After reading the first few pages of any good novel, readers should be involved in the lives of one or more of the characters. In a good historical novel, they should also live the culture and current events of the period in “real time.” The news of the day, the music, the slang, etc. I recently read Stephen King’s 11-22-63, and it was a hypnotic experience. I was there. I drove the car with the tail-fins, drank Root Beer from a frosty mug, and I knew the Oswalds. THAT, my friends, is an excellent historical novel, with a fictitious, time-travel twist. My first two novels, The Color Line and Bluestone Rondo, have richly historical backdrops, with characters living it in real time. The Color Line entailed years of research on the First World War and details of the Harlem Renaissance, but Bluestone Rondo came mostly from childhood memories of my father’s bebop jam sessions and listening to the stories of jazz musicians—as well as memories of my own experiences as a musician.
My task in The Color Line was to give voice to Marcus Garvey and other historical figures of those days, while telling the story of the Rivard family. My task in Bluestone Rondo was to create a fresh take on the Cain and Abel story, with race as the dividing factor. The central chapters take place in New York at the height of jazz supremacy (the early fifties), as the country teeters on the razor’s edge of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. In these musical chapters, I found myself painting a picture of music using words. That’s three art forms, criss-crossing and merging—a real exercise in rule-breaking. The result, I hope, is a “time-machine” effect with a sound-track, and making old newspaper history spring to life with veracity and blazing immediacy.
Whether traditional history or cultural history, we all live it every day of our lives. So what history have you lived through? Probably more than you think.