Writing Historical Fiction

Horse_and_buggy_1910Setting a novel in a historical period is much more difficult than I had anticipated because of the endless research. I was writing a scene that mentioned a pipe-cleaner when I stopped short: Wait! Did they have pipe cleaners in 1900 in America? Yes.  Would my character be writing a letter with a quill pen? No. Steel-tip nibs in hard rubber holders were commonplace. Fountain pens existed but were expensive and unreliable. What did people wear? Shirts and blouses made at home from mail-order fabric (Sears). Overalls and no underwear in the summer for men. Brassieres for the ladies? No. The brassiere was invented in the late 1800s but rural women in America didn’t see what problem it solved. All clothes were fastened with buttons. The zipper hadn’t been invented. Elastic was rare.

And so on endlessly. I could hardly write a sentence without having to stop and jump into Google. I was discussing this problem with a writer friend and she nodded sympathetically. “Yes, and the trouble is, you start out with a simple question and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” That cracked me up, and now when I am diverted into Google I call it “going into dirigible mode.”

The research can be interesting, but also frustrating. I discovered my character could not be in his senior year of high school. There was no such thing. Students graduated from eighth grade and the one-room schoolhouse, often with great family ceremony, and hopefully with the “three R’s” acquired (especially spelling, so they’d know that ‘arithmetic’ does not start with an ‘R’). Eighth grade was the end of the line. They’d go on to work and life from there.

High school, which was any instruction beyond eighth grade, existed only in the cities, was located downtown and it was a boarding school, since it was impractical to commute from the farm. No farm could afford to tie up a horse and buggy all day for a commuter. And the school was not free. Room and board was high, fifty cents to a dollar a day, at a time when a farmer was happy to clear $500 in a year. And what family had the luxury of letting an able-bodied young man (and it was men only) stay away at school instead of working the farm? The main point of having children back then was for free farm labor.

So I had to invent a wacky tale to explain how my character found himself in high school. There went half a day.

It was the same for just about everything my character did and said. Did that reading lamp use whale oil? Or did they use candles? No, kerosene was widely used by 1900. Despite its expense, kerosene gave ten times the light of candles. Whale oil was even more expensive. Were there telephones? In town, often. Rare in the country until after WWI. How long does it take to get from farm to town? A matched team of horses pulled a buggy two or three miles an hour over a good road, and those were rare in spring and fall because of mud.

I originally had my family running a dairy because I wanted them to later move to the city and open a retail shop for butter and cheese.  But while in dirigible mode I learned that didn’t make much sense. Every farm had four or five cows for dairy products, along with chickens and hogs. A dairy would have no customers. Shops in town took eggs as legal tender in exchange for goods, along with money, and many would also take cheese and butter. Nobody needed a diary. Scratch the diary.

The most difficult information to extract from the historical record is what things cost and how much people earned. A university professor in 1900 would make between $1000 and $1500 a year, depending on experience. A Kodak camera cost a dollar but the postage to mail the film back to Rochester, N.Y. for developing was fifty cents each way. A visit to the doctor’s office cost fifty cents to a dollar, but he had no medicine other than opium, cocaine, and alcohol. Needless to say, no antibiotics either. Syphilis was a death sentence.

A shave in a barber shop was ten to twenty-five cents and since there were no safety razors, you definitely wanted to go to a barber. A silent movie was thirty-five cents, a high-priced luxury. You could get a train from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Boston for $20 but it was an overnight “sleeper.” A new house might cost $750 but I couldn’t find out what mortgage interest rates were.

Sometimes the amount of work required to pin down a detail like that is far more than I’m willing to exert. Cost of a horse or other livestock? No idea. It was easier to avoid any scene that involved a transaction like that. I wanted my character to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but I couldn’t find out what the admission fee was.

I’m not a historian and my goal is not to write history. I’m trying to write a novel about particular people with the historical setting as ambience. Even so, it’s a lot more work than I imagined. Nevertheless, the experience will inform my next sci-fi novel, because writing a future should be as careful in every detail as writing the past.


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