Cure my fits.

cabI’m always looking for novels set in the same time and place that I’m writing about, a kind of professional curiosity. How do other authors handle X or Y or Z?  A detail oriented historical novelist won’t just have a character drive off somewhere in 1883 without some idea of the details. What kind of carriage?

Look at the page for horse-drawn vehicles on Wikipedia to get an idea of the magnitude of the question.

You’re thinking I’m obsessive. Of course I’m obsessive, I write historical fiction. But if you were reading a novel set in 1950 and found the characters jumping in a Prius to head out of town, that would have to ruin the whole lovely sense of time and place that is the beginning and end of historical fiction. Thus my need to know what kind of vehicles my characters would be familiar with. Would the rich have a landau in 1883? A barouche? How rich would you have to be to keep your own stable? (Answer: very rich).

That simplifies things, because this character is well off, but not rich. So good, I put her in a cab… but wait. What’s it like in there? Cushions? Dirty windows? Permeated with cigar smoke? A leaking roof?  How does she talk to the cabby? What does she call him? How is the money handled? Does he climb down off his seat to help her into and out of the cab?

If there were dozens of novels written about this time and place I could peruse them for hints to follow up with research. Am I worried about unethical borrowing? Trick question: it’s impossible to find any novels set in New York city in the early 1880s.  Such creatures are rare in the wild. 

There are a lot of novels set NYC in the 1890s. For example, Caleb Carr’s excellent The Alienist. But there’s a big gap between 1883 and 1893 — especially in technological terms. If I’m reading The Alienist or a novel like it, I dare not trust any detail without checking into it myself. Hundreds of buildings went up in that time period, and I hate the idea of putting one of my 1883/4 characters into a building that wasn’t there yet.1 When I do run into a novel in the approximate right time and place, mostly I’m disappointed because that author obviously has a life, and is content to write a good story without seeking out specifics on gas lighting fixtures in public places. Or the cost of a good carriage horse. Or how gloves were sized. Or how doctors and pharmacists communicated and kept records or how the public baths looked and smelled and worked. 

So, no novels. So I have to turn to reference works (usually dodgy). How about  contemporaneous novels, written in the right time period? Harder to research, but yes, that is helpful material. Newspaper ads, personal diaries, correspondence. All this for a ten minute cab ride from Washington Square to Stuyvesant Square. 

icurefitsOr maybe what I really need is just this Boots guy, who was advertising in the New York papers in 1883-1885. 

What  I want is a club of obsessive compulsive historical novelists who live and breath New York city in 1883-1885. And who live in the Pacific Northwest. And who are willing to sit down together say, three times a week, sometimes at two in the morning, to go over what we know and don’t know and delight each other with tidbits.

Is that too much to ask?

  1. Here’s a conundrum. Once I know that on a given block three buildings were going up, do I just ignore that when my characters pass by?

Manhattan 1892 – Medieval Style, via the Sun

Bellevue ca 1892

It’s no secret that I have a terrible weakness for maps. Today I came across The Sun’s Guide to New York (1892), which is stuffed to the gills with fantastic maps of the kind you often see in very old manuscripts. Not quite to scale, some but not all buildings done in something approximating three dimensions, lots of things labeled. Now, 1892 is a little late for the novels I’m working on, but these maps are too good to pass over. 

Sun Newspaper, New York ad 1892
Sun Newspaper, New York ad 1892

There are about ten sets of two-page maps. Below is the first one (click for the full size image), of the southern most part of Manhattan. You’ll note that the Statue of Liberty is on this map, but she wasn’t there in 1883 (which is when The Gilded Hour is set). There are a lot of other differences between 1883 and 1892, but all in all these maps are extremely useful.

The Sun was one of the city’s major newspapers in this time period. Lots of self-referential advertising in the volume, which is a whopping 540 pages long. I’m going to see if I can locate a hard copy so I scan the maps at a high resolution.

Am I entirely alone in my delight with this? 

Sun's Guide, Lower Manhattan 1892
Sun’s Guide, Lower Manhattan 1892 – click for full size version

 

Manhattan Island ca 1883: the map

Manhattan, circa 1883
Manhattan, circa 1883

The first companion map for The Gilded Hour is now up, here.  It is also being folded into the new website for The Gilded Hour (as yet not meant for public consumption, but it will be worth the wait, I believe). Little by little I’ll be adding images, newspaper clippings, links and text (usually marked with a small black circle over my original red marker) and other bits and pieces. There will also be very detailed image maps of specific parts of Manhattan.

There won’t be any spoilers, but there may well be information and/or links to excerpts that show up on the maps.  And maybe even a treasure hunt.

before the flat iron building

Photographs and images are hugely important to me as I write. The Gilded Hour is set in the 1880s when photography was well established, but it’s not always easy to find the kind of images I need. If I lived in Manhattan  (now there’s a pipe dream) I’d spend a lot of time at the historical museums and libraries and I would have more luck in my searches, but alas. Here I am on the west coast, almost close enough to British Columbia to chuck a rock over the border.  To say I miss the East Coast is a massive understatement.

Every once in a while I come across a photo that takes my breath away. This example is  posted at Ephemeral New York: an 1884 shot of the corner where the Flat Iron building now stands. A big, clear, detailed photo like this gives me a jolt that’s hard to decribe.

The 1902  Flat Iron building  is iconic, as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower (though on a smaller scale) or Trafalgar Square in London. Film makers use it to establish geography almost as a matter of course.  But look at this corner before all that (clicking on the image will take you to the full-sized version at Ephemeral New York). I can almost project myself onto that corner.

23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884
23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884