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Making Best Use of Historical Elements

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

When protagonist Josie Tyrell mentions that John Lennon had just been shot in the opening of Janet Fitch’s novel, Paint It Black [1], we immediately know that this story is set in 1980.

Having served its primary purpose, some writers would drop the historical reference and move on. Not Fitch. She makes such good use of Lennon’s death in her opening that one wonders if she chose that era just so she could have access to it.

Let’s look at how she drops this information into the second half of her first paragraph, after a few sentences that establish that Josie Tyrell is modeling for an artist friend:

Henry Ko wasn’t painting well today. He had to stop every few minutes to wipe his eyes on the back of his hand, while Double Fantasy circled around on the studio stereo. Everyone was playing it now. John Lennon had just been shot in New York, and wherever Josie went, people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up. At least Double Fantasy had Yoko Ono.

Already Fitch has used the event to characterize Josie, who does not want us to forget the woman behind the man. But Fitch also uses the event to create subtext. I’ve added footnotes to show a connection to the story to come, illustrating how Josie’s perception of Lennon’s murder will weave into the fabric of her story:

On the cover that leaned against the dirty couch, John and Yoko pressed together for a kiss they would never finish.1 People were always trashing Yoko Ono, blaming her for breaking up the Beatles,2 but Josie knew they were just jealous that John preferred Yoko to some bloated megaband.3 Nobody ever really loved a lover. Because love was a private party, and nobody got on the guest list.

Then, Fitch adds in another, more esoteric historical fact:

Henry kept crying about John Lennon. Josie felt worse about Darby Crash. Darby had just killed himself in an act of desperate theater,4 a gesture swamped by the Beatle’s death like a raft in the backwash of a battleship.5

Back to the painter’s studio. When Ko ends the session, he and Josie get high together. More foreshadowing:

She toked along with him, knee to knee, and thought about the guy who shot Lennon. Shot by a desperate fan. On the news, fans were always desperate.6

Still high, Josie heads back to the cabin she shares with Michael, hoping he has returned home from his painting trip.

She drove back to Lemoyne in her rattly Ford Falcon, a powder blue relic with band stickers on the trunk—X, Germs, Cramps. It was normally a three-minute drive, but she hit a line of cars with their lights on. Why were they going so slow? Maybe another John Lennon thing. She honked, wove, and passed until she got to the front and saw it was a hearse. Mortified, she turned off onto a side street and stopped, red-faced. How was she supposed to know—a line of cars crawling along with their lights on?

I love the humor here, but beyond that, the subset of details Fitch chose to include about Lennon’s murder, added to this funeral procession, are starting to suggest Josie’s story goal: already at risk as a runaway, she must find her identity without Michael. The mention of Lennon’s death has heightened the reader’s emotions without referring to Mark David Chapman or the dramatic rush to get Lennon to the hospital; Fitch rightly allows her own story to provide the novel’s most dramatic moments.

A couple added thoughts about the era:

Such is the power of setting an emotional stage by tying it to an historic event: I read Paint It Black when it came out in 2006, and since then I have not re-read it, nor did I see the 2016 film on which it was based. Lennon gets only now more brief mention later in the book, yet I recalled this opening well enough that I looked it up to write about it here.

There is no writing rule that says historic or even current events can’t be mentioned in passing. Authors do it all the time. But what if select aspects of that event could also add to characterization, set an emotional stage, and foreshadow events to come in a way that creates an indelible impression on the reader’s memory?

I say, all the better.

Have you dropped historical or current events into your work? In what way did they contribute to your story? Could you make better/further use of them? Did researching them give you further ideas for your story? Can you share further examples of great uses of historical events in fiction (that were not the backdrop for the entire story, say, like wars often are)?

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.