A Trip to the Past
Note: This article will be eventually developed into the Materials section of this site. Until that is complete, check there as well as here for links to useful content.
When we think of historical fiction, of period pieces, we think perhaps of Regency romances, or maybe of medieval tales of knights and derring-do. After all, many of us know people who lived at the time our Hogan's Heroes stories are set in, and they're no different from us, are they? No shining armor, not even poofy shirts that lace up the front. Everyone is different, though, and everyone is shaped by their experiences. Colonel Hogan is a lot like us, isn't he? Right ... and wrong. Were he a real person, he would have been born nearly a hundred years ago. He didn't grow up in the same world we did. The things we find indispensable, like television, email, interstate highways, or even grocery stores that sell strawberries in the middle of winter, simply didn't exist in his world. The changes they have made in today's world hadn't happened yet. When we're writing Hogan's Heroes stories, we're writing period pieces all right, and when we fail to recognize that, we wind up with hodgepodge mixtures of present and past that are an embarassment to their authors.
The particular example I'm thinking of at the moment is what I called the "Hammelburg Wal-Mart story". A fan writer that I'll call Gertrude (name changed to protect the guilty) wrote a story that involved a character shopping for Christmas gifts in Hammelburg. This character visited a shop which was open at some time around 10 pm on a Sunday evening, on Christmas Eve to be exact, and which sold a wide variety of different types of products. Gertrude no doubt lives in a town with a big modern store, perhaps a Wal-Mart, that is open on Sundays, open in the evenings, and sells more than one category of goods. Gertrude lives, as do I, in a world where you can go to a single store and buy groceries, garden plants, glasses, and goldfish in the middle of the night. It never crossed her mind that stores haven't worked the exact same way since some caveman laid out a selection of stone axes on a deerskin in front of his cave. Historically, retail merchants have been specialists. This is particularly true in Europe, where trade guilds controlled most business until recent times (historically speaking). The rural general store is an American institution. Also unknown to Gertrude, there were (and are) restrictions on when shops could be open, even in the United States. In short, things that had always been a part of Gertrude's life didn't apply. Her lack of understanding, not just of the differences, but that there were any differences, led to literary disaster.
So what is the answer for us, as writers who don't want to make fools of ourselves in public? Time travel, of course! We just have to drive a DeLorean at precisely 88 mph ... oops, wrong fandom.
Actually, what I'm talking about is more like virtual time travel. To get into the mindset of the people we are writing about, it helps to to immerse ourselves in parts of their world. All around us, especially here on the Web, we have the resources we need to take us into the past — into the world of our characters.
In a time before television, reading was a major source of entertainment. Unlike today, when many young people view reading as a difficult task done with resentment for school assignments, people of all ages read for fun. A good way to start seeing the world as they saw it is to read the books that they read. To really understand the world you are visiting, you have to go native. Leave the 21st century behind. Your trip in time will take you to a world much larger and more mysterious than our own. It is a world that still has huge areas of unexplored territory, long before satellite mapping took away the last mysteries of geography. It is a world where automobiles and airplanes are cutting-edge technology. It is a world where travel is by train and ship, where communication is by letter and telegram, where "calling" means paying a personal visit, not picking up a phone. When you read an adventure where the Sargasso Sea is a monster-infested quasi-island with lost ships forever stuck in it, forget that we know now that it's only an eddy with some drifting seaweed. If you're reading a story of space travel, don't think "It doesn't work like that!"; think "Wow! Gee whiz!" Absorb the world of your characters, feel the influences that shaped their lives, and your writing will be the better for it.
I have in my hands a book entitled Don Sturdy on the Desert of Mystery. It's one of the Stratmeyer Syndicate books, under the house name of Victor Appleton. On the flyleaf, written in fountain pen, it says "Robert J. Travers, from Cousin Ruth. 1926." ... perhaps it was a birthday present. It's easy to imagine a kid named Andy Carter saving up fifty cents to send off for the newest Tom Swift book, or young Robbie Hogan reading a Boy Aviators story and dreaming of flight, or a kid already known to his friends as "Kinch" building his first radio set from the instructions in one of the Radio Boys books. There were dozens of different series from various publishers, and they were wildly popular.
As it happens, my hobby is collecting these boys' series books, especially the Don Sturdy and Tom Swift series, and the somewhat older books by Horatio Alger. I wouldn't recommend this as a means of immersion, however, unless you're already a bibliophile. Copies in good condition aren't cheap, and even a small collection can engulf your shelf space at a disturbing rate. Thankfully, Project Gutenberg is there to save us. The books are long out of copyright, and some of the Gutenberg volunteers seem to share my collecting tastes. Try the following:
- Horatio Alger
- Victor Appleton
- Louis Arundel
- Gerald Breckinridge
- Allen Chapman
- Victor Durham
- George Durston
- Roy Rockwood
- Edward Stratmeyer
- Frank Webster
- Clarence Young
"Pulp" adventure stories were also wildly popular. We mostly think of Edgar Rice Burroughs as the creator of Tarzan, but his Mars and Pellucidar stories were also popular. Robert E. Howard's epic fantasy heroes such as Conan, along with his western and boxing stories that are lesser known today, filled the pages of pulp magazines. H.P. Lovecraft wrote classics of horror, and was one of the first authors to invite other writers into a shared world; Howard, Derleth, and others wrote stories for Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" setting. There were magazines for every possible genre and sub-genre, including science fiction and fantasy, detective stories, sports, and so on. Our heroes, like many boys of their era, might have read some of the following:
Attitudes of the times
One thing that modern readers can't help but notice is the racism and sexism of many, in fact in almost all, of these works. It is taken for granted, without thought, that the white male of northern/western European descent is superior to everyone else. With few exceptions, non-white, non-American, and female characters are portrayed as stereotypes that sometimes reach the point of caricatures. Both the nature of those stereotypes and the mere fact of the stereotyping are considered offensive today. Remember, though, that these were not written by or for people of today. Their authors and readers were, as we are, products of the culture they grew up in. We are not superior beings in some mystical sense because we think differently now. We consider certain attitudes and beliefs to be wrong because we have been taught that they are wrong, and why they are wrong. We believe as we were taught. So, too, did our forbears; the difference is in what they were taught.
Eradicate Sampson, for instance, the only non-white regular character in the Tom Swift books, can be almost painful to read about from a 21st-century mindset. In order to see the world as our characters see it, however, we need to be able to read that book as they did. We need to be able to leave behind our headspace and get into theirs. It can be critically important to us as authors.
This makes a difference in our writing. For example, given the degree of racial segregation at the time, especially in the military, someone like Carter might never have talked to a black man before he met Kinchloe. He's not going to react like you or me; he's going to react like someone who expects Kinch to resemble Eradicate, and (Carter being Carter) might wonder if he has a mule like Boomerang. If we can't write from that viewpoint, we can't write an authentic Carter or an authentic Kinch; all we can write about — admittedly, as the canon scriptwriters often did — is our own contemporaries dressed up in historical costume. If all you're trying to do is set up a fantasy love affair between Hogan and your self-insert, well, that won't matter; if you're trying to be a serious and competent writer, on the other hand, that authenticity is vital.
Of course, there were more (and in the opinion of many parents and educators of the time, better) things to read than juvenile series or, even worse, pulp fiction. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Baroness Orczy, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and many, many others would have appealed to our characters. Some of the resemblences between Colonel Hogan and the Scarlet Pimpernel, both in character and in events, are striking. It's also worth reading fiction and non-fiction which is both written and set in and around that era. Special compact paperback books were published for members of the armed forces.
History books are probably the first thing you thought of when I mentioned books, but I have left them for last. Reading typical history books, no matter how good, gives you a second-hand view of the period. You want immersion; you want to feel, for a brief time, like you are actually there. There are a few books that will serve the purpose.
One is War Illustrated, a magazine that was published in Great Britain during the Second World War (and the First, for that matter). You can track down individual issues for a dollar or two apiece on eBay, and it was also collected into a 10-volume set The Second World War: An Illustrated History of World War II. ABE Books often lists most or all of the volumes for good prices. Beware of the shipping charges; these are not small books. There is also a website which is reprinting some of the articles, though very few with pictures. It's good, but it can't hold a candle to having the real thing in your hands.
Unfortunately I have not found an American equivalent to that series. The best I can come up with is Page One: The Front Page History of World War II. That is a collection of front pages of the New York Times newspaper. It is out of print, but available used from various book dealers, and occasionally can be found new as well; check the Amazon Marketplace.
There seems to be a fad for publishing books with replicas of historic documents and materials tucked into the pages. More often than not, they're a useless gimmick. However, there are some exceptions. One is The WW2 Victory in Europe Experience, and the other is The D-Day Experience. They are both excellent surveys of their subjects, good introductions for people who don't consider Prange, Ambrose, and Liddell Hart to be light reading. The facsimile documents included enhance the content, rather than trying to carry it on their own. The Victory in Europe book, for instance, includes a navigation chart and flak concentration map for bombing raids; it's easy to imagine the Heroes having handled similar ones. Although they are still more in the nature of history books than the sort of immersion we are looking for, they're worthwhile nonetheless.
Even better, but much harder to come by, is The World War II Collection: America at War, by Bob Zeller and Lee Kennett. It's a little box, and inside that box is a treasure trove of documents. There's a WAC recruiting pamphlet from near the end of the war, a postcard from a P.O.W., a military ID card (General Patton's!), a movie poster, and many other fascinating items. I would recommend this as essential, but it is nearly impossible to come by, and seems to be hideously expensive when it is available at all. If you ever see a copy, grab it.
Music is somewhat more probliatic for me to write about because, unlike books, it forms the background to my life, not the center of it as books do. Until I can find a music expert to write this section for me, you could do a lot worse than searching for "music of world war ii" at amazon.com and buying a few CDs or MP3s to listen to while you write.
When I was growing up, relatives told me about the good old days when the family gathered around the radio to listen to The Shadow or Jack Armstrong. When I first heard an episode of the former a number of years ago, I was hooked. My MP3 player is full of them now. Sure, they helped when I started writing fanfic later on, but never mind period research " they're just fun.
Any kind of comprehensive index of the shows here would be impossible. There were hundreds of them over the course of four decades. There are some fairly good lists at Wikipedia, however. Of the greatest interest to HH fanfic writers are the programs of the 1930s and 1940s. Be sure to check the date of the latter if you're mentioning them in a story, so that you don't accidentally have someone listening to The Adventures of Sam Spade.
Where to get them
Sadly, probably more shows were lost than were ever saved. They were throwaway entertainment, performed live and often not recorded. Of what remains, some is out of copyright, some is of questionable status, and some is still restricted. However, there are many series which are (or are believed to be) public domain, and readily available at least in part. If you don't want todownload and save hundreds of files, or your bandwidth isn't up to downloads that can reach the gigabyte range, there are vendors who sell them on CD, some in fancy boxes in brick-and-mortar stores, others on home-burned CDs sold mail-order.
A Google search for "old time radio" will produce (as of the time of this writing) 836,000 hits! Some want to sell you recordings, some stream them, some have them for download in various formats, and some just want to talk about them. Some of the fan-run OTR sites suddenly vanish, probably for reasons related to their hosts' bandwidth limits. Links to good index sites may be more useful than links to the sites themselves.
The Internet Archive has become a site worth checking for all sorts of interesting historic content. They're a lot more than the Wayback Machine now.
- Open Directory Project list of OTR sites
- Internet Archive collection
- Wikipedia list which includes Canadian programs
- OTRcat a very wide range of CD collections; I've bought from them.
A trip to the movies
Movies of the era are another worthwhile way to immerse ourselves in our characters' lives. Don't limit that to war-related films, either; in fact, those might be the least important. Watch movies of every genre, especially from the 1930's. Watch the serials, the comedy shorts, and the cartoons that were shown before the feature, too. Many of those are available in big DVD collections; check everywhere from Wal-Mart to "odd lot" discount stores. Hulu and Veoh are good places to look.
Another interesting resource is collections of US National Archives footage. One of the best is Topics Entertainment's WWII: A Filmed History, and specifically the "War on the Homefront" series within it. That section is a collection of public service (and propaganda) films. Among the topics covered are the functiones of an air raid and civil defense organization (complete with how to deal with an incendiary bomb landing in your attic!), exhortations to conserve resources and salvage material that was needed for the war effort, and, of course, buy bonds.
Before TV news, there was the newreel. You know the half-hour or so where we are forced to endure seemingly interminable movie trailers and product advertisements before we finally get to see the movie we paid for? Once upon a time (once upon the Heroes' time) that was instead short material, including a newsreel. Universal Newsreels, one of the five big newsreel companies, donated their library to the Internet Archive. Other newsreels can be found on YouTube. Cue up a few and see the news as people of the era saw it.
Military training and briefing films
These are a great way to get a feel for the military of the time, and for the specifics of the characters' military experiences.
A company called Timeless Media Group is one of many who are packaging and selling public-domain content from the National Archives. They're no-frills DVDs, but there is nothing quite like watching the B-17 familiarization film on Flight Check: Bombers and imagining a new B-17 pilot named Hogan sitting in the next seat. They have one for fighters, too, including captured footage of an introduction to the Messerschmitt 109. Their Restricted Films package is an excellent collection of briefing films and other interesting content. The package I mentioned before, WWII: A Filmed History, contains more such films, including the "Why We Fight" series. I really can't recommend that box enough.