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This blog was featured on 06/19/2018
June Guest Editor: Karen White on Setting Her Book in the 50s
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2018
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2018

This is a guest essay from New York Times bestselling author Karen White. She is this month's guest editor and her new book, Dreams of Falling, is available now. 

My foray into creating fiction started long before I first put pencil to paper.   Before I could recite the alphabet, I was creating other people’s lives in different time periods, immersing myself into different worlds by playing dress-up.  

I’d wear my Halloween costumes until the frayed hems and torn seams were irreparable.  I’d take the beautiful silk slips from my mother’s dresser drawer and parade around in them pretending to be one of those starlets in slinky gowns from the black and white movies she watched on television.  I’d prance around in layers of my mother’s skirts, pretending I was wearing a hoop skirt circa 1860, and I’d stretch out my shirts by pulling the necklines over my shoulders for the glamorous off-the-shoulder Hollywood look.

My mother thought I was intent on destroying my clothes and hers.  My grandmother thought I was destined to be an actress.  I just wanted to create stories and move into the lives of my make-believe characters by dressing like them.

My happiest childhood memories were our yearly pilgrimage to my maternal grandmother’s house in Indianola, Mississippi.  The small house on West Augusta Street had only two bedrooms and one bathroom, but this was the house my mother and her four sisters (yes, five girls and one bathroom!) were born and raised during the two decades spanning the 1930s to the 1950s.

My mother graduated from Indianola High School in 1952 and her four sisters graduated in the following years.  They were apparently a social bunch of girls judging by the photos that my grandmother kept in shoeboxes under her bed and in framed photographs on the walls.  They contained pictures of my mother and aunts dressed in the most glorious party dresses—many with wide skirts with crinolines, cinched in waists, and whale-bone stays for the off-the shoulder gowns.  And my dear grandmother kept every single one of those dresses, packed into trunks along with the shoes, stoles, and gloves.  For a young girl crazy about dressing up, I always felt that I’d hit the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I spent endless hours trying on the dresses with my cousins, writing dialogue in my head to go with each outfit.  For a long time I assumed everyone did that.

It was those dresses and photographs that convinced me that life must have been pretty perfect in the fifties if those were the clothes people wore.  It didn’t help that when I was still an impressionable young girl the television show Happy Days was in its heyday.  I fell in love with the music, the cars, the poodle skirts and saddle shoes, and even the Fonz.  In high school, instead of a teenager’s collection of modern music on vinyl, I was the proud owner of the greatest hits by the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley and the Comets.  I may have even spoken with a vague English accent after watching several Grace Kelly movies.  By the time I graduated from high school, I was convinced that I’d been born into the wrong decade.

I’ve since learned that the fifties were far from perfect.  We still had social issues we needed to work though, and that time would come about in the sixties.  But for the most part, the fifties were the high-rolling years following the austerity and sacrifices of WWII, a time when the men had come home from war, married, started making babies and the country seemed bent on restoring prosperity.  We had saved the world, and we wanted to celebrate. 

Since becoming a writer, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what decade one is born into to experience another time period first hand.  I’m transported each time I open a new document and begin to type.  Sitting at my computer and deciding which time period I’m going to write about is a lot like sitting in a time machine and pushing a button.  I can go anywhere.

It’s been a long time since I visited Indianola or played dress-up, but I am the proud owner of all of my grandmother’s photographs.   I return to them again and again when I’m in a nostalgic mood, and I don’t doubt that thumbing through them sparked the story seed for my Dreams of Falling

I’d like to point out that it wasn’t a desire to play dress-up again that inspired me to write the 1950s portion of the book.  (Well, maybe a little).  It’s not enough to put characters in awesome clothes on the pages of a book; an author also needs to move them around on the paper and make them talk and do things. 

As I’d thumb through the old photographs, I recalled stories my mother had told me about growing up as a sheltered girl in a small Southern town in the thirties and forties, of how limited her knowledge was about the birds and the bees, and how she’d once known a girl who’d ‘got in trouble’ with a boy and hadn’t been entirely sure what that meant. 

When dialogue began forming in my head to go along with the clothing, I knew I had the beginnings of my story of three lifelong best friends from Georgetown, South Carolina.  They are celebrating high school graduation in 1951 with an unchaperoned trip to Myrtle Beach, an innocent trip with devastating consequences that will reverberate for the next three generations.

I never became the actress my grandmother was sure I’d one day become, but I believe I did one better.  I became a time-traveler who gets to dress up people and make them talk, to do horrible and great things, to laugh, to fall in love.  And all while sitting in my chair with fingers on a keyboard.  I became a writer.

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Comments
  • Linda Summersea

    Thanks for sharing your evocative essay. Ditto other readers on "born in 1950" so this makes me smile. Looking forward to reading Dreams of Falling. Love mystery + low country + summer.

  • Hi Karen.
    I was born in 1950, had a big family of six siblings, two parents and two grandparents. We were poor (like the Waltons....which I have always identified my family and life with as we were poor also) but I recall the days of my young childhood fondly. So when my sweet singer/songwriter/musician brother passed away in 2015 from cancer I felt the deep need to sit down and writer about our idyllic childhood in the 1950's. Memories of my Childhood was a collection of short stories I actually wrote about that time period and had published over 40 years ago. And then I wrote the short story Christmas Magic 1959 about a special Christmas Eve I had with my large but poor family last year and people seem to like it. I, too, had a grandmother who made my childhood what it was....loving, generous and creative (the storyteller of her day) woman that she was. Those memories are sweet to me now. Yes, the fifties weren't perfect but there was this 'overall happiness' that infused those years I've never felt since. We were an innocent people, an innocent nation in many ways back then. I miss it. I will have to read your book.

  • Ramey Channell

    Karen - Thanks so much for sharing your memories and comments. I can't wait to read "Dreams of Falling." Sounds like my kind of book. I have also set my novels in the 1950s, prompted my memories of my childhood and stories from my parents and grandparents.