Apologizing for History

Washington Monument against cloudy skyThis weekend, I wanted to get out and do something fun.  That turned into a trip to the Museum of American History, which is right near the Washington Monument.  It was cloudy out, with rain predicted…and humid and hot.

The museum can be a lot of fun.  Like their Transportation history exhibit, or the one on food (with Julia Child’s kitchen).  There’s even the office of the man who invented  the first video game.  It’s pretty cool looking at how different creative people are.

There were also two exhibits which apologized for history.  I got a problem with that.

  1. History’s best value is if we take all of it into context.  Apologizing takes a piece of it entirely out of context, and devalues the rest.
  2. When the rest is devalued, we don’t hear about the positive things people did.

One of the exhibits that went on apology mode was on the Japanese internment during World War II.

What happened to the Japanese in the U.S. was a terrible thing.  I was glad for the opportunity to read George Takei’s biography, because his internment camp as a child put a different perspective on what happened (it was actually more interesting that the actor part).  I also went to an exhibit several years back (think that was at Freer-Sackler) of items made by people in the camps.  It was both sad and amazing, because it spoke of the power of  human spirit.

But I also have a bit of family history that comes with World War II and the Japanese.

My grandparents lived in San Francisco during World War II.  My grandfather was a minister of a church there.  My grandmother reported that she had to do a submarine watch on the coast of California.


After the war intended, there was a lot of distrust of Japanese.  My grandfather gave them jobs around the church.  It was a deeply unpopular thing to do, and he did it anyway.  The Japanese honored him about ten years ago.

History is about putting things into perspective and honoring who we are, warts and beauty and all.  Apologizing robs of us that perspective, which we need as human beings.


Old Writing Habits Die Hard

I’ve been working on a steampunk fantasy short story this week. Steampunk is kind of like what Wild, Wild West or The Adventures of Briscoe County was. It’s set in the age of invention, where inventions could be fun and creative, all with a bit of rebellion wrapped in.

However, I don’t play well with historical. I’ve never enjoyed research.

Part of the problem is how history and research was taught in school. It was a list of facts that could be put on a test. I’m better at big picture than details, so I never did well with remembering obscure facts. The other part of the problem is how writers sometimes treat it: as if they were being graded. They have to research every single detail to make sure that the 1% of the audience who might know that fact won’t call them out as being wrong.

But I was reading Lessons of a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell, and he said the following:

“The point is, research should be considered a reward and not a penance that you have to go through before you start writing.”

That made me think about if I could feel like it was less of homework in school. The truth is that it may always be something that I may never enjoy much.

But that’s how the steampunk story came in. I’ve been having a terrible time getting setting into the story at all, and that’s something that separates the pro writers from the beginners.

Steampunk fantasy is all about setting, so it would really push my learning curve.

The idea came out of a book I was reading on the construction of the Washington Monument. I’ve been exploring books to see what era or type of books will interest me, since it will help my writing overall.

Wasn’t thinking about the story at all when I was reading.

Then I saw an anthology call and thought it might work.

The story is called Stain of Ghost.

My approach was to take a single historical event and keep it in one place. That way I can focus on just a small piece of the time and work at getting the setting and the story to work together.

But took a lot longer than expected. I felt like was remapping myself. I kept looking at the random parts of the story and thinking:

“It’s not coming together. It’s nothing coming together.”

There were six scenes. I tried writing the first two scenes, and it was all over the place while I tried to figure out how to get the historical setting in without getting me overwhelmed by the history.   Then I wrote Scene 4, where I needed setting, not history, and something went “Click.”

I tossed about 1K for the first scenes and started those scenes over again. This time, I had gone out to Fort Washington that Saturday, and it was foggy out on the river. So I started with fog on the Potomac as well as something a coworker said to me about March (“She’s a cranky month.”). Suddenly I had three scenes done, looked at the fourth.

Wait? Was I almost done?

It sneaked up on me and was done.

Things People Get Wrong About Washington, DC (and Photos!)

Washington Monument covered in scaffolding

Washington, DC, turns up in a lot of books and TV shows.

We can see stock shots on NCIS, Covert Affairs, and Bones.  None of the shows are filmed here.   There are some books where I’ve wonder if the author at least Googled the city because of the things they do get wrong. The three biggest culprits:

Thinking it’s all about politics

Granted, if you read the Washington Post or Washington Times, you would think that DC is all about politics.  There isn’t a major newspaper in the area that reports on local news.  But a lot of books and movies and TV are guilty of thinking DC is only politics.

It’s a city that has a lot of problems with money. In the past, the schools have been shut down by the courts because the city could not afford to fix safety hazards.  More recent news has the fire departments keeping their trucks that need repair because they come back in worse shape when they are repaired.

Then there’s the exploding manhole covers

But it’s also a city with a very visible disability population, because the Federal government is the largest employer of the disabled and actively recruits for it.  It’s common to go into a mall or a Starbucks and see a person with a service animal or with a cane or a wheelchair.

There’s also a lot of military.  You will see them on the Metro, walking the street, eating in Burger King.  I’ve even seen foreign military.

Washington DC has a large food community.  Because there are so many different cultures in the area, there’s a wide variety of different cuisines.  Chefs are always opening new restaurants or experimenting with ways to serve the food.

Then there’s the history … Really, I could go on and on.  There’s a lot here that never gets touched in most fiction.

Inside Ford's Theatre, showing where Lincoln's seaty was and the stage
Ford’s Theatre. I kept hearing that Booth leapt off the balcony and landed on the stage and couldn’t picture it until I saw it.

Getting the traffic wrong

Let’s start with the traffic here is bad.  And it gets worse when it rains or snows, when the President’s motorcade departs or returns, or when an event happens, such as when the cherry blossoms bloom.

Traffic is so bad in this area, we actually have an advice columnist on it.

Yet, books and TV portray us as having no traffic.  No one driving around discusses leaving a different time to avoid rush hour, or gets caught in traffic (except for NCIS).  In one book, a high speed chase took place on 17th Street.  My first reaction: Have you been on 17th Street?!

Pink Cherry Blossoms with the sunlight shining through
Cherry Blossoms on the tidal basin.

Call Metro a Subway

Yes, we do have an underground train system.  Technically, it’s a subway. No one here calls it a subway.

It’s the Metro.

NCIS is the only TV show to have gotten this one right.  They’ve even shown the map of the Metro system.

Have you been to DC?  What did you think of it?

And check out these other posts!