Unfamiliar landscapes of the imagination

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I HAVE PROBLEMS with the present.

I prefer the past.

I don’t think I am writing stories that could be classified as historical fiction, but I do write about another time and place because I have a feeling that readers are as tired of the present as I am. I believe they want something different. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.

I watch today’s mystery or detective stories on television, and it seems that the characters spend half of their allotted screen time on cell phones, on computers, on CSI equipment that identifies fingerprints in a heartbeat, track down bad guys with GPS, and can pull up bank records and credit card payments with the click of a button.

The good guys don’t catch the bad guys anymore.

Machines do.

The good guys just show up at the last minute and put on the handcuffs. Come to think of it, the good guys don’t kiss the girls, good or bad, much anymore.

I have always been drawn to the magic of an earlier time frame in our history.

Wicked Little Lies is set back in a traditional Southern town during the late 1970s when the South still had a dying touch of Gothic on its streets, and Secrets of the Dead is a suspense thriller – at least I hope there’s a little suspense and a few thrills lurking in the story – that takes place in the late 1930s when the world was uneasy, a madman was running across Europe, and everyone was afraid of another big war.

Frankly, I believe that readers want to involve themselves in times and places and worlds that are not familiar to them.

That’s why we have so much popular science fiction.

We have fantasy.

We have vampires and zombies and ghosts and all sorts of things that go bump in the night.

We have Harry Potter and his world of tricks and magic, Abraham Lincoln hunting down vampires, a Lord of the Rings, and a band of talented authors who have the imagination and talent to play God and build their own worlds, then inhabit them with strange creatures who speak strange languages and battle monsters and sometimes machines on this planet or other ones dangling loose in the solar system.

I like the unknown.

I like the unfamiliar.

Frankly, it is tough to build suspense, when, regardless of the situation, the hero or heroine simply pulls out a cell phone and starts dialing for help or backup. Give me a hero who has to run down a dark alley in the dead of night frantically searching for a pay phone or a late night café that’s still open or a taxi cruising the back streets. You never know who’s driving the taxi.

You can write great scenes on trains with their club cars, dining cars, Pullman cars, and journeys across country that take two days or a week. The Orient Express comes to mind. So does Silver Streak. Neither stories would work on American Airlines from Dallas to New York with a stop in Charlotte.

You can’t write those kinds of gripping scenes, you can’t introduce a bunch of really intriguing characters, and you can’t develop relationships if everyone is strapped into their airplane seats and never more than a couple of hours away from their final destination. Overseas flights have some potential, but not like a train roaring through the darkness with gunfire and sex running rampant from car to caboose.

If I hop in a little red sports car and drive from Dallas to St. Louis to see the girl of my dreams, that’s simply the way it’s done today. But if I have to walk to Decatur, hitchhike a ride in a chicken truck to Wichita Falls, talk a crop duster into flying me to Oklahoma City, then spend my last four dollars to buy a bus ticket to St. Louis, crowded with three ex-cons and a mailman threatening to go postal, in order to reach my girl, then that’s love.

When you write about the past or the future or fantasy island, your hero and heroine has to get by on guts, gumption, guile, and guns. There is no easy way out, and so many great books have been built on the premise that there is no easy way out.

I may, of course, only be a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

So how about you?

Do you like to read or write about the familiar things in life, or do you prefer times, past or future, where you must venture into unfamiliar and unknown landscapes of the imagination?

The Ambrose Lincoln series takes me to a time and place that are strangers to me.

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  • I’m stuck firmly in the recent past, 2005-2006, until I finish this and two more books that happened then.

    Ask me when I’m done.

    I swear it’s more real to me than today is. And that’s a choice: if I introduce too much modern technology, a story set in the recent past (only ten years?) is going to vanish into the mists. It’s an odd feeling, inserting my story and my characters into a space carved out in the first decade of this century that is already scrambling and crashing to get ahead of itself, invent MORE electronic stuff, get away from me.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I may like to live in the techno age, Alicia. Computers are much easier to write on than typewriters. But I would rather read about a time when the pay telephone was about as high-tech as we got.

  • Darlene Jones

    Mostly I prefer being taken to a different world, be it France and the life of a blind girl as in All the Light We Cannot See, or Spain during Franco’s rule as in Domingo’s Angel. The stories I like don’t all have to be in the past though – anything that takes me to new ideas and new learning works for me.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You said it better than i did, Darlene. It’s the unfamiliar that captivates us, not particularly the time period, although I do prefer the past.

  • I’m certain that photo comes from one of my favorite movies, “The Third Man.” I prefer to read about the past, such as “Killing Patton” and “The Dirty Dozen,” but my books are in the present.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Chip, it did come from The Third Man, which mesmerizes me every time I see it, especially the end. What you believe is going to happen, what you know is going to happen doesn’t happen, and it has haunted me for a long time.

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