I’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.
Or 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?
- 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? ↩