I write thrillers and mysteries with Seattle as the backdrop. Seattle is a wonderful city with a rich history of ne’er-do-wells, out and out criminals, and bone-headed politicians. In the early days, Chief Sealth and Doc Watson were known to sit in a canoe, drinking, and trading various parts of the city to one another. With a start like that, our history has to be rich and fun.
My personal interest in knowing and using Seattle’s (and the general area’s) history is multifaceted. The first is dramatizing a real event to bring out a story I want to tell. As an example, in 1949, a drifter named Jake Bird was executed for killing two women in Seattle. He probably killed several more in other states. I used what I was able to find out about Jake to write Jake Birds Hex, a short story.
There are a few rules I follow without exception. First, I must not change history. So my story must weave itself around the facts. In Jake Bird’s Hex, I told the story from the point of view of a young man interviewing Jake just before his execution. The young man’s purpose was to find out if his own mother was one of Jake’s victims. Jake might confess or not, there is no record. But Jake was executed and I can’t change that.
My other rule, is to be true to the era: no cell phones in 1962. And no one in 1921 said “cool” to show approval. Careful research into the history of a location and time helps get the facts straight and makes the story more enjoyable for the reader. Don’t tell me a character is driving a 1983 Corvette north on Second Avenue in today’s downtown. Chevrolet didn’t produce a 1983 Corvette and Second is one way south.
The second way I employ history is as detail to further the narrative. In another short story, I used the visit of President Harry Truman to Seattle to anchor the story in time.
The same issues are true of a story set in the present. It’s important to me to know things like when a particular building was built, it might become a “character” itself. Was there a toll on a particular bridge in 1955? Did that bridge exist? You can’t cross a bridge from Seattle to Mercer Island in 1920. The only way to get there was by boat or public ferry. But isn’t that something interesting the reader might enjoy? Might it not be a detail that dictates the course of the plot?
Technology changes quickly. The time the story is set in dictates how the main character goes about solving the major conflict in the story. As an example, car chases are typical of the late twentieth century. Today, there is just too much traffic in Seattle. Think of the effects of cell phones, advanced forensics, “America’s Most Wanted”, Teazers, GPS, Predator Drones, iPads, Miranda rights, among others on the way a detective might operate. I suspect the same is true of characters in other genres.
And why is all this important? Because the readers are smarter than we are. Someone out there besides me knows there is no such thing as a 1983 Corvette or when the first Zippo lighter was made, or when…. Well you get the idea. I apologize in advance for any historical inaccuracies in this blog entry, they are mine.
My first novel, The Eighteenth Scroll featuring FBI Special Agent Frank Jackson Turner will be available on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords in November. In December, the short stories I mentioned will be published in a collection called …And the Night Moves.
Brian Hoffman writes under the name B.A. Hoffman. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his most excellent wife, our cat and dog, and a lot of rain. Writing is his final career after a leading a rather aimless life with eclectic interests, all of which have become fodder for his stories. You can contact me at www.bahoffmanboods.com