A major physical challenge in maintaining railroad track is that just about everything being worked on is less than a foot off the ground. A little like farm labor in that respect. After much of a lifetime of blue-collar jobs, launching into writing historical novels from a working-class point of view is a reversal from that direction. Most blue collar jobs are dirty and/or noisy and/or physically laborious. Add to that–monotonous, and generally looked upon with disdain by those who have titles and don’t soil their hands. So the challenge is to look up from track level, but to remain grounded in what you know and have done. Then mix in human drama and (where appropriate) historical reference. Then upwardly seek a touch of the poetic. Or heroic.
But a trap awaits–that is, to overly romanticize the lives lived and toil performed back in times becoming ever more remote. The writer–safe behind pad and pen or typewriter or laptop–can easily fall into this, portraying the track laborer, the miner, the sailor, the cowboy, (yes, and the prostitute) of decades or a century past in tones of rose-color or sepia.
That said, I believe novelists today have mostly ditched the working class, whether of times past or present. Formulaic fiction must now follow the lead of Hollywood and TV, having us sympathize with characters who are our social and economic betters. Or draw us into a world of the totally fantastical. Or seek to be intellectually avant-garde.
A little of my own background. I graduated from the University of Maine in 1967 with a BA in history. It turns out there were too many of us graduating with similar degrees. Society didn’t need us that badly, except as conscripts to fight in Viet Nam. As an alternative I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. As one of the enlisted ranks, I learned to despise commissioned officers as a class–though not necessarily as individuals. It was a great lesson in social stratification.
On leaving the “Guard” three years later, I gravitated into blue collar jobs (not always by choice) and self-employment. Having since my early 20s wanting to write, inspired by the likes of Wolfe and DosPassos and Steinbeck–and later by Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry and Ivan Doig–I’m finally finding the time and energy to get around to it, in the onrush of the digital age and amidst the confusion of social media and the profusion brought on by self-publishing. I’m hoping it isn’t too late.