Saturday, November 25, 2017

Writing in History: Sharing the "Red Scare" with Middle Schoolers

I first started working on The Beat on Ruby's Street because of spending time in Greenwich Village when my older sister moved there with her family. I loved the history all around me and thought it would be fun to explore the Beat Generation culture and set my story there.

That sent me on a journey that led me to exploring the poetry, writing and art of the 1950s and early 1960s, and now brings me to book two of the Beat Street Series, called Fool's Errand. Set again in 1958, it pits Ruby and her best friend Sophie against the infamous Blacklist, which robbed many writers of their livelihoods and hurt numerous families.

When you're working on a historical novel, I've found the trick isn't so much the research - though of course you need to do that to figure out what was going on at the time you're writing about. The trick for me is situating your characters inside that historical time and seeing how it affects them.

As it happens, the Blacklist was starting to wind down in 1958 and times weren't nearly as crazy as they were about 10 years earlier. But there still was a Blacklist, which allows me to plunk it down in the middle of my story and mess up everyone's life (because that's what writers do).

Because Sophie's mother is a comedy-show writer, she is deeply affected by the Blacklist and loses her job. Fool's Errand focuses on what happens to Sophie, her mother and Ruby during this time.

What was most interesting to me about the Blacklist was how it bred a culture of fear, not only in the minds of those affected, but in people who worried about being affected. I think what happens when countries are led by people whose main purpose is to control them--confusing the word "govern" with control--is that the country becomes sick, like someone with the flu. And the sickness spreads through fear, which keeps people from speaking up and rebelling.

While writing this new story, I've also started thinking about our own times, and whether the Blacklist years have anything to teach us about government, power and the way we react. 

Because my characters are growing up in the heart of the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village, they tend to be rebellious. I hope this leads them to fight fear and use whatever they have to stay strong and free. That doesn't mean they won't get hurt along the way--but it does mean they're going to get up again and keep trying. That's what I want middle schoolers to know--and why I landed on this book.

Fool's Errand should be out in 2018.

For more information on the Blacklist, try these links:

Blacklist Profiles: 7 Writers and Actors Who Defied Hollywood

The Red Scare Comes to Hollywood

Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and the Fear of Hollywood Communism