Guest Post: James Ziskin on historical novels and names

Thanks to James Ziskin for putting together this post about his crime novels, set in the early 1960s, and how that time period impacts what he does. He’ll be here Monday, February 5th, at 7pm with Terry Shames and Laura Oles to discuss his book, Cast the First Stone

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series of traditional-cum-noir crime novels set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a mid-twenties reporter for an upstate New York daily. A self-described “modern girl,” she works twice as hard as any man at the paper, gets half the credit, and all the wolfish leers.

My books are sometimes categorized as historical. The time period is near past, which presents both advantages and challenges when it comes to creating a believable fictional world. The sixties were not so long ago, and the world isn’t all that different, at least not when compared to a hundred or two hundred years earlier. But the things that have changed have done so in sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle ways. Before considering names, let’s look at a few of the obvious differences.

Cars. On the left is Ellie’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer and, on the right, its descendant, the 2018 Dodge Lancer.

Ziskin cars

Well, they both have four tires, and they’re both red. Of course, two-toned paint jobs and chrome were all the rage in the fifties. But under the hood and inside the brains of the cars, they might as well be a biplane and a jumbo jet for all they have in common. By the way, Ellie’s car—same colors even—was featured in a Dodge commercial just a couple of years ago. Have a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeNv0FoPXo

Telephones. The old black rotary phones have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today’s phones are powerful computers, great for doing research or enjoying entertainment.

Ziskin telephone

Fashion. Ellie might have dressed something like this. Today, these ladies look like a mashup of air hostesses, Don Draper’s secretaries, and the Stepford PTA.

Ziskin women (1)

And what would Ellie have been listening to on the AM radio in her car? Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts for three weeks in the summer of 1960. Tastes change. If you don’t think so, listen to this song.

Ziskin song

Sports. Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino, 1960, and Baker Mayfield, 2017.

Ziskin sports

And then there’s this…

Ziskin hair

But wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about names?

I was just getting to that.

Take girls’ and boys’ names. There weren’t many Justins, Aidans, or Graysons running around in Ellie Stone’s 1960. You were more likely to find Davids, Michaels, and Jameses. Hmm. What do you know? James. And I was born in 1960… For girls, names were pretty tame back then. Mary, Susan, and Linda were the top three in America. And when Ellie was born in 1937, the most popular were Mary, Barbara, and Patricia. Not one of those three names cracks the top hundred in 2017. And that’s on a list that includes “Luna” at number forty-eight! Last year, neoclassical and old-time names Sophia, Olivia, and Emma topped the list. And, surprise of surprises, neither Sophia nor Olivia made the top hundred in 1937. Emma barely squeezed in under the wire at number eighty-nine.

For Cast the First Stone, I dropped Ellie into 1962 Hollywood. She’s sent to California by her editor to interview a local boy who’s landed the second male lead in a beach picture. First, to avoid lawsuits and hate mail, I decided to avoid using real Hollywood stars in my book—at least none who appear as characters. Of course people mention the odd actor or actress in the course of the story, but no actual celebrities appear in the book. Well, one does, but just for one line, and I’m not telling who it is. (Here’s a useful, hint, though. Dead people cant sue for defamation.) Second, to achieve maximum believability, I wanted to avoid inventing fictional megastars. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to win the reader’s buy-in. Cal Granite, Bart Steele, or Dirk Bogarde just aren’t believable as names. Well, okay, Dirk Bogarde was a real actor, but I almost had you, didn’t I?

So how to create believable names for the period? I lowered my sights. Instead of A-listers, I populated Cast the First Stone with end-of the-dugout directors, no-name producers, and C-list actors. The same is true for the title of the fictional film at stake in the book, Twistin’ on the Beach. It’s 1962, people were doing the twist again (like we did last summer), and teenage beach pictures were just entering their golden age. If there weren’t at least two or three films with that name that year, there should have been.

Now I needed actors for my film. No big names, remember. So I came up with boy-next-door types appropriate for the era. And white-bread white last names. Tony Eberle, Bobby Renfro, Bo Hanson. The female lead in the movie is Carol Haven, though she never makes an appearance in the book.

There’s also the question of using real places whenever possible, and fictional ones where convenient. From the outset of this series, I chose to fictionalize the town where Ellie lives and works. New Holland, New York, cannot be found on any map except the one in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Making up a small city is no big deal, and it frees me from researching every last detail about a real place. But once Ellie lands in Los Angeles in Cast the First Stone, real locations are necessary to create the impression of that great city. I chose to use the actual Paramount Studios as the site where Twistin’ on the Beach was being filmed. The instant name recognition helps create realism. Everyone’s heard of Paramount, so I didn’t have to labor unnecessarily to convince readers. The Godfather took a different route, probably to avoid potential lawsuits, using a fictionalized studio—Woltz International Pictures—for the famous horse-head-in-the-bed sequence. (Oh, come on. It’s not a spoiler after forty-five years.) As great as that film is, the name of the studio strikes me as less than compelling. We know it’s not real, and no magic is conjured by seeing its name or its unimpressive gate.

I used the same tactic in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Where possible, I used real names—e.g. Saratoga Race Course—but brought the characters down to a manageable level of fame. Thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners, and gamblers are all fictional, except for a few real horses, mentioned here and there, and Willie Shoemaker making a cameo appearance. Those recognizable names make the time period feel more authentic to the reader. The fictional characters do their job, too, entertaining us with their exploits, while never breaking the spell with their unfamiliar “household names.”

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