History Retold

It’s a curious process, picking what events and cultural references to use as a backdrop in an alternative history fantasy story. For me, reference to the happenings and popular culture of the period is a must to help create a setting – and its society – realistically.

And the 1960’s seem to me to be a time that is particularly bursting with interesting, world-changing events and culture.

There are the fantastic songs of the 60’s (as I’ve talked about in my previous blog), which I have woven in through the narrative to create an evocative soundtrack to Ange’s adventures.

It was also a decade of massive societal changes, turbulence, technical and scientific advances, and a wild blossoming of culture where every art form flourished. From the Cold War and Vietnam War to the Space Race and the moon landing. From assassinations of leading figures such as J.F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr to sexual revolution, civil rights movements, the counter-culture, and unforgettable rock festivals.

The Atomic Goddess trilogy is set during the last three months of 1969. This was an interesting year in its own right, especially for the United States of America, where Book One of this story is set.

Yet there’s more to making a time-and-place setting than just name-dropping well-known events and cultural icons. The question is how to weave all of these things artfully into a story to root it in the reality of that time and place. How to make that setting feel absolutely real and authentic.

This is particularly difficult if you’ve never experienced either the time or the place for yourself. Being a child of the 70’s, and of Australia rather than America, I was unable to draw on my own experience to create the backdrop to this story. But having immersed myself in everything 60’s for much of my life, I felt I could have a good go at it. After all, plenty of other authors tackle times and places they’ve never encountered and done well at it – and I had done so before in writing diverse eras.

Taking into account the life that I had imagined for Ange – her own personal backstory – gave me some ideas to go on. In 1969, Ange is 25 years old, and therefore I could go back from there to create childhood memories from the late 1940’s through to the 50’s and 60’s. Ange’s outlook would have been influenced by the mindset of her parents, teachers and peers, as well as by the world events, social standards and culture of her time.

So I could ask myself questions like what Ange’s school life was like – I think it wouldn’t have been fun for her, as her father was in the air force and the family moved around a lot. She might have struggled academically, and had to work twice as hard as others to achieve good marks. She would also found it difficult to maintain friendships when having to change schools every two or three years, and therefore became quiet and reclusive.

Another question might be about her cultural preferences. This was an era when movies, television and music – and the celebrities involved with them – were big news. Whilst other girls were swooning over Montgomery Clift and Tony Curtis, Ange preferred the young rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando.

She would have been amongst the first to embrace Elvis when he became popular in the 50’s, and probably among the first to get over him once he settled into the sappy-pappy pop of the early 1960’s after his stint in the army. And I don’t imagine that his 1968 comeback special would have impressed her much, despite his harder edge.

Ange would have been bored stiff hanging out at the milk bar. Whilst the other kids were jiving and swinging at the hop, Ange would have been quietly absorbed in a book somewhere, most likely high up in a tree where she could maintain distance from others and a unique perspective of whatever town she lived in at the time. She didn’t hang out with any crowd, and avoided trouble-makers as just much as she did anyone else – although she might admire them from a safe distance.

It would have been impossible to avoid mentioning the politics of the day, and the strife and tensions of the times. I have written Ange’s father as a sympathetic character, one who has worked hard all his life to make America a better place. Although he was technically a military man, by virtue of his work in the U.S. Airforce, I saw him as someone who became increasingly disturbed and disillusioned with the way America was governed.

So I imagined the talk in their household would have centred around what was going on in the political realm (both of the Kennedy assassinations would have hit him hard), as well as the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and so on. Also, as an air force man, he would have shown a great deal of interest in the space race – and America’s ultimate goal of landing a manned mission on the moon.

All of this, in turn, would have influenced Ange. I have written her as someone who – although she doesn’t seem to like other people much – is very interested in human rights, and especially the civil rights movements of the time.

Once I’d placed Ange in this particular time and place, it seemed to me inevitable that she would be involved at some level, possibly going to rallies and marches, maybe even a sit-in or two. She would be too much in-her-head to get swept away with the peace and love of hippydom, but she would still relate to it well enough to agree with the sentiment.

So you will hardly find it surprising when, at the beginning of Book One – Goddess Reborn – to learn that Ange and her boyfriend have just returned home from a political rally in a nearby town. Which, of course, sets the scene for a lot of the machinations that follow…

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Ange’s mother and sister much yet. Neither are perhaps as cerebral as Ange or her father, and both have different strengths that Ange draws on. But I’ll write more about them in a future blog.

Keep a smile on your dial until next time, and peace and love in your heart

From Lana Lea and her time-travelling muse

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