much more important was the need to get into the hearts and minds of the people living in it. And that was truly an enjoyable quest. If I wanted authenticity, then I had to be there with my characters.

My journey into my young boy’s life growing up in the Bronx of New York City in the 1920s required so many different sources. I now have a small library of pictorial histories about the Bronx, interspersed with memories of those who lived there. I would stare into some of the photos, willing myself to imagine feelings. I have a laminated map from 1930 NYC on my wall, covered in colored marker notes and stickies. (Woe to the unsuspecting visitor who asks about it! I’m only too happy to tell all.)

I have collected newspaper articles from the days on which big things happened. The front page of the New York Daily News from April 19, 1923, gave me a chapter on the first day the Yankees played in the brand new Yankee Stadium the day before. I had a play-by-play of the game, a who’s who of the dignitaries, a feeling of the weather from photos showing how people were dressed, and a sense of the excitement from the journalist’s account in the language of the day.

My most important source was my father. His stories and answers to my endless questions were the impetus for me to write a story that let me imagine how he might have grown into the man he was. He and I sat with that map for hours. He showed me where things were — homes, schools, parks, the library — and gave his streets life for me.

As a child, I was glued to the TV, watching Walter Chronkite create an audience of historical peeping toms with “You Are There.” I was also fortunate to have a history teacher who made us look at what was happening in art, music, and literature around major events. Two of my English teachers also brought history into the classroom. I learned about context early.

I must give credit to one book that I think does this better than any other: Time and Again by Jack Finney. Finney made me believe I could travel in time.

My hope is that I am creating a story that gives readers a Walter Chronkite/Jack Finney moment or two.

Baby steps to being published

Today, I took a first, bold step; I sent a query to a publisher on the recommendation of a published friend.


But first, I’d like to offer a recommendation to read her book, which is out this week, in both Kindle and printed form on Amazon.

Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance 

Madeleine Lenagh

This is an amazing book that reads like mythology and magic, while portraying the author’s journey through life. She bares her soul without a hint of sentimentality. It’s authentic and I could not stop reading it!
OK, back to me. I believe that this first step will be the hardest because I just put something out into the world that feels a bit like walking naked down a crowded street. For some reason, maybe because a friend had such a good experience with this publisher, I at least feel like I’m presenting something worth publishing, albeit with hours and weeks and maybe a year of revising.
To begin to get some feedback, here’s a very brief synopsis of the book. Please feel free to give me your opinions. That’s what this blog is about. And please take me up on my invitation to offer you my expertise (blog post from April 6, “An invitation…”.

 “Bread for My Father” is about a Jewish boy (from age 11-15), growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s-1930s. His mother came to America from Russia in 1906, her parents having sent her and her sister to flee the pogroms. While she is not the main character, her strength and adaptabilty inform her life in America and that of her three children. 

Issues arise for our young boy/man about being Jewish as he becomes aware of Hitler and new persecutions around the world, and as he sees obstacles for his brother and others in America. He becomes involved tangentially with the Mafia as it is revealed that his father is rising in the garment industry in Manhattan due to an association with one of the mob bosses. Ben learns about how Jewish enforcers are used by the mob to break unions. 

All these forces converge on Ben, who must navigate a minefield of dangers, entanglements, and the demands of his stern father. He finds joy and escape in exploring… ideas, the relationship of people and nature, the New York Public Library, and his own fertile imagination. The Bronx at this time is populated by expatriates from many places and cultures and makes a rich setting for this book. 

An invitation…

As I am slogging through the hard work part of being a writer — editing/revising — I wonder if anyone would like some expert advice on such activities. In several former lives, I have been an English teacher, writer, ghostwriter*, and editor…and now fiction writer.

I’m inviting readers, and friends of readers, to send me questions about our difficult language. I will work hard to answer each one promptly and with sources if needed.

I have also done considerable research for my novel, set in the 1920s-1930s in NYC. I think this is very important if an author wants to present an authentic sense of time and place. There are incredible resources in personal stories, old newspapers, local historical societies, and so much more. I’d love to share.

So have at it. I’m ready to enjoy some avoidance behavior here!

*Not like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but rather writing in other people’s voices. Although I wouldn’t mind being able to spin tales like either of them, ghosts or not.

Whose book is it?

When I started writing my novel, I had no idea what I was about to do. All I knew was I wanted to find the child who became my father. He had shared many memories, insights and stories about his youth with me over the years. I had been writing them down as I heard them, and I just kept asking questions. Once I brought him a map of the Bronx from the 1920s, and together we found his homes, schools and places of import to him.

At some point, I realized the boy who was emerging was my father’s edited self-portrait. When I accepted this, I knew that I had been given the freedom to find that child for myself.

And then, I just began! One day I sat down and it started pouring out of me, out of order, little vignettes, a foray into his imagination…as I imagined it. At least three times, and probably more, I finished a chapter that I’m sure had written itself.

Here’s one. Ben, the 15-year-old, found himself working at a garage whose owner was paying protection to the mob. Ben’s father, with his ladies coat and suit factory in the garment district, was also involved. The boss was big in the clothing unions, enforcement, and the protection racket. Ben was getting nervous the more he found out. One day, Rocco, owner of the garage, told Ben to deliver a mysterious box to Tony, the boss in the garment district.

I was in a writer’s mess, as I needed to get Ben out of all of this, and really couldn’t figure it out.

So, I took Ben and the box to Tony’s office. Neither one of us knew the contents of the box. This was frightening. Ben knew there was something awful about this transaction. And I was just along for the ride so I could report on the findings. When “we” delivered the box into Tony’s hands, we saw a gun and something wrapped in what looked like a bloody cloth. Something about it made Tony blow his top. Ben beat it out of there, and “we” didn’t know until later that evening, when Ben saw a headline about a mob shooting and a missing hand.

It was a right hand, and the victim was Anthony “Lefty” Cappuccio! Uh oh! Was Rocco the hit man? Did Tony think Ben was involved? …and what about Pauline? 

Well, I can’t tell the whole story here, but this piece of writing was an amazing experience for me. It made me wonder: Whose book is it?