Odd connections in historical fiction: the lottery, Cuba, New Orleans, and Little Birds

It has been a while since I posted here on the weblog. I think of it as a bone pile, a huge mountain of stuff that should be sorted and ordered and made useful, but: no time. 

Today I’m using it to record an odd set of coincidences that shouldn’t surprise me, really. Historical fiction research often results in this kind of Frankenstein-ian monster, a creaky breathing thing with real potential but at the same time, offputting.

My friend Jason did some research for me last year in the DC libraries, and in the process he ran across reports about Italian immigrants in 19th century New Orleans being lynched. I’m very interested in the huge pile of docs he put together but I haven’t allowed myself to jump in because I’m trying to get this new novel moving. Little Birds is set in New Mexico territory in 1857, you see, so no excuse to be wandering around New Orleans.

But of course I have to get these two people from New York to New Mexico, and that means (1) early train travel — not as well documented as you would guess, unfortunately; (2) St. Louis in its time as doorway to the west — also not as well documented as I would like (for instance, if you can find a street map — any street map, no matter how rough — of St. Louis ca. 1857, you are the more creative researcher than I); (3) travel by steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Independence (there is more, but not enough information on this).

It’s the last bit I’ve been working on lately, this morning going through Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (Volumes 1 & 2). As anticipated there were lots of missionaries traveling west (Jesuit, Mormon, etc etc) and the whole Bleeding Kansas business had New Englanders headed for Kansas territory (you thought the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston?)… but really what I’m looking for are odd bits like this:

It so happened that two St. Louisans, Sam Gaty and a man named Baldwin had recently won a prize of forty thousand dollars in the Havana lottery, and were using it in building a boat […] Captain La Barge made the annual voyage of 1855 in this new boat.

$40,000 in the Havana lottery? That was a huge amount of money at this point. So off I go to look into the Havana lottery and I discover… that I’m back in New Orleans, where the Cuban lottery was very, very popular. In fact, all lotteries were so popular that they were the primary way of funding all kinds of projects you would expect to be financed by taxes.  From a website which is much too short for my tastes:

By the 1810s the number of lotteries began to rise exponentially, making way for an entirely new profession, the lottery broker. Once sponsoring parties had been granted a franchise, the middleman-broker would oversee every aspect, including ticket sales, advertising, and payouts. Many lottery brokers would go on to stellar careers in banking, such as ticket salesman John Thompson, who founded the Chase National Bank (Chase Manhattan) in 1873. Although states began outlawing lotteries in the 1830s, they remained popular throughout the century; believing as much in luck as in the self-made man, Americans continued to buy lottery tickets in the hopes they could obtain something for nothing. Capitalism by Gaslight

So now I’m straddling New Orleans, St. Louis, the Missouri River, and I’m also back in Manhattan and I’ve got this very interesting character giving me the eye. He’s a lottery broker. Originally from Cuba. Or maybe Italy. A brand new copper by the name of Oscar Maroney who likes card games knows him, and can tell some stories. This lottery broker wants a spot in Little Birds, and he’s going to be persistent about it, I can tell. 

Meanwhile I’ve got to get these two characters off the train, through St. Louis and onto a steamboat on the Missouri.  One of them is wondering about maybe a detour to New Orleans, and he’s over there talking to a good looking young guy who has just starting his apprenticeship as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. Name of Sam.

Software for the Historical Novelist, and Little Birds

I don’t know how I missed this, but now that I’ve found  Aeon Timeline 2, I have to share the good news.

Because I write historical fiction I’m always juggling fictional characters and events with what really happened.  I have spent hundreds of hours mapping out battles in order to wind my plot lines in and out and around. The battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 was a major challenge, and it was, in relative terms, straight-forward. 

With this timeline software I can have fictional and non-fictional events displayed in ways that help me visualize connections and overlaps (and more important: errors), and I can color code everything so I can tell the difference right away. 

Characters are set up one by one and can be assigned to storylines, and that’s just the tip of this iceberg. 

Unfortunately the people at Aeon have put up screenshots that are too dark to really appreciate, but here’s one of them. 

click for full size

The first thing I did was change the color scheme to dark on light.

I would show you a sample of my own timeline, but that would mean giving away information about the next novel (tentatively titled Little Birds) and that would be really dopey of me at this early stage.  She said slyly. 

Excerpt: Where the Light Enters

January 1, 1884

Dear Auntie, Dear every one of you,

The Swiss greet each other on New Year’s Eve with this saying: ‘Rutscht gut rein ins neue Jahr!’ If I understand correctly this means ‘I wish you a good slide into the New Year,’ which I suppose makes sense, given the snow and the mountains and the amount of Schnapps consumed during New Year’s Eve celebrations.  For some reason no one can explain, pigs are considered good luck at the New Year, and thus this small offering in India ink rather than pink marzipan.

Aunt Quinlan is not, I trust, sliding anywhere, but sitting snug in the parlor wrapped in the blue shawl that brings out the color of her eyes, with the rest of you gathered all around. How we would like to be there with you to wish you good health and happiness in this new year 1884. With all my heart I wish those things for you.

Cap was especially sad to miss Mrs. Lee’s traditional New Year’s Eve turkey dinner. Apparently that particular bird is unknown in the Alps. But do not fear: we are served good food in abundance. Mrs. Fink is not quite so talented as Mrs. Lee, but still we are eating regularly and very well.

All is calm just now, as Cap is napping. Pip is tucked up against Cap’s shoulder with his nose pressed against the pulse point just below the left ear, an attentive little dog with the instincts of a nurse. This means that I have a short while to write without pauses for cross examination.

Do you remember how Cap told us he wouldn’t miss practicing law? As it turns out, he could only make that claim because he knew he would still have me to practice on. Whatever I write, to whomever I am writing, if I don’t send it off to the post before he realizes what I am up to, he insists that I read every sentence to him. His contribution to my letters consists of suggestions for alternate phrasing and, on occasion, challenges to my reasoning, memory or grammar. More than once I have been tempted to throw the ink pot at his head (this seems to be a family tradition, established by Aunt Quinlan shortly before her first marriage when she hit Uncle Ballentyne in the forehead with some kind of pot, if I remember the story correctly). Fortunately Cap always stops just short of inciting me to violence. And then he finds some way to make me laugh.

We might have known that a stay in a sanatorium, no matter how secluded and hemmed in by alpine glaciers, would not put an end to his curiosity. Even the mycobacterium tuberculosis bacillus has not accomplished so much. He is still working his way through the clinic’s medical library and every publication that deals, however peripherally, with diseases of the lung. At this point I believe he knows as much about tuberculosis as I do. Luckily Dr. Zängerle is better informed than I.

If Cap is not strong enough on a given day to hold a book, I am pressed into reading aloud. Even when he can read and write for himself, my assistance is required for interrogation on medical terminology (though that happens less often as his studies progress). This often involves forays into Latin and Greek etymology and anatomical texts and illustrations. His lungs are failing but his mind is as acute as ever.

Your letter dated December 9th arrived this morning, taken down so diligently by Mrs. Lee in her careful script. Today we also had a letter from Conrad about the custody hearing. The news is distressing, to say the least. If only I had something useful to say or contribute beyond the letters I write. Until there is some decision from the court I will assume that things will take a reasonable and just end, and the children will stay on Waverly Place with Anna and Jack, where they belong.

I’m sorry to say that my weekly report on Cap’s condition is also not what I would hope. A few days ago his right lung collapsed. In an otherwise healthy person, a collapsed lung will often right itself in time, with bed rest and breathing exercises. In advanced pulmonary tuberculosis it is quite common, far more critical, and rarely resolved. In Cap’s case the collapse was not fatal because Dr. Zängerle was so quick. With Dr. Messmer’s assistance he inserted a drainage tube between Cap’s ribs and into the pleura, with the end result that his lung did re-inflate. The tube remains in place despite the fact that there are serious complications that could arise from this artificial opening, but as you are aware, medical science is an exercise in constant juggling of risks and benefits.

What all this means, as I think you will know, is that he is not improving. I can admit to you that I never believed that alpine air and fortified nutrition would reverse the damage to his lungs, but I did hope that it would slow the progress of the disease. As it may have done. In any case, I am where I belong, here with him. He will leave me too soon, but until that day I will make the most of every moment.

Cap is stirring. It is a relief when he is able to fall into a deep sleep; for that short time he looks more like the boy I first met when I came to Waverly Place almost twenty years ago. He was so alive, I could never have imagined him like this. Now I must close this letter before he demands that I read it to him.

With all my love and affection your devoted niece, cousin, auntie and friend  

Sophie

 

Post Script: We have had a letter from Margaret, who is in Greece with her boys. Travel does seem to suit her very well.  There was also a long letter from Lucy, with news of her latest adventures.

Post Script for Mrs. Lee:  The sight of your handwriting on an envelope gives us both such pleasure. Most of all we look forward to the small notes and observations you provide in the margins. It is almost like hearing your voice, which might be the thing I miss most. Please give our love to Mr. Lee and your family.

And for Lia: To answer the question added to the end of Auntie Q’s last letter, yes, the housekeeper’s name really is Hannelore Fink. In German ‘fink’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it does in English.