Murder on the Mekong

Going Deep in a Sensory Bath: The Art of Immersive Fiction

A session by Dr. John L. Hart and Olivia Rupprecht

The scent of Mary Jane and incense and the sound of Fleetwood Mac wafted through the air of Haight Ashbury. A shave-headed goateed hipster in bell bottoms and classic Air Jordans flashed a peace sign that didn’t match his snarled, “What’s your bag, dude?” Izzy flashed a peace sign back. Dressed in his Army regulation tiger fatigues and jump boots, it felt like a hundred eyeballs were gunning him down as he quickened his steps on the littered sidewalk, desperate to escape a cloying sense of mass judgement—and the light rain of spittle that hit the back of his neck.

The above exchange gives a nice sense of atmosphere and could easily set the stage for a scene involving Izzy, a main character in UNKNOWABLE, the second title in our Murder on the Mekong series that is set in 1970. Unfortunately, much of the scene is all wrong. Fleetwood Mac wasn’t hot yet nor were “shave-headed goateed hipsters,” and it would be 1985 before Air Jordans hit the market. As for tiger fatigues and jump boots, they were not yet regulation Army wear. And, vernacular-wise, while “what’s your bag” is right-on vintage 60’s, “dude” wasn’t popularized slang until the 1980’s even if it was a shortened term for “dandy” as early as the 1880’s.

Although 1970 doesn’t seem all that long ago to those of us who grew up in that era, it’s probably safe to say that most readers born after 1980 wouldn’t catch the discrepancies unless they’re students of what would be history to them. The onus, as it should be, is on the writer to be as precise as possible when creating a sense of time and place in historical fiction, whether our stories take place centuries past or mere decades ago.

So, where do you start to build your time capsule to make it as immersive and rich and authentic as possible? One of our great finds was a huge stash of Newsweek and Time magazines from the ’60s and ’70s that Olivia discovered at a rummage sale. The photos, ads, and articles set us squarely there in time and provoked a visceral reminder of the culture we needed to capture. Nowadays of course it is easy to simply Google almost anything, and there always has been the library for research, but I think the key here is immersion. Not to just read and gather facts, but to become more like an actor getting into character and assuming those personality traits, manner of dress, way of thinking, idioms of speech.

And then there’s the music. Definitely the music. Just as the Big Band sound with a Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller horn section can easily summon the images we associate with World War II, music from the ’60s is one of the richest purveyors of era association we have, with sensory, emotional, and political hot buttons embedded into the lyrics to stroke our memory systems. A short article in Scientific American by Mark Changizi titled “Why Does Music Make Us Feel?” explains some of the neuropsychology of how closely music is associated to people, faces, and emotions.

As a psychotherapist, this is quite interesting to me, but the takeaway in terms of writing is how we can apply music as a strong, affective tool to connect with the emotions of our readers to better enhance their response to our characters and the historical settings in which we have placed them.  To illustrate, here is an abbreviated excerpt from our first book in the series, Unbreakable, with multiple references to well-recognized songs. Notice how care is taken not to use actual lyrics to avoid copyright infringement issues.

J.D. strode to the other side of the L.Z. opposite Peck. Despite their ongoing cold war, Gregg joined J.D. and Izzy did the same as the sounds of Santana concussed the air with “Black Magic Woman” and the eye-popping Crystal Blue Persuasion swooped out of the sky. Landing with bullseye precision on the chopper landing pad, up close the metallic purple and black attack helicopter looked even fiercer, whipping the wind with its blades like a chain saw slicing paper at Samurai speed.

As he had at the party, Rick Galt managed to make quite the entrance. He was in full Special Ops battle mode in faded tiger fatigue pants and black tee-shirt, a camo bandana and bush hat, and with two day’s growth of beard he looked like a twenty-first century pirate welcoming them aboard his Disney on acid ship.

“This is absolutely cool!” Izzy shouted above the bleating chopper blades while he and Gregg threw in their duffels. “I wish I had a camera to prove I got to ride in this thing.”

“I’ll send a note to your press secretary,” Rick shouted back and gave him a hand up, then lent Gregg the same assist.

J.D. hopped in by himself.

Peck, at the other side entrance stayed put. Glaring at Rick, he yelled, “What the fuck is this kind of hot rod, Captain? This is not authorized transport. I will not ride in this!”

“Then I guess you can take the slow bus instead that has about five stops,” Rick yelled back. “I hear they are getting the shit shelled out of them up there, so they’ll probably make a couple of extra stops to pick up casualties, and be really glad to have you. Then again, with all the heavy stuff happening, you could be a casualty and never come back yourself, so good luck!”

Izzy slid a glance to Gregg and he grinned back at him as Johnson got in and extended a hand to Peck, who glowered at them all before sitting down in a huff across from J.D. Izzy couldn’t help but think that he would sit anywhere but there if J.D. was looking at him like that. Not even a look really. The aviators reminded him of glossy black snake eyes, and his face was still and hard, like a hockey mask.

It was really unnerving, even more than a very first helicopter ride in something that looked like it came out of a futuristic comic book. As flashy and high-tech as it was on the outside with all its weaponry and rockets, though, the inside was as drab and utilitarian as a box. They all had seats on basically benches with web belts and most of the interior was evidently for the gunner and his huge machine gun.

Izzy could see the pilot and copilot up front nodding at whatever instructions Rick was issuing through a headset with a mouthpiece they must be using to communicate, and he wondered what Rachel would think, if she could even imagine him somehow part of a team with a Special Ops warrior and a spy. The chopper ride he would write her about. It gave him something exciting to bring to the table after Rachel’s latest rundown on the Rockefeller collections being introduced at the Met, but more significantly “still hanging out down in the Village, grooving, listening to Joan Baez. Just got tickets to another concert at Fillmore East! Bonnie and Delaney, you know them?” and no he did not.

There was no getting ready or a “fasten your belts” announcement before they took off, only the ear splitting sound of Jimi Hendrix, a neck snapping lift, and they were thundering through the sky in a gunship that was rising, spinning, banking off in a shuddering turn toward the sea, and then another turn, heading towards the dark green mountains known as the Highlands.

Izzy watched the countryside roll past beneath the swaths of dark green and light green, the rubber plantations and rice paddies and rivers and small villages, where water buffalo outnumbered the crude roads below. They were climbing higher now toward the mountains and the air was much cooler. That’s when Izzy realized that he was not sweating for the first time since his arrival in Vietnam, and the wind, amazing. He looked over at Gregg and smiled, and Gregg smiled and nodded back—then Gregg’s mouth opened in a stunned “O” and he was frantically pointing down as they dropped and headed right for a small group of men running across a narrow dike in the paddy. They had weapons and two of the men spun around, crouched down, opening fire on the helicopter that swooped down so fast Izzy’s stomach felt like it hit the ceiling while the rest of him remained paralyzed, watching in disbelief as their gunship, the one he was in, fired a rocket that just obliterated the two riflemen and then—

The Rolling Stones blasted “Jumping Jack Flash” from the huge speakers that pierced the air and the rocket ship skimmed the top of the dike toward some other men futilely running ahead while the guns opened up and then the ship was slowing and circling the carnage that had the pilots and their gunman whooping.

Izzy puked out the side of the ship. Someone handed him a green army towel.

“It’s good you got to see that, Doc,” Rick said close to his ear. “It’s war, and that’s what we do. It’s what the soldiers you see every day are doing, you know?”

No, Izzy did not know, so why he nodded as if giving some tacit approval he did not know either. He was glad that no one else looked at him as he wiped vomit off his shirt and the ship climbed up into the blessedly cooler air where he silently chanted his mantra of wake the fuck up, in between 351 and a wake up.

Because our series is solidly set during the Vietnam War, Olivia and I did a lot of our collaborative writing while listening to a playlist that made its way into the books themselves, including songs by Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Creedence Clearwater, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and more. Sometimes it became hard to tell when the music would inform the scene, or the scene would dictate the music, but I cannot imagine writing or reading all of those pages without the atmosphere, mood, and message those lyrics helped us to compose.

While music can strongly affect mental imagery and emotional response, the ability to convincingly transport a reader to another place and time relies on eliciting responses from all the senses to be truly immersive. What are the smells, tastes, looks, feelings, and sensations the characters are experiencing? This sensory immersion is essential in all types of fiction, but fine details that depart from the present are important to the authenticity of an era. Sure, the taste of food is something that doesn’t change but pho wasn’t an American staple forty years ago as it is swiftly becoming now. Just as the sight of love beads on a guy were pretty revolutionary in the ’60s but have to be explained to most Millennials as more than a fashion faux pas statement.

In stories such as ours where the Vietnam War is central to the personal experiences, emotions, and interactions of our characters, much of the way they think and feel is strongly affected by the people and events surrounding that experience; and, true to human nature, much of their perception is skewed by how they think they are perceived and portrayed in the media of the day. As the Vietnam War progressed, it became increasingly unpopular at home in the U.S. This was a generation of soldiers whose peers seemed to turn against them when the vast majority were innocently drafted young men serving their country only to be portrayed as “babykillers” upon their return.  It’s a stark contrast to the heroic stature afforded “The Greatest Generation” before them—many who turned their backs on these younger soldiers and did not regard their service as having merit.

The extent of internal shunning and external shaming is like a dirty little family secret that was largely ignored at the time and isn’t openly discussed much now. Still, it deeply impacted a generation of young men emotionally and psychologically which made this an important issue for us to examine. In Unknowable (Book 2), 1969 has rolled into 1970.  Gregg the psychologist has actually returned to Vietnam and is describing to his friend Izzy what it was like to have gone home to Southern California.

“I hadn’t been back that long, not quite three months, didn’t have my own apartment yet, though I should have. I wasn’t sleeping well, realized I wasn’t adapting the way I thought I would but wasn’t telling anyone—like, who would I tell, who would understand? But my mom, she knew I was struggling and tried to do something nice for me. This was right after Thanksgiving, just a week later, and everyone’s tired of turkey by now, so she and my dad decided to throw a party and went all out with the all-American stuff I love—barbeque, burgers, dogs, shrimp, salmon—and invited my aunts and uncles, my grandpa, the neighbors, guys I had played ball with all my life, they’re all there. And my folks put the big color TV out on the patio, like we could all pretend we’re at the drive-in on a Friday night, just before twilight when the screen is showing those hot dogs running around and making you want to race to the concession stand, while the kids are swinging on the swings before the first feature gets started. Only, instead of the drive-in commercials, Walter Cronkite came on for the CBS Evening News. It was all about My Lai and Lt. Calley, that whole horrible mess, and then something came on about the body count shit they do every night and my Uncle Larry, he said something about this generation of soldiers. He says, `not you Gregg, of course, but all these good for nothing hippie dope heads they draft, killing women and children, they aren’t what we were made of in W.W. Two—’”

Gregg smacked the windshield with his fist. “Izzy, I threw my beer at the goddamn TV. And then I grabbed another one and threw again, and it exploded right through the TV—my mom’s beloved color TV—and I yelled, `What the hell! Fuck you, Uncle Larry! Fuck all of you, I told them, you are watching a goddamn real war on TV, not a John Wayne movie! Those are real men, dying every day, and you are listening to a body count like it’s a baseball score for fuck’s sake while you complain about the poor kids who would rather be anywhere but there? And you actually have the gall to question what they are doing and play judge and jury while you eat a burger and knock back a beer because you can be so self-righteous about your own service and spit on ours?’”

While there are clearly universal themes that could apply to any war—be it the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, or the war in Iraq—sensitivity to the differences in time and communications of an era are part of the immersive cultural experience. In the late ’60s and early ’70s payphones were commonplace, but long-distance calling was not. Sending what we call snail mail letters was how friends, lovers, and families communicated over distance. People in another town, let alone another country, were far, far away. There was little mobility, even in cities. Growing up on the East side of Portland, Oregon often meant knowing no one on the West side of town and rarely if ever going there, and vice versa. As a result, during this time of enormous social change and upheaval, perceptions and opinions could vary greatly from place to place. A visit to rural America from a big city would be far more of a culture shock then than it would be today given the lack of communitive means we now take for granted. Back then, a young man simply having hair growing over the ears or wearing an Afro was fair game, a target. Generational differences were extreme. A sibling just two or three years older might be living in a very different social/cultural context with different clothes, haircut, jewelry, speech, and music.

Such details are significant in recreating an era as authentically as possible. One of the most popular time travel shows on TV recently was Mad Men. It was a history lesson in clothing and style, in the way people ate and drank and what they considered socially acceptable or not. Gender roles, the way men and women acted with each other, were again vastly different from today. One of the central female characters in our series, Kate, is similar to Mad Men’s Peggy in that she is unique in her attitudes, ambitions, and roles assumed for that time. Would either woman be considered forward-thinking if dropped in the middle of Times Square today? No. But by capturing the reality of their worlds and the societal limitations they have to confront, there is a lot of opportunity to use past era as a vehicle for character exploration, dimension, and growth.

Slang and figures of speech are also important identifiers in creating an authentic sense of time and place. By utilizing words like “man” and “far out” and “groovy”—and let’s not forget “bitchin’”—that were the cool-speak of the day, we can turn back the clock while also shading the speech patterns of various characters.

Exercise 1

As an exercise, try:

  1. Going back in time to when you were in junior high, high school, or college.
  2. Write down the “playlist of your life” at that time, your favorite songs.
  3. Write down as many slang figures of speech as you can recall.
  4. Write a brief scene of you and a couple of friends listening to music and include as much “language” of your time and place as possible in your scene.  If there are specific regional idioms include those.

In looking to other artists for tools and inspiration, New York Times writer Mekado Murphy offers a fine discussion of the techniques that director Todd Haynes uses to create the deep sense of being in a certain time and place for his Oscar-nominated film Carol. In particular, his development of an “image book” is a brilliant way of communicating with his cinematographer about how he “sees” and “senses” the film. This could be an important tool for any author and may even be essential for coauthors like Olivia and myself. Although we did not create an official “image book” for our novels, in the five years we have been working together, we have informally exchanged photos, films, music—anything that might help capture the essence of an historical setting that was marked by extreme social, racial, gender, and civil change while sex, drugs, and rock & roll infused and informed much of that era’s metamorphosis.

The ’60s and ’70s were both terrifying and thrilling for those who lived in that unique bubble of time. But any time in history can be just as absorbing and real for our readers when we give them a truly immersive work of fiction.

Exercise 2

As a final exercise here’s your challenge:

Expand upon the previous exercise from your personal historical setting and create an “image book” of your own.

Have fun, reimagine, get creative—and don’t be surprised if you end up with a terrific new scene and setting for your next short story or novel. One that’s rich in detail and as authentic as it gets.