Inhabiting Time That's Not Mine
Inspired by my family background—I’m the granddaughter of immigrant coal miners—I set the story in southwestern Pennsylvania coal country. Playing St. Barbara takes place from 1929 to 1941, a time marked by rampant xenophobia and violent strikes. Since mining literature typically focuses on miners, I chose a different approach. My story chronicles the secrets and struggles of a miner’s wife and three daughters.
I’d never attempted a historically based narrative, but the prospect didn’t daunt me. I’d started out as a journalist, so I was used to asking questions, tracking down facts. Every novel requires some degree of research. How hard could it possibly be?
What I failed to consider was the fact staring me in the face: I wasn’t alive from 1929-1941. Consequently, everything had to be researched.
I was sure that if I cut corners, it would show in the writing. Even readers who knew nothing about mining would sense I hadn’t done my homework. I needed to learn everything I could about Depression-era mining technology, labor history, immigration trends, as well as fashion, diet, car models, entertainment, slang—in short, I needed to write with the authority of someone who had been alive from 1929-1941.
I amassed a small library and worked my way through it. I visited historical and labor archives. I studied vintage photographs. I explored Pittsburgh’s old German neighborhood. I watched a host of old movies—a repository of clothing styles, period interiors, and popular figures of speech. Replete with knowledge, I began writing, only to stop time and again to look up a salient detail online. What did a 1930s wedding gown look like? How much did ground beef cost in 1929? What was happening in Europe during the spring of 1941?
I resolved every last detail in the story would be authentic, from the cover image on the May 1941 issue of Screen Guide magazine, to the real-life county sheriff whose insubordination led to county-wide martial law, to the Lincoln quote on the H. C. Frick Coke Co. pay envelope.
However, I must confess I cut it close in Chapter 15. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (from Disney’s 1933 film The Three Little Pigs) was released just the day before a deputy whistles it.