What Goes Into a Historical Novel? Everything!
A fellow historical novelist and I were talking about our chosen genre once, when I mentioned to her that people often shake their heads and comment on the large amount of research required to write a historical novel. Her reaction affirmed my own: “But that’s the best part!” It’s true. What seems excruciatingly dull and difficult is the part we write historical fiction for. Of course it means the novel, or, for that matter, the short story will take longer to write and edit, but I can honestly say I would reconsider writing if the research did not come along with the project. It is a garden of forking paths, each path more wonderful than the last. If you don’t believe me, read on to see where my keyboarding fingers took me when I wrote WHERE MY LOVE LIES DREAMING, a novel that takes place just before and during the American Civil War in New Orleans and on the Mississippi River.
Perhaps to the uninitiated it may seem as if the author simply needs to read a history book. This happened, then that happened, then it all got resolved when Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox. Hardly. Any novelist knows that the daily concerns of the characters are just too important to overlook. You would not write a contemporary novel without mentioning the day to day, why would you do this for a historical novel? But when you know little or nothing about that earlier time, that’s saying a lot.
Obviously the first thing I needed to know about was riverboats. You know, “waiting for the Robert E. Lee” and all that. I found a local riverboat charter and arranged with the nice man who owned it to come visit. Then I found we had a full size riverboat I could go on, stopping in the promenade to lean and kiss the wall I was so in love by this time. It had a calliope they played with steam which I learned is one of the only original instruments that exists. I also found an online forum called steamboats.org with all kinds of information and the dilemma for me of revealing or not revealing that the owner’s cabin on my boat, Le Beau Soleil, would be the scene of some hot and heavy homosexual love making. I learned all about the cabins, large and small, found a menu for the four meals served a day in the dining cabin and read how the “ladies’ sitting area” would be disassembled during the meals, and just what would consist of luxuries in such an establishment. All this to have my exquisite Frankie ogle Johnny as he glances at the scandalous Apollo Belvedere in the dining room.
I learned in this process as well that a riverboat had two kinds of passengers, better off and simple farmers. These latter did not have staterooms but slept on the floor in the main deck. They often shared that deck with coffle slaves and prisoners, and I had to find a reason why Frankie might not want to have slaves on his boat. His ability to pretend not to speak English came in handy for that. In the reading I did about the slaves I heard stories like about the woman who got caught in the side-wheel which made for a brief if poignant side story for Frankie to tell his friend Mick.
One piece of great fortune I had was finding out that when Amazon first started selling the Kindle they were desperate for content. One thing they did was look for public domain material they could get put on the Kindle right away. It just so happens there was an out of print author who lived in New Orleans at the very time my story took place, George Washington Cable. Among his many novels he also wrote an account of what happened in New Orleans during the year the Confederacy had control of it. I was able as a result to retell his account of the depredations in that city and make them applicable to my characters. I would not have been able to just go and find material like that as, being visually impaired, it was the fact that it was on the text-to-speech equipped Kindle that allowed me to read the account.
Looking about Amazon for other accounts of life in or near New Orleans I discovered that the two forts that were significant in the defense of New Orleans when the Union Navy arrived in April 1862. I discovered that it just so happened that the single largest mutiny that ever took place in the American military took place in those forts when the largely lower class and ethnic soldiers stationed at Forts Jackson and St. Phillip turned on the officers. From that I learned how many ethnic underclass people there were in New Orleans and how disproportional the hardships were for the Italians, Poles, Jews, Irish and Germans who made up the sicth largest city in the U.S. in 1860. I also learned how the Union ships arrived and fired on the forts then sailed on to find all the ships on the levee at the city in flames, torched by their own citizens. And I was writing about a riverboat.
Just how precise does the research need to be? I have Frankie meet a photographer in one of the first scenes in the novel. He takes a picture of a nude Frankie, but how? And with what masteries’? Does that even matter? Well, when Frankie throws the photograph, an Ambrotype to be exact, into the fire to destroy it later on, I had to know what materials went into the Ambrotyp and whether those chemicals would kill or sicken someone exposed to them. That’s when the research reached a dead end. I couldn’t find out in a timely manner, so just made Frankie leave the room when the odors presented themselves.
Now my hope is when I tell you all this I show you just how involving the research can be. Wither I had to look further to make the story hold up or I simply found one fascinating fact after another. I now know what songs were popular during the time, what the condition of the railroads was, whether New Orleans had hotels and how, with no elevators, tall they could be. I found out that one of the most faithful diarists during the war was a young Jewish girl who lived quite well in the surprisingly sophisticated city of New Orleans in 1861. Now how could that not lead me off into yet another fantastic and attitude changing cul de sax of history?
And, I add, almost all the research I did was on the Internet. It had to be. Even if I could fly to this or that place, I could not read the records with my own eyes. How fulfilling a profession I found thanks to those men who created first the Internet and then, thank you Mr. Bernrs-lee, the web!
About Christoper Hawthorne Moss
Christopher Hawthorne Moss is dedicated to reversing historical erasure for GLBT people. Through historical fiction we can present a plausible, positive tale of our lives and loves throughout time. We were queer, we were here. Whether through his own works or through reviews of others’, Christopher Hawthorne Moss shares a heritage with those whose heritage was stolen. To find out more, visit the Website. (http://www,authorchristophermoss.com)