History fascinates me. Fiction fills me. Romance reels me in. The two interactive stories I have written for Silk Words, The Very Thought of You, and It Don’t Mean a Thing, are a mixture of all three, with an addition: the stories also explore the lives of gay women. Historical girl-meets-girl and all the rest of that well know saying.
The stories both take place in the 20th century – one in 1955, the other in 1931 – and research, both historical and social histories are plentiful for that century. Newsreels, magazines, newspapers, Billboard charts, interviews, biographies…the 20th century was keen on keeping track of the records. Except in one arena – the stories of gays and lesbians who lived and loved at the time.
As a historical fiction writer, I’m a big believer in researching primary sources, getting a feel for the mores of the period, the fads, the politicians and politics and gestalt. We are products of our environments; character respond and act in accordance with the times they lived in.
This was the path I followed in researching “The Very Thought of You”. I listened to interviews of women from the 1950s, read transcripts of interviews and newspaper articles, watched newsreels, looking to piece together a specific time and mood.
The choose-your-path story follows Helen, a typist at a large firm in Portland, Oregon. It’s 1955. It’s the anniversary of her lover Evelyn’s death. It’s 1955. A time of shadows for gay men and women; a society that 1) rarely thought of homosexuality and 2) when they did, the majority looked at homosexuals with scorn and derision. This was the time of the deepest closet – the stakes were too high to be open and honest about who one was. Men and women married and had children, hiding for years or their lifetimes an integral part of who they were. Some women dated or married “beards”, gay men who passed as legal partners, as covers. Those who sought out relationships, friendships, commitments, did so in the shadows, afraid of losing their jobs and the respect and affection of friends and family. They literally could lose everything if they were outed. At the end of World War II, servicemen could be given dishonorable discharges though their service was quite honorable. And a dishonorable discharge meant a scarcity of businesses willing to hire them. News reels were created to warn children of lurking strangers, and how to spot a homosexual. In large cities, men and women began forming their own tight-knit communities in bars that looked the other way and eventually catered (under the radar and with bribes to the police) to them.
It is this world Helen lives in. This world that she hides herself in out of self-preservation. Between that and the loss of her lover, she has closed her heart. It only cracks open, a little, when she meets Francis, an ebullient secretary from the 3rd floor. Frances has learned to navigate this society without losing her way. She “hides in plain sight.” And is a breath of fresh air for Helen.
With “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, I loosened up the research, instead letting all the women in the story lives their lives as freely as they wanted. It is meant as a romp – a tribute to the madcap comedies of the 1930s, where everything is solved in a day. In addition, it’s a nod to the All-Girl jazz bands that crisscrossed the country by train or bus, competing with the prevalent male bands. They were called “novelty acts”, and very few of their recordings exist. Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears, Peggy Gilbert and her All-Girl Band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm are the best known and well worth a listen (here’s a link to Ina Ray and the Melodears performing “Truckin’”).
This is a world of make believe, much as the comedies of the 1930s were. Those screwball comedies were an antidote to the very dark times of the Depression – of Hoovervilles and bread lines and the destructive force of the Dust Bowl. And boy, are they great films. I just twisted it a bit: there’s still jazz and gin, but also Ida, a tough as nails, skirt chasing band leader; Ruby, star struck and willing to throw over her long-suffering fiancé for Hollywood and Ida; Maud, a shy piano player wooed by Bea, the Harmoneers’ trombone player with the kissable lips. It was great fun to write, and the whole time I did so, my toes tapped to the hot jazz rhythms of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and those All-Girl Bands.
It Don’t Mean a Thing
Kim Taylor Blakemore
Genre: Romance, Historical
Date of Publication: August 4, 2014
Word Count: 20,535 pick-your-path story
Ruby dreams of Hollywood. A chance encounter with The Harmoneers, an all-female jazz group, offers the opportunity of a lifetime. Follow the gang as they scheme and double-cross.
Well, it don’t mean a thing.
Sycamore Grove, California
“I’m not marrying you, Audie McCardle. I most certainly am not.” Ruby Banks crossed her arms, pressed her lips tight, and gave a definitive shake of her head. She leaned toward the mirror over her hand-me-down vanity and stabbed a pin into her blonde curls. She twisted her head left and right, and fluffed the back of her hair. A strange tint of pink ran loose through the strands and waves. Maybe she should have been more careful with the mixture of peroxide and ammonia she’d used the previous night.
But between her mother running up the stairs and hugging her close, her father taking his pipe from his mouth long enough to yell that the hair potion was causing him an onset of lung disorder, and her little sister, Charlotte, jumping around and squawking nonsense about weddings weddings weddings, Ruby botched the dye job.
Never mind, she thought. If anyone asked, she’d say it was exactly the color she was hoping for.
Or she wouldn’t say anything at all. Jean Harlow wouldn’t say anything. Of that Ruby Banks was sure.
She snatched her apron from the end of her bed, bounded down the narrow stairs, and ignored her mother calling from the kitchen. Ruby pushed open the front gate and darted down the sidewalk. She was late (as usual) for her morning shift at the diner, and she still had to pick up the pies from Mrs. Jensen on the next block.
The early morning sun promised another day of horrible Central California heat. The sky would soon brown with the upturned soils of the fields, and the air already stank from the cows.
A beat-up Model T stake-bed truck rolled past Ruby. She heard the tires slow on the hard-packed soil of the street. Gears ground, and the truck reversed and pulled next to her.
John Mayer shifted his stub of a cigar to the other side of his mouth, tilted back his fedora, and smiled. His skin was bronze and wrinkled. He rubbed a weathered thumb across his chin. “Guess congratulations are in order.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ruby lifted her head and continued walking. John Mayer kept the truck rolling slowly in reverse.
“Fine boy, Audie is.”
“So everyone says.”
“You make a sweet couple.”
“We’re not a couple.”
He scratched the shirt on his chest. “You don’t say.”
“He can buy any house he pleases in the Sears Roebuck catalog, but that doesn’t mean we’re a couple. And it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going to marry him.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do say. I have plans of my own.” She blew back a curl that had come loose. “Don’t you have some hogs to tie or something like that?”
“I don’t have hogs.”
“You know what I’m saying.”
He chewed his cigar then shifted the gears. The truck took a jump and shimmied. “You got a mean streak, Ruby. Yes, miss, you do.” With that, he was off down the road in a swirl of dirt.
Ruby wiped her mouth with her handkerchief. She patted her hair and strode up the wood steps to Mrs. Jensen’s porch. She knocked three times on the screen door frame and stepped back. Mrs. Jensen shuffled to the door, balancing five boxes of peach pies.
Only the top of half of her face was visible above the stack. She passed the boxes to Ruby and wiped her hands on a flour-coated apron. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
Ruby’s heels cracked against the pavement. She passed the Esso station and VFW Hall and drew near the two blocks that made up Sycamore Grove’s downtown. The neon spire of the Odeon dwarfed the squat brick of its neighbors. She glared up, worried that this upcoming non-wedding would be splattered in black and white across the marquee. Luckily not. It remained safely Gable and Harlow in Red Dust.
Maud Riley stood under the awning of Rexall Drugs, waiting, as she always did, for Ruby. Her gray felt cloche sat low on her head, the nutmeg tufts of her bob feathered under the soft rim. She shifted from foot to foot, tapping her fingers against her black-and mustard-checked skirt. As Ruby neared, Maud narrowed her eyes and blinked fast before shaking her head. She pursed her lips and twisted them into a strained smile.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ruby asked.
Maud’s eyebrows met in a frown. “Nothing. Not a thing.” She waved her hand for no reason that Ruby could ascertain and fell in step beside her. “I guess I have to wish —”
“Don’t you start.” She shifted the pies to her hip. “I can tolerate all the little gifts he gives me. I mean, a girl does need emery boards and cologne. But buying a house? That’s called unbounded impudence.”
“I think it was just a down payment.”
“It’s still a lot of cheek. What does he think? I’m going to roll over like a, like a starving dog and do whatever he commands?” Ruby stopped in front of the diner, set the boxes on the cement and faced Maud. “He hasn’t even asked me to marry him. And you know what? When he does, I’m going to laugh like this — HA-ha. Because I’ve got all that money Aunt Caroline left me, and come September, I’m going to take the bus to Merced and then the train to Hollywood. And in neither of those vehicles can you fit a Sears and Roebuck house and an ego the size of Audie McCardle’s. And when he comes in for breakfast, I’m going to tell him so.”
Maud crossed her arms over her thin frame and swayed back and forth.
“You got something to say, just say it.”
Maud bit her lip and shrugged.
“What does that mean?”
“It means nothing.” Maud swung her gaze around the street and up at the Odeon spire and then stared over her shoulder at the empty diner. “You like my skirt?”
“I wore it just for you. So you could see how the pattern came out. And such.” She gave that funny wave again, as if she were swatting a big bug. “Never mind. I’ve got an early piano lesson to give.”
“Well, don’t let me keep you.” Ruby bent to pick up the pies. “Would you mind opening the door for me? I mean, if you have time.”
“I always have time for you.”
“Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right. Why?”
“You’re red as a beet.”
Maud put the flats of her palms against her cheeks, turned on her heel, and rushed away, the bell of her skirt flapping against her knees.
“But the door, Maud … ”
About the Author:
Kim Taylor Blakemore writes historical fiction and romance that explores women's lives and brings their struggles and triumphs out of the shadows of history and onto the canvas of our American past. She wishes to share the stories of women whose lives are untold, who don’t exist in textbooks: the disenfranchised, the forgotten, those with double lives and huge hearts filled with weakness and courage.
Her novel Bowery Girl, set in 1883 Lower Eastside Manhattan was recently re-released in Kindle and paperback. Under the Pale Moon, is due for release in Fall 2015. Set in post-World War II Monterey, California, it explores the relationship of a married woman breaking the bonds of conformity, and a combat nurse haunted by the ghosts of war.
Her interactive historical romances The Very Thought of You and It Don't Mean a Thing, are out now on Kindle and SilkWords.com. She is also the author of the novel Cissy Funk, winner of the WILLA Literary Award for Best Young Adult Fiction.
She’s a member of the Historical Novel Society, Women Writing the West and Romance Writers of America. In addition to writing novels, she facilitates workshops for PDX Writers in Portland, Oregon.
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