A Writer’s Dilemma

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I’ve started to work on a story about the ‘Canaries‘ of World War 1. These were the female munition workers during World War 1. They were called canaries because the chemicals used in manufacturing explosives tinted their hair and skin yellow. This story is part of the series of stories I have written about the war. My goal is to have it accepted to the Northern Colorado Writers Anthology, Exception/All centered around the question of ‘What does normal look like? and ‘Is anything ever truly normal?’

Many of these women had never worked or had been in traditional female roles such as household service. Yet, they responded to a national need and were significant contributors to the war efforts. When the war ended, many were dismissed. Their jobs were given to returning soldiers as the country returned to ‘normal.’ However, they and others showed that women could serve in these non-traditional roles. Their mistreatment motivated many to join the suffragette movement and demand the vote and equality under the law. Vivien Newman examines these changes in Changing Roles: Women After the Great War. The changes in society, such as the role of women, are just part of my fascination with World War 1

So, here is my dilemma.

  • I have the characters. Anne and Carol are two housemaids that were dismissed when their house closed and had to find employment. They were able to find it as munition workers.
  • I have the dramatic narratives and history of women that had done this work to provide context and source material for the story.

In other words, I have all the components of a good story. What I don’t have is a story that meets the three-act structure of a five-thousand-word short story and also serves the goal of showing that society is constantly changing.

And this is my dilemma, which I suspect is familiar to many historical fiction writers. How do I tell an entertaining story that fits within the historical context and provides lessons for today?

I have until August 15th and any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

POST SCRIPT – I finished the story in time to submit it. One of my Beta readers thought it had the makings of a longer story or short novel. We shall see.

What is Normal?

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My local writing group, the Northern Colorado Writers, announced that the theme for its 2023 Anthology is ‘An Exploration of Normal.’ They asked for poems, stories and essays about what normal looks like? And do we need to return to the status quo?

In preparation for writing my story about the Canaries (women munition workers in WW1), I’ve been thinking about what is normal and how you know what it is?

Dictionaries define normal as conforming to a standard or the typical state or condition. In other words, normal is based on some arbitrary reference point.

In my doctoral dissertation on prospect theory, I spent a lot of time on reference points and how they affect risk acceptance and decision making. Although there is a status quo bias, prospect theory shows that the reference point is not fixed and can shift based on how the issue is framed. BTW, this took me two years and twenty mathematical propositions to prove the microeconomic basis of this statement.

Which brings me back to the belief that the idea of ‘normal’ is arbitrary. Without going full-on situational, the diversity and fluidity of normality are proof that defining normal is a losing proposition. If you have traveled, you know that what may be acceptable in one country/culture is abnormal in others. You can see this in a critical scene in the Inglorious Bastards where the Americans are detected because of the way they ordered drinks in a bar. (If you haven’t seen it or have never been to Europe, it has to do with whether you include the thumb when signaling for a drink).

There is, of course, a whole side discussion of defining normal as a method of social control. When a politician says, ‘That’s not us’ or ‘We don’t act that way’ they have established that any disagreement is deviance with the implication of immorality and criminality.

So, coming out of the pandemic, we have a new normal where you don’t shake hands (or if you do, it is a political statement) and wearing masks is accepted without comment. This status change only took two years which shows how quickly normal changes.

Which brings me back to the title question – What is Normal?

Of course, I cannot discuss normality without talking about Abby Normal.