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. 

Streamlining

This weblog first got going in 2003. For many years I posted at least once a day, usually on writing and craft themes, but I also reviewed novels and movies and did some autobiographical writing. Traffic here was lively for quite a long time.

Maybe five years ago now I started to slow down, in an effort to cut back on my wondrous collection of procrastination techniques. Now I rarely post here. If there’s news about a reading or new publication, I put that up on FaceBook, where I have two focal points: my own page, under Rosina Lippi, where I post about my personal life and politics, and the Sara Donati page, which is mostly about my work, the novels, writing advice.  On the Sara page I try to avoid the political, and mostly succeed. There is also the website for the Gilded Hour and its sequel. That’s where I am trying to collect all the research and bits and pieces that go into the novels set in Manhattan in the 1880s. 

Because this weblog is so old, it is cranky. There are lots of small problems and bigger problems that can’t really be fixed because it’s arthritic. After some thought, I’ve decided not to close it, but to streamline. What I hope to achieve is a collection of posts written between 2003 and now that people have found useful or interesting or funny.  I will keep any post that deals with writing and craft questions for writing fiction, and I will keep the memoir series. But otherwise, a lot of slashing and burning will be going on. 

This will take me a while to pull off, but before I get started I wanted to give my constant readers a chance to voice their thoughts and opinions. Some of you have really been here since 2003, and if there’s something you’d like to see me keep, I’d like to hear about that. 

Once I get started I will take down the weblog while I hack away at it, but I will keep all y’all updated via the Sara page on FaceBook

One of the problems I hope to fix by doing this has to do with commenting. You may be able to comment on this post, or gremlins may thwart you. I will cross post this to the Sara Donati page on FaceBook, where you are also free to make your opinions heard. If you have any, of course. 

Not quite an excerpt: Where the Light Enters

Over the coming months I will be posting bits and pieces about Where the Light Enters to help tide you over until publication.  This first time I’ve got a piece of my research to share. These real estate/rental ads are from the New York Times in 1884. The two outlined in yellow are relevant to the story. 

And they are, in my view of things, just plain interesting. The rental market has sure changed. 

click for larger size