Is history relevant in a 140-character world?

Part 8 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

In this edition I’m focusing on another question asked about historical novels: “How is this relevant in today’s society?” Sharavogue takes place in the 1650s, far removed in both time and location to what most of us experience today. But it is based in fact, so an obvious answer is to refer to the quote attributed to philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or the same with similar wording attributed to Winston Churchill and several others — all the way to Jesse Ventura. Then there is the ever-positive Kurt Vonnegut, who says “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

As one who loves history and historical fiction, I sometimes wonder why writers need bother with trying to prove history relevant. It is, because it is. History is fascinating and woven from the lives and experiences of everyone who lived before us. Most humans love a good story, no matter what century it comes from. When I read historical fiction I also love learning about what life was like at a different time, and what circumstances caused things to be that way, and why people made the choices they did. It always in some way informs my own life without the author having to draw direct connections.

HouseGirl I recently read House Girl by Tara Conklin, which flips back and forth between pre-Civil War slavery and a present-day lawyer trying to attribute works of art to the slave girl. The whole story is about connecting past to present, and parts of it were quite good, but I found the historical portions by far the most interesting and well written, and the present-day portions sometimes feeling forced and distracting.

I also recently stumbled across The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, a book someone had given my husband when he retired. It is basically a trip back in time to get seven philosophies for success, with the underlying message that each of us has a gift and the things we do have value and importance, whether we know it or not at the time. At one point we visit the Battle of Little Round Top where Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s desperate last-minute charge is key to the Union victory there, which ultimately leads to the end of war, the end of slavery in America, and the growth of a superpower that is able to do good in the world. An oversimplification to be sure, but a strong message about relevance.TravelersGift

In my book, I chose to stay in the 1650s. While the relevancy is not mapped for readers as in the books I’ve just described, I think it derives from the characters themselves and the struggles and obstacles they work to overcome. One of my readers talked to me at length about the character Tempest Wingfield, who becomes a plantation master only because he inherited when his father died. She related strongly to his internal ragings against a life he never chose, and the sorrows he felt nonetheless for not being a better son, honoring and loving his father while he had the chance. Other readers related strongly to the pain of the poor choices Elvy Burke makes that lead her down more difficult pathways. As noted in an earlier post, Sharavogue itself (the plantation on Montserrat) is a character, passively supporting the plantation lifestyle  in its own harsh existence.

Who has lost a loving parent and not felt deep regret? Who has not made poor choices in life and learned from them? And who has not witnessed injustices large or small and felt powerless to change them?

True relevance comes from the heart. But on a political level I must add that Oliver Cromwell (the bad guy in my book) remains today a relevant and controversial figure. I talked once with a British citizen who believed the commonwealth Cromwell established was the right and appropriate idea for his government, and the monarchy was irrelevant. Yet the Cromwell name is mostly associated with the 16th century Thomas who destroyed the Catholic monasteries, and the 17th century Oliver who slaughtered the Irish.

These stories and the jigsaw puzzle of factors that created them are impossible to deliver in a tweet or a Facebook post, and I worry about the lack of reading that could surely lead to the “forgetting” of history. (For example, I shudder when I hear women say they want to be stay-at-home moms, having lived through the time when women fought tooth-and-nail for the right to work and vote, and still struggle for equal pay.) But I take hope from something another writer once said to me: “People don’t care about history until they realize they have one.” And then it becomes all-important.

On the set of “Laggies” in Seattle

Today I’m taking a brief diversion from my snow-path-to-Dingle series to describe my adventure as an extra on a movie set last week. Thanks to co-worker Melanie Skaggs I took a vacation day from my work responsibilities and signed up to be an extra on the set for Laggies, a new movie directed by Seattle-based Lynn Shelton. It was a full day to be sure, but interesting.

Kiera takes a break on set at Sea-Tac

Kiera takes a break on set at Sea-Tac

Laggies is a story about a young woman who does not want to grow up, and when her boyfriend proposes marriage she bolts and is set on an adventure with some high school girls, until she falls for her friend’s father. Kiera Knightly plays the lead. I admire Knightly for her work in Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Pirates of the Caribbean. She seems so good in historical stories, maybe one day she’ll play Elvy in a screen version of Sharavogue.

Sam Rockwell plays the father, and Mark Webber the jilted boyfriend. I became a fan of Rockwell also after his roles in Galaxy Quest and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I did not know of Mark Webber and so look forward to his performance in this one.


Melanie and Dave at Base Camp

Our day began at 9:30 am, Base Camp in a parking lot adjacent to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where I work and where the scene for the day would take place. Base Camp consisted of a set of trailers for equipment and office space, dressing rooms, wardrobe and whatever. It turned out there were only three extras available that day, including Melanie, Dave Arquitt (a Port of Seattle electrician), and me. We were asked to dress like travelers, not wear red or white, and bring along two or three extra outfits so they could select for us. There was a wardrobe trailer packed full of options, and they found Dave (who was just coming off a shift) a purple woven shirt to replace his branded work shirt. We had fun feeling like pros while changing in our tiny dressing rooms.

A van delivered us to the airport along with the hairdresser and makeup artist, and we headed for the TSA security line because the scene would be at boarding gate on Concourse A. We were delighted to find that behind us in line were Webber and Knightly, escorted by some film crew. Knightly tried to disguise her identity by pulling a lock of hair across her face. In truth, it was not much good because she is very recognizable to those who know of her and she is every bit as beautiful in person as on screen (Melanie and I were envious!). But no one bothered her and we progressed easily through the concourse, stopping once along the way where cameras were set up to capture the walk under the “Clouds and Clunkers” art installation. Melanie, Dave and I got to precede the stars in this shot, and I got my hair fluffed by the stylist — how cool is that?

Co-stars Webber and Knightly ahead of us post-security

Co-stars Webber and Knightly ahead of us post-security

At the end of the concourse crew members were like bees buzzing around with activity. We had no idea what they were doing and for a while it felt odd being in the midst of but not really part of the activity. When they were ready to shoot the scene they finally included us. Our cue was, “Background!” and we knew it was time to take our places. Knightly and Webber were seated in front of a window with the nose of a big jet in front of them. The Background was made of up people in airport seats–us and set crew members dressed as travelers–looking like we were waiting to board a flight to Vegas. When an actor/flight attendant called for boarding, we background members all got up in a sequence, and Webber and Knightly stood up, and sat back down, saying their dramatic lines for the break up of their romance. There was laughter several times when one of them flubbed their lines.  “Reset!” meant it was time for background to return to our places and shoot the scene again, which we did four or five times. We had fun hiding in the jetway and trying to stay quiet while the filming was going on.

We took “lunch” at about 3 pm, then came back for the close-up shots. Faces and hands, including the moment when the two lovers’ hands separate. We background folks milled about in the distance impersonating a busy airport terminal, nothing more than blurry figures. Our two main stars left at about 5 pm, and on her way out we got a thank you and a big smile from Kiera and her body guard.  Then background and crew kept working for about two more hours to make sure we had any filler shots that might be needed.

Nancy, Dave, Director Lynn Shelton, and Melanie

Nancy, Dave, Director Lynn Shelton, and Melanie

There was a lot of activity going on in the sidelines, for sound, digital work under a dark tent, and more of which I have no idea. We were working beneath 40-foot ceilings and ambient light that changed several times with the weather. Pipe and drape had to be moved, camera angles shifted.

It was just one day in a life for each of us, but fascinating to participate in this industry and see how these movies are made–all the preparation, effort and energy, and the many people it took to get just that one scene. I now have a much better understanding of why those credits are so long at the end of a movie, and the production costs so high. Many thanks to Dave Drummond, Phil Andrade, and Lynn Shelton for including us in this day and sharing their world with us. Can’t wait to see the movie!