Too many historical novels, or stories that are set in some other time and place run afoul of what I call the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition, or simply the Pizza Theory for short. (BTW, please feel free to use the term, provided you can do it with a straight face.) You’ve probably encountered such stories yourself and maybe couldn’t quite put your finger on what turned you off. Well, never fear, the Pizza Theory will explain it all.
A basic pizza has three parts; the crust, the tomato sauce, and the cheese. The most delicate part of this recipe is the tomato sauce. If you use too little, the pizza is dry and is basically a hot cheese sandwich. If you use too much, the pizza is an inedible soggy mess.
In an historical or other time and place story, the period detail is the tomato sauce and subject to the same limitations; too little and there is no sense of time or place; too much and the story gets lost in a sloppy mess of detail. With the Internet, it is easy to find scads of detail about the language fads, fashions, and everyday life of another time and place, so some authors can’t resist temptation to pile it on like a gallon of tomato sauce.
My book Death and the Blind Tiger is set in NYC in the 1920s. In one scene, the detective, Max Hurlock, meets a witness at the local automat. Here is the scene with too little tomato sauce:
Max went into the automat and sat down at an empty table.
Wait a minute! That’s it? Were the Roaring 20s that dull? And what is an automat, anyway?
Let’s try it again, only this time with too much tomato sauce
The Horn and Hardart Automat stood under a vertical neon sign in Times Square, between 46th and 47th Street in the upper and more fashionable part of town, also the part of New York with the most speakeasies for thirsty New Yorkers to enjoy bad liquor and good entertainment. The walls of the automat were shiny stainless steel, like a fancy railway car. Outside, a newsboy hawked the New York Sun with the latest about the airship Norge, feared lost over the North Pole despite international search efforts.
Dodging a lumbering Reo truck, Max made his way between several parked Ford Model Ts and a Packard by the curb. Across the street, the Hardesty building stood, a dull gray with black streaks like runny mascara under its windows, and a shoeshine stand outside. Two women passed by chattering about the proper way of dancing the Lindy Hop and about which speakeasy would be the best to visit that evening. One had on a blue flapper dress and a cloche hat covering bobbed hair, while the other seemed to be trying for the Clara Bow look, except for the hip flask Max could see protruding from her coat pocket. The women looked over their shoulders, as if fearful of a stray Prohibition agent following them. The clang of a streetcar bell rang out nearby, competing with the wail of a distant siren.
Enough, already! The story is drowning in period detail and Max hasn’t even gotten to the front door yet. Not only that, but we still don’t know what an automat is!
Now here is the way the scene was written in Death and the Blind Tiger.
The Horn and Hardart Automat stood under a vertical neon sign in Times Square, between 46th and 47th Street. Max pushed open the front door to find about 20 tables, half of which were occupied by diners. Billed as the modern way to dine, the restaurant was a strange blend of the mechanical and the gastronomic. Two of the walls were solidly lined with rows of glass fronted stainless steel doors about six inches high and a foot wide. Behind each of these doors, post office box style, was a pigeon hole containing a plate of food. The patrons selected their meal or side dish from a window, and inserted several nickels to open the door. There were no waiters visible, just a cashier’s booth for making change. The occasional rattle of coins in slots augmented the low hum of conversation in the room.
“Well, it’s efficient,” Max remarked, “but it has all the atmosphere of a subway car.” He looked in one of the windows and saw a plate holding a portion of meat loaf that was in turn wrapped in waxed paper. Past the plate he could see through the other, open end of the box. Behind the wall of boxes, several waitresses scurried back and forth from an unseen kitchen replenishing the boxes as needed with freshly cooked delights. Horn and Hardart’s wasn’t so much a restaurant as a food assembly line.
The real Horn and Hardart automat (in the 1940s)
Here the tomato sauce is still a little on the heavy side, but look at what it does. The detail sets the mood, moves the story along, and explains what a 1920s automat in New York was like. Since the witness works there, this also helps establish that character’s back story, and gives the reader a mental image of the place Max’s interview with the witness will take place. The tomato sauce helps the reader digest the rest of the pizza; it is not a meal in itself.
So remember the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition the next time you are reading or writing a story set in another place and time.
And don’t get me started on Pepperoni!