Historical Fiction? Tell Me Another!

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Baby Adolf?

When my debut novel comes out next year, it’s probably going to be categorized as historical fiction. Understandable. The story takes place in the 1930s so, yeah, it is historical. And I do love history, but history wasn’t the driving force behind my writing the book. Fiction was. And family.

Consider the photograph at left, supposedly a snapshot of Hitler as a baby. (Cute, ain’t he? Gads, no.) This photo was making the rounds back in the 1930s (way before anyone had heard of Photoshop or Internet memes, or WWII for that matter.) It’s a fake, of course. A fiction. It’s doctored. Were people fooled? Yes. Would you have been fooled?

OK, here’s a true confession: If I had been around in 1938 and had seen this photo, I would have been fooled, I just know it. ::blush:: As a kid, I thought the articles I read in my grandmother’s National Enquirer mags were 100% true. I know, I know–I was a doofushead, but I was under the impression that newspapers wouldn’t dare print lies. After all, that’s against the law.

Well, folks, let me tell you, for this gullible girl the world was quite a strange and fascinating place, thanks to those far-out articles in the pages of the tabloids. Later, when I learned the truth about their fake stories and air-brushed photographs, I felt tricked and betrayed–and embarrassed–and I didn’t like that one bit. Consequently, as an adult, I’ve developed a sort of fascination for the ways in which people persuade, manipulate and fool others. I love a good hoax, just as long as I’m not caught up in it.Image

And that’s where my as-yet-untitled middle grade novel (Holiday House, Fall 2013) comes in. It’s the tale of a girl who sneaks off to work for a radio station with hopes of landing a role as an actress. When she finally finagles her way into the recording studio, she ends up becoming part of what some still call the greatest hoax ever unleashed upon the American public.

Seventy-four years ago last week, thousands of radio listeners were misled by actor/director Orson Welles’s dramatization of H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds. True story. My father-in-law was one of them. While a young man living in Newark, New Jersey, in 1938, he was one of many CBS listeners on the Sunday night before Halloween who became convinced that Martians had invaded Earth and were marching toward Newark. Little green men were reportedly on a course heading directly for his family’s apartment on South Orange Avenue.  He panicked. Lots of people panicked.

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South Orange Ave., Newark, New Jersey in 2006. That’s my character’s building there, the gray one in the middle. 🙂

Orson Welles’s so-called “panic broadcast” of 1938 is an extreme example of what can happen when people believe an authoritative voice without question and react before having all the facts. I loved the War of the Worlds story as a young adult. When I found out later on that my own father-in-law had experienced it, I knew I had to write a story around this extraordinary event.

That’s what I set out to write–a story that hangs upon a true event in history. So, yeah, it’s historical. And it’s fiction. But it’s not historical fiction, not to me. It’s my way of exploring hoaxes and lies, belief and deception. And it’s my way of honoring my father-in-law, Henry Brendler, a great storyteller in his own right, who died in 2009 at age 90, when I was in the middle of working on this novel.

The panic broadcast wasn’t history or fiction to him–he had lived through it. Many of the details in the story come directly from his memories of Newark as a kid. I wish I could present him with a copy when it comes out. It’ll be 75 years after the fact. I think he would have enjoyed it–a slice of his true story, written as fiction.

As my character would say, “And how!” I can’t wait to hold the book in my hands. Thanks, Pop.

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33 Comments

Filed under Introduction, The Call, Writing

33 responses to “Historical Fiction? Tell Me Another!

  1. Carol, I am so excited for your novel. I always wanted to be an actress and I have long been fascinated by that time period in American history. I live in NJ and love hearing first-hand accounts of that panic-inducing broadcast. The coolest premise ever!

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  2. Great hearing about the inspiration for your story, Carol. As many wise people have noted, we fiction writers tell lies to get at truths. Sounds like your story is going to be great in both those departments! Can’t wait to see it in print!

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  3. Aw, g’wan! No, actually, thanks for the encouragement. And Long Live New Jersey!

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    • David Rohrkemper

      I was lucky when I was a kid. I’m not sure if it was my parents and/or my paternal grandpa, but I do remember being educated that “one should only trust half of what he sees, and none of what he reads”. So, of the two of us, who was short changed? I grew up cynical. You grew up sweet and trusting. As I recall, in college, you called me mean. I now know that I was mean in respect to your trusting nature. Please accept my apology. I am still quite cynical. Thank Ralph for never belting me in the mouth back in college. I’m sure that would have taught me the lesson 35 years later.

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  4. Carol. I cannot WAIT to read this. Congratulations!

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  5. Joshua McCune

    That is one funky child (doctored or not), and I too would have been convinced (particularly in those days when I imagine awareness of retouching/manipulation was less prevalent).

    Like Tara, I love your story’s premise, though I’m glad I wasn’t around back then. That Wells broadcast would have terrified me (though perhaps not as much as Hitler).
    .

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    • Carol Brendler

      Yah, Josh. A while after that photo made the rounds, a mother came across it and recognized it as her son’s baby photo, with adjustments (see more, and the original baby photo, by clicking link). Hoax busted.

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  6. I’m really looking forward to this, too, Carol! I remember the moment that I discovered that Joan Aiken had been writing an alternate history with her WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE and BLACK HEARTS IN BATTERSEA. I was sitting in history class and waiting for my teacher to get to King James III.

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    • Carol Brendler

      I know, right? I also used to think a lot of fiction I read had actually really happened but the author didn’t want people to know it was real. Fern Arable’s story, for example, really happened.

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  7. Love this, Carol! And I can’t wait for your book. I was a gullible one, too, and for the same reason — if it’s in print (or on the radio or TV) and they’re saying it’s true, then it must be true, right? What a wakeup call! Haha!

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  8. I love historical fiction, and am writing one myself now. Do you feel the term limits how readers might view your book, or turns some readers away? I hope not. (And I’m wondering… 40+ years from now, will today’s contemporary fiction be recategorized as historical?)

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    • Sharon, yes I kind of do think that. I’m convinced that some people have the impression that historicals are all quiet tales of cornhusk dolls and bonnets, butter churns and covered wagons–or tales of WWII. I’m hoping my book can in some little way help to expand readers’ views of historical fiction. I seem to remember reading somewhere that historical fiction is defined as when an author writes about a time period before he was born, so contemporary literature maybe can’t be called historical in the future. It could be called dated, though, which is certainly not nice.

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  9. Jodi Levine

    Hi Carol,
    I can’t wait to read this!!! I loved the original War of the Worlds broadcast. It will be interest to read about it from another perspective.

    Hope all is well with you!

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  10. Congratulations on your historical fiction novel! I heard a (young) agent talk once and he referred to the 1980’s as historical fiction. Apparently, if it didn’t occur after the birth of your readers, it’s historical.

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  11. Carol, I’ve heard of this incident and am so looking forward to reading your book! How long did it take for your father-in-law to realize the whole thing was a hoax? I bet they didn’t know whether to feel relieved or angry when they found out the truth. Sheesh.

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  12. Cynthia Levinson

    Great post, Carol! As a nonfiction writer, I really appreciate this take on the fiction/nonfiction discussion.

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  13. Randie Bell

    As you are discussing hoaxes, I’m reading this the night before the election.
    You got me interested to read more. This must have been neat to get the stories on paper from your father-in-law. Hope there’s a lot of pictures. Otherwise I’ll just add some green to baby Adolf.
    Keep me posted, Take care

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  14. So looking forward to your book, Carol! Your post makes me wonder whether what’s going on in Newark after Hurricane Sandy will be the fodder for someone else’s historical fiction decades from now.

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  15. Interesting. There was also a HUGE hurricane just weeks before the panic broadcast in 1938 which permanently changed the Long Island coastline. What a year that was.

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  16. I can’t wait to read your book, Carol. It sounds wonderful. Kristin, I was an avid reader of Joan Aiken too and also a bit confused about what was real in those books.

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  17. Welcome to the EMUs, Carol! Your book sounds so awesome!

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  18. What a compelling storyline. Leave it to my genius former cirtique group pal to bring the tale to print. Woo hoo for you, Carol! I can’t wait for it to come out!

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  19. Pingback: “Based on True Events” | EMU's Debuts

  20. Jane LeGrow

    What a great idea for a story. I can’t wait to read it, Carol!

    My grandmother was convinced that anything printed in a book had to be true. Otherwise, “they” wouldn’t be allowed to print it, of course. My mother tried to talk her out of this idea many times, but nothing would sway her. Maybe mom should have had her argument printed and bound?

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  21. Leslie Molloy

    Carol I’m thrilled about the book!!!!! I will definitely be looking for it!!! I’ve forwarded your link to the whole office!!! 🙂

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  22. Pingback: And now… introducing… RADIO GIRL! | EMU's Debuts

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