Choosing One True Thing



Probably by now my fear of writing historical fiction is well known. I love reading stories about the past, but haven’t yet conquered my fear of creating some terrible gaffe that everyone can spot while they’re reading. No matter how much research I put into a project, there’s always room for more, and any mistake I spot after a book goes to print haunts me with big gnashing teeth and terrible claws.

I guess that’s why with Secret Light, the historical novella I wrote as part of Loose Id’s holiday celebration, I picked a time in the not-too-distant past, 1955. I was born in 1960, and many of the things I touch on, the subtleties of place and time in Secret Light came from my own memory of my parents, and from the 8mm movies they shared with me as I was growing up.

In fact, I’d have to say I borrowed the character of Rafe from my father. Rafe’s childhood, his cultural identity, his struggles with his new country and his fear of the past are as personal to me as my family photo album.

So in this sense, I went into the writing of a novella that takes place in the past with one true thing. I created a character who shared common traits, particularly a refugee’s isolation, alienation, and fear with my father.

My father, like my character, actually did escape from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss. In my dad’s case, he came with his parents, who immediately changed their names and shed their religious traditions. It’s fair to say, since they were a mixed couple — my grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was a German Lutheran girl — they weren’t very religious to begin with. But fear made them erase from their curriculum vitae any reference to their Jewish past and that makes me very sad.

The sense of not belonging, of having one foot in one’s old country and another in the new is not a comfortable one. Having to create a new life in another country takes its toll, particularly if one chooses to hide any detail of his or her past.

So for my One True Thing, I stuck closely to the simple paradigm of trying to fit in to a new culture, and the truth that in 1955, this new culture was steeped in prejudice — ethnically, racially, and gender-biased up to its eyeballs.

I added to that an exploration of my own city in the years just before I was born through the startling, detailed, and yes… sometimes really long, boring home movies my father took, and I had a very good starting place from which to work.

Dad is probably rolling in his grave right now, but I used my memories of him, of growing up in Los Angeles as a backdrop. I have always loved L.A., its landmarks, its contradictions, its problems and its guilty pleasures — one of which is the famous and easily recognizable Googie architecture of coffee shops like Pann’s on La Tijera Blvd. where I lived as a kid.

With the booming post war economy, new neighborhoods sprang up as people moved here, creating the massive footprint of suburbs and sprawl. Real estate was big business. I felt pretty comfortable with the time during which I set my story.

Add to that an infamous series of storms that flooded parts of California in the four days leading up to Christmas 1955, and I had myself a backdrop against which to set one unlikely couple’s struggle to find its place in a changing world.

I can’t say with any real satisfaction that I got everything exactly right. I wish my mom and dad were still here to ask. But for my first real exercise in creating a piece of fiction set in the past, I think it resonates with the truth of the era, and I hope the reader finds that truth within the pages, as well as a love story to warm the heart.

Z. A. Maxfield started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back.  Pathologically disorganized, and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends.  If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you give up housework.”

Her published books include Crossing Borders, Epic award finalist St. Nacho’sDrawn Together, Physical Therapy, Blue Fire, Fugitive Color, and Jacob’s Ladder from Loose Id, The Long Way Home, from Aspen Mountain Press, ePistols at Dawn and The Pharaoh’s Concubine from Samhain Publishing, and Notturno, Vigil, Stirring Up Trouble, All Stirred Up, and A Picture Perfect Holiday from MLR Press. Readers can visit her website at:

And for my giveaway, one reader can win copies of all four of my holiday-themed stories.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

18. Christmas crackers is rhyming slang for what part of the male anatomy?

16 Responses

  1. Oh, how well I know those big gnashing teeth and terrible claws!

    Secret Light sounds like a great read 🙂

    Paige x

  2. I look forward to reading Secret Light and getting a feel for Los Angeles circa 1955. I have loved your other novels and anticipate getting to know your character, Rafe, who is obviously so close to your heart.

    • Thank you very much. Rafe is indeed very real to me. He has a lot of my dad’s quirks too. It’s an homage, and I hope he would see it that way. I was watching an old black and white film of him skating and I thought he’d make a great character.

  3. It’s always a worry when writing anything set in the past that we are going to get something wrong. There’s always the eagle eyed reader who will delight in telling you that “that couldn’t have happened/been possible” etc. Conversely there is a danger that we whack everything we’ve learnt in researching our novel and it becomes more like an historical treatise than a story to entertain.
    I look forward to reading ‘A Secret Light’ because it is an historical novel based on what you, the author knows. Which should make for a really interesting read just like this article.
    Thank you.

    • Thank you very much, I hope that the book fares well under scrutiny. One can only hope. What I enjoyed writing most, in a really weird way, was the subtlety of sexism. The men call the women girls. They dismiss or ignore them. There were “girls” who waited on them and “girls” who worked behind the makeup counter.

      I remember those days quite well. Even if I didn’t experience that first hand my mother, who graduated top in her law school class at USC, shared her experiences with me.

  4. Thanks for sharing some of your memories of growing up 🙂 It’s always interesting to find out how author’s come up with their ideas/draw on their own experiences in their writing.

    smaccall AT

    • Thank you Sarah. I often wonder how much people want to hear. I think it’s nice to think of authors as standing on ragged sea cliffs alone, gazing out on the ocean looking pensive and wise.

      That would not be me, actually. I’d be the one wearing a track suit, ferrying the kids to and fro — soccer, school, music…

  5. That was very interesting to read. It must’ve been a labour of love, watching those old home movies. I remember some that my uncle took of my family, and it’s quite amazing how things have changed since the 50’s. I’m looking forward to reading “A Secret Light”; it will be fascinating to see how things were for Rafe back then.

    • It really was interesting. I tried to remember everything I’d ever heard, what we did, where we went. Stories my parents told. I came along later but those movies were a gold mine. Pictures of city hall, Parker Center when it was new. The Biltmore and the Ahwahnee Lodge. Even if I didn’t use every bit of it in the book, it was all useful. Those films are quintessential California in the fifties with a lot of boring stuff nobody could care about but me. I couldn’t have asked for better materials.

  6. I think I’d be more nervous writing about a time in living memory than about long ago! That’s because day-to-day life seems to change much more rapidly now, and during the last 50 years, than it did before. One only has to read a contemporary novel written a mere 10 or 15 years ago to see that! But the records you had will ensure accuracy, and I look forward to reading Secret Light.

    • That’s so true, and a lot more people remember it. Anyone my age can pick it apart if they choose, probably. And it’s crazy to think about the changes. My guy had to keep finding pay phones to make private calls. And his radio was in the car, not on his shoulder where it might be convenient. And of course, I wanted to have them eat at all my favorite restaurants but it turned out they were all on the wrong side of town.

      Still… I think that added to the fun a little too.

  7. “Dad is probably rolling in his grave right now”

    Pfft, I’m sure he’d be very proud of you. Or – well you know best, but I think it’s a nice way of remembering someone.

    • I think my dad would probably be a lot happier if I’d given him a nice curvy lady love interest instead of even the most attractive policeman.

      But I think he’d be proud if he knew I was a published author.

  8. I think the worst thing for me about writing historical fiction is that I can’t read it any more without noticing historical gaffes.. does anyone else have this problem? I mean, even tiny ones. But I addore it so write I must and read i shall.


    • I think I’m the easiest person in the world to please, I have blinders on when it comes to most things. An confident author can slip in a gaffe now and then and make me doubt myself… LOL

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