Rod McFain’s Blog – Thoughts and Nonsense

My latest thoughts on writing, writers, and reading. Occasionally, I may stray off into horses, fly-fishing, or the good fortune of living in the mountains.
So much to comprehend – all in one place!

A little known fact: When Kris Kristofferson wrote the line “He’s a walking contradiction,” he was writing about me. That’s little know because it’s not true that he wrote it about me. He’s never even met me.

Rod’s Blog

Choosing The Roaring 20s as My Setting

Last week someone asked me why I decided to set my new novel in the Roaring 20s. The answer is simple.

I knew the 20s was a great decade, full of social and cultural change, the period of prohibition. It was also a period of economic and political change. More Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929.

The good times of the 1920s gave us Wonder Bread, Baby Ruth Candy Bars (not named after the Babe), Kool-Aid, jazz, flappers, and The Great Gatsby. Did you know Nick, Jay, and Daisy were first brought to the silver screen in 1926? Scott and Zelda hated it and walked out of the theater.

The decade gave new meaning to “Trial of the Century. It had five of them in just the first half of the decade: Sacco & Vanzetti, Chicago Black Sox Scandal, Murder Trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Leopold & Loeb Trial, Scopes “Monkey Trial.

Despite Woodrow Wilson leaving the White House in 1921, the decade remained discriminatory for Blacks and women. Before the election of Wilson, Black Americans worked at all levels of the federal government. When Wilson took office, he mandated that the federal workforce be segregated by race—reducing Black civil service workers’ income, increasing the significant income gap between Black and white workers, and eroding some gains Black people had made following Reconstruction.

His racial segregation order “came swiftly and suddenly, taking Black Americans by surprise. Wilson imposed segregation in his Cabinet departments and appointed Southern Democrats, who supported segregationist policies, to lead them.

Wilson’s order was overtly discriminatory, unlike the purported “separate but equal” policies of the Jim Crow era. His segregation order was designed to limit the access of Black civil servants to white-collar positions via demotions and the failure to hire qualified Black candidates.

While Tennessee became the 36th State to ratify the 19th Amendment in August 1920, females were still far from equal. My original plan in The Magnificent Maggie was for Maggie to win a seat in the Boston Symphony as a cellist. Oops, females were not allowed in symphonies. That irked my sweet Maggie.

Requesting a passport in the 1920s was pretty straightforward—if you were a man. Even though 1920s fashion history is dominated by the flapper style, women in many parts of the country still faced stifling clothing restrictions. In Virginia, a legislative bill attempted to prohibit women from wearing evening gowns with more than three inches of their throat displayed. Utah legislators worked to fine women whose skirts were “higher than three inches above the ankle.

Through 1922, thanks to the Expatriation Act, women who married non-citizens automatically lost their U.S. citizenship. Despite having the legal right to vote as of August 18, 1920, it would take decades for all women to be able to vote, much less serve on a jury. Only 24 states permitted women to determine their peers’ innocence or guilt by the end of the Roaring Twenties.

The Roaring 20s was a great setting for a story. It was time to create a protagonist. In cooking up Maggie, I used a splash of Zelda Fitzgerald, a dash of Clara Bow, a pinch of Louise Brooks, and a spattering of Garbo. How could it go wrong?

Zelda, a pearl-twirling party southern belle turned jazz-age heroine, dubbed “the first American flapper” by her husband and partner-in-drink Scott, died at 47 after a fire broke out in the North Carolina sanatorium where she was a patient. Zelda and Scott proved the parties often don’t last.

Clara Bow, the “IT Girl,” whose eyes lit up a screen like no other, lifted herself out of depravity like no one else. Her best friend, a seven-year-old boy, died in her arms after being burned in a fire. As a teen, she would wake up with her mother holding a knife to her throat, promising to kill her. She made it on her own to being arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, receiving 45,000 fan letters a month and sending Henna sales through the roof.

Louise Brooks, Lulu, was beautiful, funny, and talented. Like Clara, she went from everyone knowing her name to, for many years, being forgotten. I love her attitude. What a great quote about dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies. “The rest of the girls wore smiles as fixed as their towering feather headdresses. I decided right then that onstage I would never smile unless I felt like it.”

With the help of Zelda and Clara, my heroine was born. Maggie is a modern woman battling a still restrictive environment. She’s confident, strong, striking, funny, and a champion of women’s issues. She’s also reckless, just like Zelda, Clara, and Louise.

Maggie needed a face that no one would forget. She needed to be wild like a prairie flower and burn her candle at both ends. She needed a hint of scandal and to live in an elegant facade covering a life that chews people up. The Roaring 20s were the perfect time for Maggie.

Zelda Fitzgerald/Clara Bow/Louise Brooks/Garbo

The Muse

When creating a character, most writers, at least I suppose, most writers are under the influence of a muse. Sometimes it’s someone we know. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind. Zelda, Gerald, and Sara Murphy had mixed emotions about being a muse. Nicole and Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night by Fitzgerald are widely recognized as having been based on the Murphys. In an interview, Sara said she didn’t like it–being written about. Years later, in another interview, she said she liked it less.

Sara’s statements are why, as a rule, I don’t tell people they are a muse for one of my characters. There is no point in being more unpopular than I may already be.

My current work in progress, THE MAGNIFICENT MAGGIE, has a very definite muse for the character of Maggie. Clara Bow. Whether Clara, the IT Girl, would enjoy being the muse, I will never know. I do know I like Clara Bow.

Ever plucky, ever resourceful, Clara was a charmer. Armed with vivaciousness, sensuousness, and a touch of cunning tossed in, Clara Bow lit up a screen like no other actress in history. She was a flapper, a regular gal, and completely real to audiences.

Clara was and remains an enigma. According to Biography, “Her life was a tangled mass of quivering femininity, a depraved childhood, and Hollywood super-stardom. She seemed to dance her way through life (and into our hearts) as the carefree ‘IT’ girl and seemed surrounded in a posh future of Hollywood history and fulfilling marriage and motherhood. Yet, Clara died alone, much as she danced her way through life. Alone, with only the shadows to accompany her.”

With Clara Bow as my muse, I hope I have created a character in Maggie, as marvelous as the real “IT” girl. To paraphrase Emmylou Harris, I didn’t know Clara Bow or Zelda Fitzgerald, but we’re awful close.

Must Read: Why We Need Westerns

This country does not need a good five cent cigar, it needs good western novels. Don’t believe me? Read Lonesome Dove. It may well be the great American Novel.
There are those who think the western has gone out of style. They are wrong. The western may rise and dip in popularity, but it will never disappear. The Western is America, perhaps more American than any other literary genre.
I love writing in the setting of the old west. Writers like Louis L’Amour presented one version of the west, steeped in the myth of their own times. I, as I believe others in the genre now do, try to present a different version – more pervasive, character driven. I rarely write heroes, probably never, my characters are all flawed, They may do something heroic, but they are not Hoppy, Gene, or Roy. They also do things that may be selfish, weak, or almost cruel. When they fight, they fight to win, fighting fair may not enter into things.
I believe a good novel is based on the relationships of the characters. Time periods are sort of irrelevant. Think about Gus and Lorie, Gus and Woodrow, Dish and Laurie, Gus and Clara, Woodrow and Clara, Woodrow and Newt (of course I go to Lonesome Dove first). But there are also Scarlett and Rhett, Peeta and Katnis, Gatsby and Daisy, Huck and Jim, Scout and Atticus, Henry and Claire. Well you get the idea. Great characters and relationships make great writing.
I believe there is also an emergence of an historically underrepresented character in nineteenth-century historical fiction, the female. Nothing improves a western like a strong female character. No more damsels in distress. I write about females with problems and troubles, but never weak, helpless ones crying into their hankies.
Isn’t a good story a good story regardless of the time period?
Next time I’m going to write about writing HARD GOODBYES – about what motivated it, how characters sometimes change from what I intended them to be, take control of their own personalities, things that were cut from the first drafts, or added.
Talk Later.

I Will Miss Them . . .

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