The Secret about Historical Fiction and Sci-Fi

Chicago is known for its long horrible winters, and being a writer and avid reader, I always have plenty to do indoors. However, sometimes the writing is arduous and you need a break. Then you get to that weird in-between-good-books place where you’re trying to read something and it’s your third or fourth lackluster book. You want to quit it and move on.

I also like to cook, so that takes up some indoor time. However, when you cook, you eat, and when you eat too much you get fat. So sometimes watching TV seems okay.

I’m probably cable TV’s best customer because the channels I like are so off the typical grid I have to get an expensive cable package just to get the array of a few I like. I have a Chromecast and stream, and use HBOGo and Netflix.

So you would think I’d be set. Not so, really. Movies are often too long of a commitment. That’s how I started to fall in love with old TV shows on ME-TV. And what surprised me is that it was 1950s and 1960s Westerns.

I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns, but one murderously-cold, snowy hateful Saturday I watched ME-TV and it was westerns. These shows seemed like low commitment, easy-in, easy-out entertainment. If I really liked one, I wouldn’t have to wait for a “new” episode either. What surprised me was how much I liked them.

"He's got his badge, he's got his gun, but most of all, he's got his son."

“He’s got his badge, he’s got his gun, but most of all, he’s got his son.” — The Rifleman

Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Big Valley, Gunsmoke, The Rebel, and many others, most of which I’ve never seen, were fascinating. The scripts were actually good. Sure, there was a lot of shooting to solve problems. But the stereotypes I expected weren’t there. Some guys were tough, and some were chickenshit. Some women were ladylike and some were, like Miss Kitty, bold business owners who spoke their mind. Good acting was everywhere. People like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen  were in these shows.

What impressed me even more were the stories, and how they related so well across generations and genres. One of the first episodes I watched was Wagon Train, in which the wagon train that seems to endlessly go somewhere (but never gets there) hosts an array of characters. Each week there were the core people, and they had to get involved with a wagon train member who was that week’s guest star– thus, a character you’d never see again. This episode was about a person on the wagon train who had some dread disease, maybe smallpox, and could no longer hide it. At the same time the news was braying about “Ebola in America” and the looming disease crisis that would render all Americans helpless and ill.

In all these old western TV shows, there was an evergreen story line. Man loves his wife but another woman in town catches his eye. Man drinks too much, smacks around his kids, and the kids run away. New person comes to town and doesn’t feel welcome in the clannish nature of the community.

This reinforced a belief I’ve held about both historical fiction and science fiction: it’s not really about that era. A western is not about life in a dusty Nevada town in the 1870s. A science fiction tale is not really about young people who have to fight in manipulative games to get food for their province.

Both historical fiction and science fiction are about the present.

New relationships. Breaking up of old relationships. Inclusion. Competition. Heartbreak. Parental love. Defending territory.

As much as we believe historical fiction and science fiction will “take us there,” the one thing we writers need to always remember is that it will take us “there”–but not to the past or the future. It takes us into the deepest recesses of our hearts where we can find the truth about human nature.

Write to the Market?

I started with good intentions.

When I was in elementary and middle school, I wrote about the small things close to me and my life. I lived in a closed world and could not see outside that narrow horizon. Though it was child-writing, it was from the heart.

In high school I started to expand but turned down the wrong road. I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and wrote a short story about myself in a gang (I ran from a potential fistfight). I read Don’t Play Dead Before You Have To by Maia Wojciechowska and wrote a short story about myself on drugs. (This, at a time when I had not only never tried drugs and was scared of them, but my ambition in life was to be a Baptist minister). I read The Son of Someone Famous, by M.E. Kerr and wrote a short story with myself as the rich, good-looking son of a senator. (I had horn-rimmed glasses, acne, and my dad was a liquor salesman.)

I subscribed to Writer’s Digest at age 16 and from then on slid down a dangerous path. I’m embarrassed to admit that as an adult I once thought of suing Writer’s Digest for throwing me off track. But of course it’s a magazine that helped a lot of people. And no one ordered me to fall in love with the idea of getting big money and unending fame from writing.

In later high school, I got into junky commercial novels by Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers) and Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls) and puked up my own similar novel called The Hollywood People — about a place I’d never even visited and a lifestyle I had no knowledge of. Since I didn’t even understand what love was, there was no depth to the book. The characters were stars or climbing actors and singers who “clawed their way to the top,” gobbled drugs, were always on diets, and had pornographic-quality sex.

Looking back, I know I was fairly good at nonfiction for a young writer. I won a speech writing contest. I won 2nd place in a national editing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, the same contest which had not long before launched the career of Joyce Carol Oates.

I had my first magazine acceptance on my 16th birthday, a poem. That was a dangerous combination for my overly-fertile imagination and then-entitlement feeling. I published regional magazine articles and even a couple of major newspaper articles in college, including an article in the St. Louis Dispatch about my university’s Chancellor.

Personal letter from S.E. Hinton

Letter from S.E. Hinton

Fueled by Writer’s Digest, I began writing anything that was right for the market at that time. I wrote letters to famous authors, begging for encouragement and hoping to make a “connection.”

The apex of stupidity came when I set a major life goal: by age 35, have written best-sellers, be a rock star, and have my own TV variety show, The Charles Mallory Show. Did I act or sing? No. I think my head might have been clearer if I’d been smoking weed and drinking booze like the other kids.

I always expected to hit the motherlode on fiction. Nonfiction took work and research. Fiction just poured out like sparklers from my fingertips, created by my brain, and I could go anywhere. It was the same displacement of reality that caused me to be such an avid reader starting in early childhood.

I’ve always loved history and sci-fi. It’s like I want to be anywhere but the present.

M.E. Kerr YA author

Letter from M.E. Kerr

The one good and true thing that happened somewhere in young adulthood was that I knew I wanted to write children’s books. Eventually I got wise enough to realize picture books weren’t for me and settled on middle-reader and young adult books. There was a seed in that high school, S.E. Hinton-copycat gang story, “The Tragedy of Anthony Mastona.”

Of course I went to fiction writing conferences, was part of writers’ groups, and made all those “right” moves. I wrote fiction for years. One acquaintance of mine whose journey was similar had just sold a book, I’d read in the Sunday newspaper, and in another near-fatal juxtaposition like my 16th birthday, I ran in her at Mass that very day. She told me it was a Western. This was confusing. She’d never been interested in that sort of thing. I asked her if she had any advice for me. She simply said, “Write to the market. That’s what I did.”

And that’s what I did, for a few years, trying to hit every slot any packager in the children’s book world had out there. Rejection after rejection. Then I thought I struck gold — a packager for Sweet Valley Kids, the rabbit-like spawn of Sweet Valley High, asked to see a proposal. I wrote the proposal. Then I wrote the whole book on spec. Then they rejected it and said, “A man just can’t write about middle-school girls.”

I should have hit myself over the head right then with a board and thought, “Sweet Valley Kids? WTF am I doing?”

Maia Wojciechowska

Letter from Maia Wojciechowska

My first commercial fiction success was when I wrote a story called “Dead Summer” for an anthology called Even More Bone-Chilling Tales of Fright, a four-times-removed sequel to a once-selling book. I got it because they asked Neal Shusterman, with whom I’d been email friends. He didn’t have time and referred me. The editor chewed the hell out of the story, gave me no control, and while I was happy to get paid $500, I barely recognized the published piece.

I was making money writing nonfiction for magazines in the 90s, starting with the plethora of then-widespread men’s fitness magazines. I’d published a couple of how-to nonfiction books. I’d ghostwritten a business book that was featured on ABC-TV’s 20/20.

But fiction had only meant years of disappointment. I had written 10 YA and middle-reader novels that I couldn’t sell. I’d ridden the optimistic waves of getting an agent–four times.

I didn’t need this Sweet Valley Bone-Chilling Tales of Crap. And fiction was a dead end.

So I quit writing fiction. For 10 years.

But the idea crawled back into my mind, like a tapeworm come to life after fattening itself for years.

I didn’t need to write nonfiction anymore, and didn’t even want to continue as a full-time writer. I had changed emotionally and had friends and did not want to sit at home by myself all day. Thus fiction had a chance to work its way back into my life while I held regular corporate jobs.

My first rule was: I don’t care if I sell a damn thing. I don’t care if it’s “in,” fits a genre, or is even considered well-written. I’m just going to write.

My second rule: No addiction to how-to-sell articles and no trolling writers’ groups/conferences for potential contacts. No looking for an agent right after I write the first chapter.

This time, it’s okay. It’s freeing. It’s authentic.

And I still have those wonderful letters from YA authors.

Personal letter from Judy Blume

Letter from Judy Blume

Stranger in a Strange Land

Not long ago I decided to admit that I will never be able to read all the good sci-fi that’s out there. Sci-fi is a relatively new genre, having only become a body of work on the literary scene in the 1800s. Did it start before that? In a variation, yes, as many sci-fi fans consider the short-story Somnium by Joannes Kepler (early 1600s) the first true sci-fi story. Considered by many the first sci-fi novel is the everlasting story of Frankenstein, the novel by Mary Shelley (1818). But since then, and especially in modern times, sci-fi is produced in flooding gulfs year after year.

My compromise was to at least make sure I’d read all the classics that started the modern era of sci-fi (1950s) since standard futuristic sci-fi colors my own fiction writing (I don’t care for, nor write, fantasy, medieval-era things, cyberpunk). Of course I’d read the 1880s stuff and Jules Verne, and in high school, had a long streak of Ray Bradbury fandom where I read all of his major works. I started by hitting two classics I had not read, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

Though I had not read it before, I could see how the theme of Childhood’s End had a theme that many writers have thought of and have treated in different ways. The film “Independence Day” is an example. My own story “Treat,” the last story in my collection, The Owl Motel, came from the same strange pondering about aliens. That is the story in the collection that might be too intense for young readers and thus is not summarized in any of the book’s promotion.

sci-fi writers writing Chuck Mallory

The sky over Earth in 2179 A.D.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a beautiful title (and of course a great book) and makes me think about fiction writers. Fiction writers are “strangers in a strange land” because you basically spend a lot of time by yourself spinning these stories in your head, some of which get out the public. You have an immediate affinity with other writers, who have the same “stranger” status in a world where they don’t quite fit in. You get cranky if you go too long without writing. Your characters sometimes talk to you in your mind while you’re doing other things, and many of your observations are tucked away into who knows what dark corners of your brain only to come out later.

For some people, it’s a schizophrenic experience. One day you read back your writing and think, “I’m really good!” And then the next day you read your writing and think, “This is awful. Why don’t I just quit? Obviously I’m no good at this.” There was a long period where I was secretly convinced that I had a great talent that lay just to the side of what I was doing and I would go my whole life without knowing it because I thought I was a writer. What if I am a highly talented painter within but never knew it because I never tried art? What if I’m meant to be a famous pianist but never learned the piano and missed my one shot?

We think like this, we fiction writers. We have to stick together. The world is getting stranger, but we are just getting stranger along with it. So we will always be strangers in a strange land.