I love history. I happily curl up with postmortems of mundane historical events, places and people. However, when it comes to historical fiction, readers don’t enjoy antique autopsies or information dumps. When I decided to use the environmental disaster in 1948, Donora, Pennsylvania as the backdrop for After the Fog, I knew most of the research would go the way of the filing cabinet. The compelling “killing smog” event was the impetus for the Clean Air Act of 1955. The development of the EPA is wedded to the Donora disaster like Kevin Bacon to Kyra Sedgwick (Oh, please don’t split until after this article runs!).
I kept in mind that although this disaster is paramount to the story, the real meat of the novel, Rose Pavlesic’s family life, is fictional. The family drama would be central and the deadly smog, trapped by an unusual temperature inversion, would be what added fuel to the familial flames.
So, how do writers use historic events in fictional ways? Step one for me was to immerse myself in the deadly fog, allow it to infiltrate my mind as I imagined the characters traipsing around town, lungs tightening, coughing and hacking. As I played with the timeline of the fog and researched the life and times of Americans, circa 1948, I began to put together ways my characters would embody the facts I’d discovered. In other words, if I wanted a Corning bowl in a scene, a character had better be using it.
My research revealed that our whitewashed view of post-war America is somewhat grounded in reality. But as we have all learned by watching Leave it to Beaver evolve into the Brady Bunch then Married with Children and now, Modern Family, life is sometimes uglier than we want it to be. To me, the “ugly” that is always paired with beauty and strength in well-rounded characters is what makes literature mesmerizing.
In interviewing my grandmother about life in 1948 mill-town America, I was met with contradictory information. “We were so happy then. People were working, life was good…” But when asked to elaborate on why it took fifteen years for her to save enough money to move out of a home they shared with extended family members, she began to till the garden of good memories.
That’s where I found the gritty layers of the story. Yes, compared to the Depression and the rationed war years, life was good. But as Gram continued to talk, a different perspective emerged, “I couldn’t wait to move out of Aunt Tessa’s. All those people! We lived on Grandpa’s salary and saved mine. We scrimped. And if the car went…well, that was it. But, when we moved, it was great.” Exchanges like this led me to explore our perceptions of life in 1948 versus the way mill-town families really lived. I had to be open to the idea that the core of my characters and their motivations might need to change as I culled the data.
That discrepancy between what modern readers think “good living” means today and what it meant in the late 40s was part of what I tried to convey. The layers between “Oh, yes things were great,” and “Oh boy, we wanted to get out of there!” was important to show in order not to write a clichéd rehash of mid-century living.
Writing historical fiction has taught me to be open to changes in my initial outline. In researching Rose’s character I initially thought she’d be a midwife. Then I came across a subset of women who had enormous impact on healthcare in America prior to the 1970’s. They were known as public health or community nurses. But these nurses weren’t just making home visits to ease sick people out of illness. They were charged with teaching poorer immigrants how to keep house and provide a balanced diet. The nurses supported postpartum mothers including the care of nails, hair and bathing. They followed up on patients who were recovering from infectious disease, and even performed urinalysis right there in the home.
Though the nurses were in regular contact with patients’ doctors, they had incredible autonomy even when operating under an organization like the Public Health Association of Pittsburgh. For instance the PHAP Handbook (1941) states, “The nurse gives free care only to those patients who in her judgment cannot afford to pay any part of the fee.” Can you imagine? A healthcare professional being gifted with the opportunity to use her common sense! This was who my Rose was.
Scores of reports, dozens of interviews and many walks through the town of Donora itself has provided me with all the ingredients for After the Fog. My hope is that it honors the truth of the deadly “five days of fog,” while telling a fictional account of a flawed family doing their best to get by. The “killing smog” has an important place in history and hopefully it enjoys its new home in historical fiction.
After the Fog is the second historical fiction novel by bestselling Kindle author Kathleen Shoop. It will be released in May 2012. Her debut novel, The Last Letter, sold more than 50,000 copies and garnered multiple awards in 2011, including the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal.
A Language Arts Coach with a Ph.D. in Reading Education, Kathleen lives in Oakmont, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.