ABC’s of Fiction Writing: Z is for Zeitgeist

Posted by on Mar 27, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

TB2Zeitgeist – The Spirit of an Age or the Spirit of a Time or the Spirit of Christmas Whenever that Christmas occurred.

The essential core of zeitgeist is that people and thus the art they make are products of the times and social constructs in which they live rather than the other way round.  We emerge from those periods rather than create those periods.

As writers, however, we often seek to recreate a period whether it be several hundred years ago or just last week.  We fail in this effort.  One cannot write a Victorian novel because we are not Victorians no matter how many Downton Abby dinner parties we throw.  We can, however, write a novel set in Victorian times and do our darndest to make a reader feel they are experiencing the world of the story in an authentic manner.  To do so takes a concentration on setting, objects, language and most especially – character.  How has the character emerged from the age in which he or she was born into?

My novel, Night and the Texas Sky, is set in 1991 Houston, Texas.  It was a time and place I knew well having lived in the Montrose section of downtown while attending the University of Houston, starting a band and generally fucking about.  It was hot and I wore ripped up jeans and combat boots.  I let my hair grow long and dyed it purple.  I started writing plays and a comic strip and fell in love with a girl that could do nothing but torture me.  I went to parties in warehouses with a wrestling ring and floated down the Guadalupe River in an inner-tube.  I drank a lot of Shiner Boch and gave up acid because it got too boring.  Some friends died of AIDS, some others went to prison, some others made movies.  When I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time on the radio, I pulled over just to listen.  That song marked the naming of the age, the Grunge years and while its capital might have been Seattle, all us kids who’d moved on from punk and new wave and Goth and pop and hair metal now had an anthem and an identity.

Trying to write about that age twenty odd years later with very little hair left and a taste for comfy shoes and fleece required listening to old CD’s, looking at old pictures and granting my characters the freedom of not knowing what was coming next.  Zac, Sean, Kitten and Raven couldn’t know that Kurt Cobain would change their lives in a month or two or that he would leave them so quickly.  The story takes place over a roughly 24-hour period and they had to be immersed in the moments that were immediately in front of them.  I had to be conscientious enough to prepare that world for them so that there were no seems in the fabric that enveloped them.  I had to see the world as it had been and write without nostalgia.

I think it’s important not to pretend any single age is more important than any other and not get caught up in the romance of even the most romantic of eras.  Life is hard and yet beauty has always been present within that hardship as have humor and cruelty.  The particulars of those hardships and triumphs are what define the age from which they emerged.

Basically it’s the same old story about how to create a new old story, it’s all in the details.  We should embrace the zeitgeist while being aware of the emotional, social, political, and sexual implications of that embrace.


Travis Baker’s work has previously been published in Masons Road, Hawk & Handsaw, The Maine Edge, Pennsylvania English and Puckerbrush Review among others.  His novel, Night and the Texas Sky came out in 2014.  His play, One Blue Tarp, was named the Best from Maine in the 2013 Clauder New England Playwrights Competition and was presented at the Penobscot Theatre in the 2013-14 season.  He holds an MFA from Fairfield University and an MA from the University of Maine where he teaches composition and creative writing.  He lives in Orono with his wife, Holly and two sons, Zane and August.

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