Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Present History – Writing Past vs. Present

Scott's Note: 

Terrence McCauley guest posts here today. Over the last several years, Terrence has gone back and forth between writing books set in the present and books set in the past, and I asked him to talk about this.  How does he approach jumping around through different time periods when imagining and writing stories?  

Let's see what he says.

I have enjoyed the good fortune of having publishers buy several of my novels set in different time periods. My University Series (SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, A MURDER OF CROWS and A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS from Polis Books) are all cutting-edge thrillers set in the modern day. My Doherty novels (THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD from Down and Out Books, SLOW BURN and THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT from Polis Books) are set between 1918 and 1933. My upcoming westerns (WHERE THE BULLETS FLY and DARK TERRITORY from Kensington) will be published in September 2018 and 2019 respectively and are set in 1880s Montana.

Why would I want to write about so many different eras? The first reason is a selfish one. I’m always looking for a reason to challenge myself as a writer. I never want to be known as just the ‘spy guy’ or the ‘1930s guy’ or ‘that Westerns guy’. I never want to fall into a rut where the next book feels easy or the next entry in a series is predictable. Sure, I want the audience to be familiar with my characters and my work, but I never want to deliver a book that feels like I mailed it in. By changing the time frame of my stories, I am required to do constant research that keeps my talent and my writing as fresh as it possibly can be. If someone’s going to spend money on a McCauley novel, I want them to know I wrote the best book I could at that particular time.

Time also plays a huge role in my inspiration for each book. Although I may enjoy writing about various eras, I’m very much a product of the 21st Century. I read most of my books on my iPad and write all of my work on a MacBook. I’m also a news junkie, so the events of the day always affect my current project, whether it’s James Hicks hunting down terrorists or Charlie Doherty hunting Nazis in 1930s New York.

Our series of unfortunate current events were a major inspiration for my latest novel, THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT. I’d like to be able to say that ugly political and social discourse in our country today is a new phenomenon, but that’s not the case.

After the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, people in this country and elsewhere began to wonder if fascism might not be a viable alternative here in the United States. The German American Bund began to rise. At first, it was seen as an ambivalent fraternal organization where people of German ancestry were encouraged to come together and celebrate their heritage in the wake of the humiliating defeat in the Great War. Youth camps similar to the Boy Scouts were set up around the country, including in Long Island and New Jersey, to help German-American children be proud of who they were and what their ancestors had achieved. They embraced their diversity from the rest of the country.

Slowly, it became much more sinister than that, culminating in a large, pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1938. That event led to more scrutiny of such organizations and the movement dissipated in the days before The Second World War. German-Americans and German immigrants alike stood with their country instead of their culture.

Although that particular movement fortunately failed, it showed that people can be manipulated into believing all sorts of things if the message and the messenger is packaged in the right way in the right time. In recent memory, we’ve seen other, less sinister political movements come and go and morph into other causes. For example, those who were part of the ‘Save the Whales’, ‘Global Warming’, ‘Acid Rain’, ‘Global Cooling’ movements have migrated to the more general Environmental Justice movement. ‘The Tea Party’ movement, that held a political party hostage for several election cycles and threatened to hold sway over the nation for a generation, has slipped into obscurity and become fractured. What will ultimately follow in the wake of the Tea Party remains to be seen, but the signs are already disturbing.

If I have learned anything by writing and researching several different eras in American history, it’s that times and movements may change, but people do not. Their motivations for joining movements remain the same. Fear. A sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. A nostalgia for a past that may or may not be misplaced. A dream of a better future.  

THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT is a novel about a dedicated group of people who risked their lives to ensure that extremism never gained a foothold in this country.  My work may be fiction based on factual events, but our country's resistance to extremism is not fiction. I hope that resistance will continue to be the case in the future.

You can get THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT right here.

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