The Currency of ‘Once Upon a Time’~

The Currency of ‘Once Upon a Time’~


Once Upon A Time is, at its core, a story about hope. – Edward Kitsis


‘Once upon a time…’ How I used to thrill to that opening phrase as a child—heck, I still do! It signals the start of a story and the necessary suspension of disbelief to appreciate it fully. It also heralds the possibility of escape, and what imaginative youngster could resist that—heck again, there are few adults who can ignore the call, either. It’s why shows like Downton Abbey were just as popular with men as with women and why adults were lost in the addiction to Harry Potter right along with their children and grandchildren. What’s ‘beach reading’ if not escape? Where’s the value in Sci-Fi or adventure series like Tom Clancy’s books if not in the chance to live somewhere else for a while? Truly, that’s what novels are for. So much so that even biographies have come to mimic the novel’s design to help the reader slip into another’s skin. I note the power of books such as Ron Chernow’s Hamilton and Grant to convince the adult reader that they don’t know how ‘the ending’ will turn out. If that’s not suspension of disbelief, I don’t know what is!

Admitting I’ve always craved flights of fancy, I accept that many others do, too, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction. But I also value the chance it gives us to see our own dilemmas through a broader lens, allowing us to observe the similarities between all humans no matter what their times. ‘Once Upon a Time’ is always about some other continuum. It’s irresistible. And although readers as well as writers understand the necessity of setting the scene, placing a story solidly in the ‘place’ of its happening, sometimes they ignore the importance of the time the story opens ‘once upon’. But as an author who’s chosen historical fiction as her passion (or did it choose me?), I can readily admit to a bias toward the voyeurism of watching other lives affected by a different human history and culture.

My first novel in this genre, Certain Liberties, is planned for publication late this year by Momentum Ink Press. Knowing the avalanche of technical challenges likely to rain down on the ‘team’ (editor, printer/designer and author), I’m reluctant to count on holding the book in my hands until 2019. That said, I appreciate the ‘history’ part of this novel in a new way, thanks to my editor. Even though it added so much more work, with tons of extra research, and facts that never got used, I found myself immersed in the period in a more complete way. I know that also helps the reader dive in as well, even if the editor didn’t let me use my research on the advent of the use of the paper bag for shopping. He felt the year was too close to my action and the use not yet commonly accepted. He’s a history buff with a blog specifically devoted to it, and doesn’t permit any wiggle room where the facts are concerned. Once in a long while, he’ll give me the benefit of a looser hand on the controls, but almost never.

That’s brought me around to understanding that if these people are going to be affected by their time in history, they must really be ‘in it’ (pre-Civil War Manhattan) and not ‘sort of’ vaguely there. The opening of Certain Liberties plunks the reader down dead-center in the nineteenth century, with references to Alexander Hamilton’s ancient widow who still goes to dinner parties alone on foot, the explosion of the Chinese silk trade affecting even children’s clothing as tariffs were lifted, and the price of a rental apartment, as well as the value of an antique Guarneri violin. Those, along with the cadence of the language, immediately place it in a time that becomes clearer and more precise as the protagonists’ lives unfold. Characters are bound up by the tensions brought on with the election of Abraham Lincoln as President and the threat of secession looms large. Where do budding young musicians like the protagonists fit into all this chaos? Right in the middle of it, as is true for us all in any time.

And that’s the whole point. An historical novel connects us to our past in the same way the futuristic fantasy connects us to a time we don’t yet know. They’re all about how important it is for us to feel the ties. In her invaluable aid to reading enjoyment, author Jane Smiley champions the nature of the novel as a social document. She uses E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India as one of her examples, splaying open it’s core better than I ever could, so I quote her here for your pleasure:

“Forster…doesn’t shrink at all from depicting particular customs among particular people at a particular historic juncture—he doesn’t find them fleeting or peripheral, he finds them interesting and worth carefully describing. The effect…is to give A Passage to India currency.”

I’ve literally never forgotten my amazement at learning that the emotions and trials of a teenager in China hundreds of years ago matched my own in the mid-20th century. But I never would have understood that so well had I not watched him maneuver through his world, thanks to author Pearl S. Buck.  I’ve worked to give Certain Liberties currency by breathing the life of the mid-eighteen-hundreds into its characters—musicians and writers, politicians and abolitionists, businessmen and women, socialites and servants, and children—so readers can go back to a time that was both uniquely its own, as well as so much like ours. I hope you enjoy the time-travel as much as I did writing about it, ‘once upon a time’.

6 Responses to The Currency of ‘Once Upon a Time’~

  1. One of my favorite of your blogs, Sid. I look forward to reading “Certain Liberties” Once Upon a Time will mean a lot more to me from now on.

    • Thanks so much, Peggy. These characters certainly deserve the chance to tell their stories after waiting so patiently (mostly)!

    • Can’t wait to introduce you to its characters! I think back to our college writing courses and in particular, the editing ones with Dean Carter and whoever the published poet was (can’t remember, of course!). That’s a long time for this story to have been lurking in my imagination, but that’s the fact of it!

  2. Thought provoking essay. Thanks. I fully agree. Writing is about character, what makes us tick. As you point out historical fiction gives us a chance to view behavior and personality as a universal rather than caged in a particular time, and it is always a wonder how a reader can connect with a soul, in well written novel, who lived hundreds of years before us. And it also gives us a different context to think about behavior by changing the viewpoint from the static of our own time to another.

    Your essay reinforces why I enjoy historical novels so much. Thanks, Paul

    • It’s interesting how we need to use a different lense to fully appreciate what’s around us. I think of historical fiction and biography as the reverse view through binoculars.

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