Tension is essential in stories that will resonate with readers. As a reader, you know the feeling – staying up way past your bedtime because you can’t put that book down. This post is a short introduction to crafting tension that will have your readers hanging on every word.
Rule number 1: story is conflict.
This is the only rule.
Conflict pits your main character against any number of obstacles, whether human (classic antagonist), natural (think earthquake or tornado), emotional (boy loses girl), or other (society, science fiction element, etc.). Conflict is generated moment by moment, scene by scene.
Conflict creates tension, and results from the stakes. Your protagonist’s stakes must appear in your opening pages. High stakes create high tension.
Without tension in story your reader will yawn, put your book down, and watch some mind-numbing reality TV show instead of reading. Please don’t subject your readers to mind-numbing reality shows.
Bell – one of my favorite craft authors, by the way – takes this one step further, and suggests that in any emotionally satisfying novel the stakes have to be death. The genre doesn’t matter; whether it’s comedy or tragedy doesn’t matter. The stakes are death.
According to Bell, there are 3 kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological.
Physical death. Win or die. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones…thrillers, murder mysteries, much scifi and fantasy, etc. Those are the stories that explore physical death.
Professional death. The death of the dream. The death of future dreams. For teens this can also mean death of the young self to be replaced by…? Think Because of Winn-Dixie, and Holes. Think of novels in which the teen is a failure in school or with peers and turning a corner into adulthood. What kind of adult will this kid become?
Psychological death. Dying on the inside. Romances, angsty teen novels, comedies all contain psychological death. Catcher in the Rye, every teen romance are examples.
Obviously, you can also combine these: Twilight is some combination of all three (which may be one reason for its success?).
Exercise: take your favorite can’t-put-down novel and try to identify the death stakes. Check out the level of conflict on every page. Share here, if you like!
Today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome my friend and fellow EMLA author Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and eating far too much chocolate. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, the Dirt Diary series, and the forthcoming Switched at First Kiss series, all published by Sourcebooks, as well as the picture book Power Down, Little Robot, coming from Henry Holt in March.
With all of her accumulated wisdom on series writing, she has some terrific thoughts on how to close out a book series without going crazy.
The phrase “wrapping up a series” makes me picture a neat little bundle of books all tied up with a bow. A series feels so pretty and orderly when it’s all finished, but getting it to that point usually takes a good bit of ugly chaos. Since The Gossip File, the final book in my second series, came out last month, I thought I’d share a few techniques that I’ve found helpful in taming the chaos.
I used to be a die-hard pantser, but writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t work very well when you have to write several books that all need to tie together and come to a satisfying conclusion. These days, I write a synopsis for each book that I’m working on, and when it comes to sequels, I make sure that the synopsis for each follow-up book builds on what came before. There’s still a lot of adjusting and rethinking that happens along the way, but at least having that plan in place early on helps keep me pointed in the right direction.
Give each book its own journey.
If each book in a series is about the character facing the same challenges, the series is going to feel boring. I make sure to send the character on a distinct emotional and physical journey in every book, each one bringing out a different part of her character so that she’s forced to change and grow in new ways. If she’s battling her fear of failure in every installment, for example, readers are going to start to get a little bored.
Have your characters evolve.
This is related to the previous point: If your character is the exact same person at the beginning of Book 1 as she is at the end of Book 3, that’s a problem (unless the point of the story is that your character doesn’t change). Readers want your characters to be flawed, but they probably don’t want to be yelling “don’t go into that closet!” over and over again. At some point, the character needs to start acting like a better version of herself so that we know she’ll be okay after the series is over.
Avoid bows that are too neat.
I started off by talking about wrapping series up in a pretty bow, but I must admit that I prefer stories that don’t tie up absolutely everything. Of course, all the big threads that have been introduced throughout the series should be addressed in some way by the end, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be picture perfect. Throughout the Dirt Diary series, for example, Rachel struggles with her parents’ divorce. In the third book, I wanted to give that situation some closure, but I also wanted to keep it realistic. Ultimately, I created some hope for the future, but I also tried to make it clear to the reader that because Rachel has evolved as a character, she’ll be okay no matter what happens next.
I spent the past weekend at the New York SCBWI conference and, as always, it was enlightening and energizing. But what struck me was a message that I heard repeated a number of times from various speakers – editors, agents, and authors – and it was “write up!”
“Write up” means writing up for children, not down. It means writing complex stories with rich vocabulary. It means challenging readers to read and think critically. It means leaving plenty of room for the reader to interpret and interpolate.
The fact that so many people were using the same catchphrase intrigues me. I’m sure it wasn’t planned. I’m also struck that we’re being encouraged to “write up” at the same time that I’m hearing more and more stories in the general media about how children’s literature isn’t “real” literature, and adults who read young adult novels are in some fashion deficient and immature.
Clearly those in the publishing business don’t want us to dumb down our writing, and in fact they and readers won’t buy our work if we do. I find it insulting (to put it mildly) when I hear disparaging remarks about children’s and young adult literature because the authors who are finding an audience are “writing up” already. Take the example of Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this year’s Newbery choice. Or Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, this year’s Printz winner. Both highly complex, moving, and evocative stories.
So fellow authors, we are writing for an audience that needs all our smarts. This is an audience that must learn to think critically in a complex world. To heck with those who don’t want to read our challenging stories. Write up, my friends.
I’m about to head off to New York for SCBWI’s 2015 Winter Conference. I remember my early conference-attending years. My anticipation was keen, but I recall not knowing what to expect as I went about the business of mingling with editors, agents, and published authors – all of whom walked on water as far as I was concerned. Whether you’ll be in New York or plan on attending a regional conference, whether SCBWI or another, here are some “dos and don’ts” to keep in mind.
Sign up for critiques and/or pitches if at all possible. My first few were cringe-worthy, but they were learning experiences, and I grew a lot as I learned what worked and what didn’t.
Get to know your peers, whether you are starting out or have some experience. The people you meet at a conference could become your lifelong writing buddies.
Attend as many sessions as you can – especially craft sessions. Listen. Learn.
Be open. You’ll find inspiration in strange places. Some of my best ideas have grown out of margin notes (“what if…”) while listening to a great speaker.
Pay attention to “news”. The publishing industry is constantly changing, and those sessions on industry can help you navigate the tides. And social media is always in flux.
Wear comfortable but professional clothing. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and especially if you are being critiqued by a pro, you want them to remember you in a positive way.
Try to be trendy. Don’t change your writing focus to match what editors or agents say they want. What they really want is great writing.
Be pushy. Don’t fling yourself at editors, agents, or published authors. See my comments on this in my logline post. No handing out business cards (unless asked) or manuscripts. Be respectful.
See this as a sales meeting. Don’t even take your work with you unless you have signed up for a critique or a pitch. You’re there to learn.
Exhaust yourself. Try to eat sensibly and get some rest. Big conferences can be jam-packed.
Conferences are a terrific way to learn if you’re a newbie, and they are a wonderful place to grow your connections if you’re further along. I’ve never been to a conference I didn’t like and didn’t learn from, and always come away recharged and ready to get back to my work.
Today I’m delighted to introduce fellow Montana author Stephanie Pitman, and her debut YA novel HONORABLE DISGRACE, just out. It’s a deeply personal account of a traumatic experience, which I believe is important to discuss. Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK and Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, Pitman recounts the story of a girl experiencing rape and carrying the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Here’s the synopsis:
“Angie Adams joins the powerlifting team her junior year, but she has more in mind than just toning up—like getting closer to her crush, football star Cory Jacob, who, as luck would have it, is assigned as her spotting partner. When Angie’s feelings are unexpectedly returned, her life is suddenly filled with the giddy electricity of first love. But why, then, does Angie get a little flutter when her older and very hot boss, Brad, looks at her?
Angie seems to have everything going her way, until her world is torn apart by her sister’s betrayal which leads to a brutal rape. Heartbroken and reeling in the aftermath, Angie has to find an internal strength to rival her record-breaking power lifts if she ever wants to feel worthy of love again.”
Congratulations, Stephanie, on the publication of your novel, HONORABLE DISGRACE. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Thanks, Janet. I am very excited.
Well, I never intended to write Honorable Disgrace and that is mainly due to the fact it is based on an experience I had as a teen, one I felt very ashamed of. When I was sixteen, some poor choices from my older sister put me in a situation where I was raped. I personally felt it was my fault, that I had sent signals to my sister or to the guy, who was someone I had met before, to make them think I wanted that type of attention. The burden of that I kept to myself along with the deep feelings of betrayal. I never told my sister what had happened and only ever shared what happened with a couple friends and later my husband. As life moved on, I really felt I had gotten over the ordeal. But about six years ago I began having nightmares. I was already a writer, so I turned to writing for therapy and it evolved to what it is now. Angie, the main character in Honorable Disgrace, faced similar burdens but she faced them how I wished I’d had the courage to face them, and she realized much sooner than I did, that she was still of worth to others and in return worthy of receiving love.
Wow. Such a compelling story, and how brave of you to step forward and write it. I imagine that bringing this to the page was a huge leap. How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
I began writing for children the year after my oldest son was born, so I’ve been at it about 12 years. After my first attempt at a picture book (which I still have plans to revise and get published) I found my true passion was writing for young adults. Like I mentioned, I do have a PB book completed, or so I thought it was at the time, and I have several other works in progress. But Honorable Disgrace is my first published work.
Can you describe your path to the publication of HONORABLE DISGRACE?
I touched on it in my earlier comment, but my path with Honorable Disgrace began when I realized my journal writing had the potential to be more than just therapy for me, that it could help others dealing with a similar tragedy, and that even if I only helped one person through my efforts, the time and struggle to get my book written and published would be worth it. It helped me to deal with my feelings and inspired me to forgive my sister for her part in my rape. She would have never knowingly put me in that situation.
It took me about 6 months to write, but there have been many revisions along the way. I’ve had a lot of wonderful ladies read it and give great critiques. Fantastic editing help by Jayne Pilimer. She’s awesome. Through SCBWI conferences I met many great agents and editors, Jayne was one, and though I did receive rejections from some of them, it only inspired me to make Honorable Disgrace better. Overall the whole process of writing and getting to publication took about 5 years. I do not plan on it taking that long for my next book.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Most people have a story to tell, but only those willing to do the work will ever be published, so set goals for yourself, find ways to stay inspired and make the time to write. If you want to be a writer, write. The only thing that is second to that is to read.
That’s terrific advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I am a mother of two boys and wife to a great man. They inspire me in so many ways. They make me want to be a better mom and a better wife, so that much said, I guess you could say one of my goals is to find ways to do that. Listen more, talk less, set my time aside for them more and make memories, instill in my boys a passion for life and pursuing their dreams. And I want to grow old with my husband.
I also love to challenge myself and have done a lot of running races, relays and a few triathlons in the past few years. My son, Patterson, and I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to run at least one race each month this year and one of those races we plan to do a half marathon. It will be my second, but his first and they are tough. I also plan to do another relay race which consists of 12 people on a team, running a 180 mile course in as little time as possible and once you start, you don’t stop. There is someone running all day and all night and well into the next day. It’s amazing. I could go on forever about my goals for challenging myself physically, but I’ll end with my crazy dream. So far all the triathlons I’ve done have been sprints for beginners. 1000 yard swim, 12 mile bike, and 5K run, but I’d really like to do a full Olympic distance, which is usually double the sprint and maybe someday, long down the road, I’d love to do the Kona Ironman.
For writing, I plan to have another book near completion in a few months and getting ready for publication by the end of this year. And to get at least one book published each year until I run out of ideas. I’d really love to be a full time writer, but that may have to wait until I get a few more books under my belt.
Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I have quite a few. My current WIP is a standalone YA set in current day Paris. 17 year old Aubrey discovers a key which uncannily unlocks her past where she discovers her reincarnated self who she has to rescue to save her future. And of course along the way she finds intrigue, adventure, danger and love.
I also have a trilogy based on Mayan Gods in the mountains of Montana (I’m halfway through the first book), another fantasy about a fairy godmother with a completely new yet-to-be-done twist, my picture book revision and at least three more.
Wow! Such interesting projects! Do you have a website where readers can learn more about HONORABLE DISGRACE?
Sometime over the holidays I watched a great interview with Roz Chast about her National Book Award-winning memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? During the interview photos of her aging parents’ apartment popped up: cluttered pencil drawers with stub ends, desks piled with random papers, tottering bookshelves. Chast described her parents as hoarders by default of their age.
To be clear, I’m not a hoarder. I hate mess. But I do like eye candy in the form of color and assorted knick-knacks, and my husband and I have inherited lots of family treasures, some quite nice.
Some of the old SWAG I’m keeping “in case.” The rest is in the recycling bin.
Nevertheless, Chast’s photos gave me a bit of a chill, as I identified with drawers full of “stuff that might be useful some day” and “drawers containing things needing to be repaired”. I resolved to embark upon a January cleanup, inside and out.
That’s a lot of bookmarks.
What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, my office had become a repository for all the writerly things I’ve accumulated – bookmarks, post cards, outdated business cards, items I use at signings, items I use for giveaways. There was a lot of stuff, and most of it unnecessary.
Herewith, my advice for authors just starting out and thinking about what SWAG they might need:
In my experience, the most useful items for writers are business cards and bookmarks. I’ve tried postcards, but I suggest you only get them if you intend to mail them as invitations to a book signing or announcements to booksellers. People don’t like to pick them up at signings because they’re big and can’t be used for anything.
I’ve been to a couple of writers’ conferences with large swag bags full of giveaways. Some of the items were quite elaborate: printed velvet, door hang tags, key fobs, large pins. Hard items to toss, sure, but toss them I did, and I have never bought a book because I liked the SWAG. Never.
Don’t buy huge quantities of anything. 1000 bookmarks? That’s what I did. Then, six months later, my book made a list, and I wanted that kudo on a new set of bookmarks, so the 500 or so remaining first gen bookmarks were useless. Just one of the stacks I recently recycled…
Think carefully about layout and design. If you’re lucky, you might have an image that is significant and personal (I’ve branded around my name – Fox). You want the images you use to look fresh even several years down the road.
An image of your book cover is a great idea, until the book goes to paperback with a different cover. Hence the reminder to buy small quantities.
Business cards should look professional and feel nice in the hand. A good heavy card stock with a gloss finish on one side is ideal – the other side should be mostly blank for writing something personal if necessary. You won’t be handing out business cards to the general public. They’re for industry professionals – editors, agents, fellow writers, librarians, teachers. I’ve used Vistaprint, and MOO, and like them both, but there are many other companies.
Bookmarks, too, should be relatively sturdy cardstock, and gloss one one side – some kids collect signed bookmarks, so one matte side for signing is nice. Include the following information: cover image, publisher, ISBN, your name, website, a tag line, abbreviated nice review, awards/stars. Most of mine are 2 inches by 6 inches. I’ve used my local printer but Overnight Prints and UPrinting are both recommended.
Don’t make the mistake I’ve made of missing vital information. In one round of business cards (a nice collection of 250), I forgot to add my email, probably my single most important contact point. Hence 250 useless cards. Double and triple check.
That’s my set of suggestions. Hopefully you can avoid having to fill the recycling bin with paper products that don’t carry their share of the load, and avoid a clutter mess to clean out next year.
Editors and agents often say that they sign an author because of the excellent/compelling “voice” of the work in question. What does this mean, and how do you accomplish it?
First, some definitions…
Tone: the “atmosphere” of a narrative, generated by using diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure). Specific genres are characterized by their tones (think western, noir, romance, science fiction, fantasy). For example, the tone of a piece might be old-fashioned, stilted, verbose, punchy, and/or humorous, etc. The tone of Captain Underpants is irreverent and silly; the tone of The Hunger Games is serious and driven.
Voice: There are two things we mean when we say “voice”:
Author voice. Each author brings to their work a unique voice that is a product of the author’s education, upbringing, personality, ideology, and beliefs. Your voice, which tends to persist regardless of the genre in which you write and the tone you set, bleeds through in the way you structure the narrative, and in particular your syntax and diction. For example, you may tend to use repetition, alliteration or parallel construction. The best example of tone/author voice is the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln sets a reverential tone honoring the dead, and uses parallel construction to emphasize his point: we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow, this ground
Narrative voice. This is really what editors are looking for. Regardless of tone or author voice, a strong narrative voice is distinctive and unique to the work. Regardless of how many books you write and how strong your author voice, your narrative voice will be different with each book unless it’s part of a series (like The Hunger Games). It doesn’t matter whether the work is written in first person, second person, close third, or omniscient (see below); the voice of the piece evokes an emotional response in the reader to the character(s) and story. Here are a few examples:
From Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA The Impossible Knife of Memory:
It started in detention. No surprise there, right?
Detention was invented by the same idiots who dreamed up the time-out corner. Does being forced to sit in time-out ever make little kids stop putting cats in the dishwasher or drawing on white walls with purple marker? Of course not. It teaches them to be sneaky and guarantees that when they get to high school they’ll love detention because it’s a great place to sleep.
I was too angry for a detention nap.
Tone: contemporary, using youthful direct address (“right?”). Voice: snarky, dark, angry (cats in the dishwasher?!) First person.
From Julie Berry’s YA All the Truth That’s in Me:
You didn’t come.
I waited all evening in the willow tree, with gnats buzzing in my face and sap sticking in my hair, watching for you to return from town.
I know you went to town tonight. I heard you ask Mr. Johnson after church if you could pay a call on him this evening. You must want to borrow his ox team.
They couldn’t just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasn’t such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.
There were two guards.
There was one mother and her daughter.
The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.
Tone: somber, intellectual. Voice: formal, distant, using short sentences that punch the narrative with energy and imagery. Third person, with an omniscient narrator (Death).
Creating a strong narrative voice comes from understanding your main character and their point of view and going deeply into their psyche and blending that understanding with your own author voice.
Points of View: the “eyeball” or camera lens of the narrative:
First person. “I do” or “I did”. Limiting, because the reader can only see through the eyes of the narrator/character. This means that the character may in fact be unreliable (lying, hiding information), but the reader can’t really know this right off. This is also the most deeply felt POV and is used a lot in YA fiction because it’s so easy for the reader to identify with. It can also be hard to take if the character is truly suffering.
Second person. “You do/did” Rare, because it’s hard to pull off. When done well it can be effective. See All the Truth That’s in Me, and Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink and Caution. Limiting, like first person, because the reader is still deeply inside the head of the narrator/character.
Third person limited. “He/she does/did” The limited third person stays with a single character, as in first, but the focal lens is pulled slightly away so that other character behaviors are visible and their motives can be revealed through their actions. The main character doesn’t ever exit the stage in limited third person; it’s rather like a camera following them around as they move but not being inside their head revealing their thoughts except through action and some internal reflection. Common in middle grade fiction because it’s less limiting and emotional. A good example is Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl: Sun did not suit Artemis. He did not look well in it. Long hours indoors in front of a computer screen had bleached the glow from his skin. He was white as a vampire and almost as testy in the light of day.
Third person omniscient. “He/she does/did” The narrative lens is pulled way back. The narrative may move from one character to another but always in third person (unless there’s an identified narrator as in The Book Thief; Dickens used this POV all the time, often with narrators; Jane Austen used it exclusively). The reader has the feeling of being on Mount Olympus looking down at the behaviors of all the people in the story more or less simultaneously. This POV can fall into an old-fashioned tone unless the narrative moves at a rapid clip. A good example is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which also uses direct address effectively:
Halfway down the Bayou Tartine, the land drops off in a channel, which creates just enough room for a little bayou, the Petite Tartine. It makes a semi-circle and rejoins its big sister, and all the land between is marsh and swamp and quicksand.
Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and it little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.
A note on direct address: use with caution. For one thing, it can be an old-fashioned-sounding affectation: “And so, dear reader, we come to the heart of the story.” For another, it can remind the reader that they are reading a book, taking them out of the story moment, and not “living the story”. Done well, it can be powerful. See, for example, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux – although I will add that some critics didn’t like her use of DA in this book.
The next time you begin reading a book, you should be able to identify the tone, narrative voice, and POV on the first page. Make a note and see how it feels to you. Then, see if you can identify the author voice, which may take a bit of reading.
Read the first pages of several genre books, especially noir, murder mystery, western, romance. Identify the tone/voice in each.
Write the opening pages to a number of works of fiction using different combinations of voice, tone, and POV in each.
When I began writing SIRENS I immediately re-read one of my favorite books: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. It is an iconic vision of the 1920s.
Scott Fitzgerald, aspiring writer, met Zelda Sayre, a southern belle and his future wife, in 1918. She was a beauty and she was fearless and spontaneous, and he was the shy writer – he succeeded in persuading her to marry him only when his success was assured. Once together, they became as famous for their wild ways as for their fame, itself.
Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. He considered it his masterpiece (as do critics of American literature today) but at the time, although it received good reviews, it did not sell as well as his previous work. As a portrayal of “old” money versus “new” money on Long Island, Gatsby was also an exploration of the mores of the time, the post-war transition, and especially of the behavior of the characters and of love unrequited.
Perhaps most importantly for readers of the 1920s, however, was that all of Fitzgerald’s novels give such an evocative portrait of the true flapper that Fitzgerald was widely regarded as having “invented” the idealized flapper. The girls in his second novel, the successful The Beautiful and the Damned, were said to have been modeled after Zelda, whose reckless and abandoned behavior (drinking all night, partying all day) made her infamous. She also consorted with other men, flaunting her behavior in public. By the time Gatsby came out, the Fitzgerald marriage was rocky at best.
While Gatsby sales were disappointing, with its publication Fitzgerald suddenly found himself in stellar company: Picasso, James Joyce, Cole Porter, Isadora Duncan. Scott’s and Zelda’s reckless behavior escalated. Drunken parties, property destruction, bar fights – taking place abroad, as the couple had migrated to France – undermined their fragile marriage further. By the end of the decade, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Scott was an alcoholic, and by the mid 1930s they were estranged.
The great irony of Gatsby is how much of the Fitzgeralds’ personal life seems to be reflected in its pages. Excessive behavior, betrayal, and heart-breaking love lost – these are Gatsby’s themes, just as they are the Fitzgeralds’. Gatsby himself is desperately seeking his moral center, and Daisy seems not to have one at all.
Perhaps this echo of life within art is what makes The GreatGatsby such an affecting novel. It’s not only a superb portrayal of the 1920s and of flapper behavior; it’s also a poignant window into the soul.
(Fun fact: check closely the original novel cover art, and look at the eyes of the girl on the cover. They aren’t what they seem at first.)
Have you seen the Gatsby movie? If so, what did you think?
I hope you enjoyed the entire 1920s series of posts, which you can find under my SIRENS History category.
Jazz was a big part of the scene in the 1920s, especially in New York City. In SIRENS Jo Winter falls for sweet jazz musician Charlie, who moonlights as a waiter at the Algonquin Hotel. The music revolution of “the Jazz Age” is a backdrop to the Roaring Twenties and the novel.
By 1920 jazz as a musical form had already been developing for some time in the tenderloin district of New Orleans. Born as a hybrid of slave blues, West Indies calypso, ragtime, Negro spirituals, and marching brass bands, jazz was picked up by talented young artists like Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and transported to Al Capone’s Chicago.
Jazz infused an intense energy into the music scene; artists like Armstrong had no professional training but learned to play by ear, and improvised and collaborated with other artists. This spontaneity and creativity, and the fact that many of the talents were black, lent jazz a Bohemian aspect.
Capone owned many Chicago speakeasy clubs and he enthusiastically attended performances by these jazz musicians, supporting them financially. Jazz spread as artists picked it up and writers and poets (like Langston Hughes) found rhythm to underscore their work, and New York’s underground nightclubs – especially those up in Harlem – became renowned havens of music patrons.
Dances like the Cakewalk, Black Bottom, the Monkey Glide, and, of course, the Charleston were considered decadent and sensational – which therefore made them wildly appealing to the young white crowd that frequented the clubs. The exoticism of cavorting in a club where the musicians were black made for an even edgier appeal. Jazz was a symbol of creativity and freedom in a decade when both were emerging from the repressive decades of wartime and Victorian propriety.
Radio and the phonograph were central to bringing jazz from nightclubs into every home, but especially in the big cities. In New York one could find a radio station broadcasting black musicians playing jazz – rare in other parts of the country.
Pictorial depictions of flappers and swells dancing the Charleston were popular covers on magazines and further served to spread the influence of the dances and the music.
Langston Hughes wrote, “The rhythm of life/is a jazz rhythm/Honey,” and his words epitomized his time.
Calling All Ghosts: Ouija Boards, Spiritualism, and Harry Houdini
One of the central images of SIRENS is that of ghosts and spirits and magic. I found this facet of the 1920s by accident, but it fit so perfectly into the novel I couldn’t ignore it. Cue the spooky music…
Maybe it was the war, maybe it was the influenza outbreak, but people in the 1920s became obsessed with life after death.
There were (well, yeah, there still are) two camps: those who believed in life after, and those who didn’t. Harry Houdini didn’t. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Howard Thurston did.
Houdini and Thurston were both magicians, so they knew how to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Doyle – Mr. Sherlock Holmes – knew how to uncover secrets. These three were all good friends, and they argued this point excessively. Were there spirits? Ghosts? Was there life after death? Who could prove the point?
Two of the popular parlor games of the 1920s were séances and Ouija boards. Both of these purported to channel the dead through a medium, in the case of a séance, or through the group emotions, in the case of a Ouija board (if you’ve never played with the latter, it’s kind of fun. But you have to suspend your disbelief. That makes it spooky.) The dead would send, through these media, obscure messages back to the living.
Magic shows were a public phenomenon of the 1920s, and two of the greatest magicians were Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. Houdini was a skeptic: he knew how to make people think one thing, but “it was all a trick. Fakery.” Thurston, too, was an excellent magician, but he actually believed that there was something guiding him, a kind of spirit life. The two engaged in a friendly competition, culminating with a wager that the one who died first would haunt the other.
Thurston’s shows were all about spiritualism. He would make a girl float magically in the air; he would make a girl vanish altogether; he would call forth floating apparitions to “speak.” His illusions were some of the best and his popularity high. But Houdini’s renown was greater, due to his amazing performances in escaping dire circumstances. And Houdini’s premature death of peritonitis gave a legendary aspect to his name, since the secrets of his magic act – ironically – went with him to the grave.
Thurston lived on but his magic shows were supplanted by a new public fixation: the moving picture.
As the decade progressed and Americans forgot their heartbreak over the war and their losses during the flu pandemic, and became more and more obsessed with the “new” things – cosmetics, automobiles, wealth, and glamour – preoccupation with spirits slipped away. They didn’t know it, but at the end of the 1920s Americans would bump up against a whole different kind of haunting experience: the Depression.