Historical Fiction Challenge

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circa 1945: View of the lights of cars at night in front of the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, New York City

In the year of alternative facts, and fake news, The Brian Lehrer Show presents a historical fiction challenge. Much like the climate of the news today, the genre of historical fiction is a mixture of hard fact and… artistic license.

Here’s the idea: Below are four real life moments from New York’s history (as broadcast on WNYC). Use one as inspiration, and write a scene or story which follows these guidelines:

  • It takes place in New York and is set in the year the audio was recorded
  • It's under 2,000 words
  • Research! An essential element of historical fiction is getting your reader immersed in the time period you’re writing about, and that means digging into research and becoming an expert. Pay attention to social conditions, manners, dress and other details of the period.

Send all submissions to blshow@wnyc.org with "Historical Fiction Challenge" in the subject line. The deadline is March 13th. Christopher Bram, author of The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction and Nonfiction, will judge the submissions. The winner will come on the air with Brian Lehrer to discuss. 

AUDIO PROMPTS (choose one):

1. I Say It’s Spinach and I Say The Heck With it (1943)

The people of New York City are struggling to adapt to the rigorous food and oil regulations placed upon all citizens by the war effort. Frances Foley Gannon, the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, suggests which vegetables housewives ought to buy and which they should go without.

Hm, maybe...

  • Write a story from the point of view of someone trying to make a dinner party within the ration guidelines.
  • Think how else the war overseas would impact daily life and routine in New York. 
  • Start you research HERE.

2. Times Square: The Grimy Scar Running Down Manhattan’s Midtown Section (1961)

The light-soaked tourist trap of Time Square was once a gritty, run-down hub for pornography and crime. Judge Owen McGivern, Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court speaks about "great struggle to cleanse and uplift the west side area particularly Times Square […] the unending battle against the cheap, the tawdry, the downright immoral."

Hm, maybe...

  • Write a story which begins with the line "some nights the man in the moon blushes for shame when he sails over Times Square west of forty second street."
  • Can the Time Square nuns, or the old Church, or anything else in Judge McGivern's speech enter into your story?
  • What WAS Time Square like in 1858?
  • Start your research HERE.                                                                                                          

3. The Shooting of James Powell by Lt. Thomas Gilligan (1964) 

The killing of fifteen-year-old James Powell by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan set off six nights of violent riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the aftermath, acting Mayor Paul Screvane's delivered an emergency message on Harlem rioting and the shooting of James Powell by police

Hm, maybe...

  • Write a story from the point of view of someone listening to the mayor over the radio.
  • Your protagonist’s apartment is sweltering hot (this was the beginning of the so called long, hot summer in Harlem).
  • Think about what was going on nationally -- Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona received the Republican presidential nomination in San Francisco the same day as James was shot.

4. Transit Strike: I Don't Care If I Rot in Jail. I Will Not Call Off the Strike. (1966)

On the day John Lindsay became the Mayor of New York City, the trains stopped running. Over the next twelve days all subway and bus service remained at a standstill while the Mayor battled with Mike Quill, President of the Transit Workers Union. Mike Quill gives a press conference to reinforce the unyielding stance of the transit workers saying, "We will not settle for one penny less!" 

Hm, maybe...

  •  Write a story about the transit strike of 1966. The whole city was affected by that strike in a massive way.
  • Start your research HERE.

Send all submissions to blshow@wnyc.org with "Historical Fiction Challenge" in the subject line. Deadline is March 13th. And don't forget to nominate your favorite public library for the 2017 Library Awards!

Thanks to the NYC Municipal Archives for the WNYC archival audio