Guest Post by Patty Dickson Pieczka
How do you transport your readers to a time you’ve never visited yourself? You become an expert. Immerse yourself in everything you can find about your time period. You never want your book to break character and lapse into the modern day.
- Let little details create the image
Allow no average household item to appear in your book unless you’re 100% sure it had been invented at the time. My story took place in 1904. Could my character hang her clothes on a wire hanger? No, only wooden hangers existed then. Very few homes in St. Louis had closets, since taxes were estimated by the number of rooms rather than square footage, and a closet was considered a room. So she hung her clothes on wooden hangers in a stand-up wardrobe. Could she spray a cut with Bactine and apply a Band-Aid? No. She’d use Zam-buk ointment and a gauze bandage. Could she eat processed cereals? I was surprised to find that yes, Post Toasties were a new item on the shelves in 1904. But since it was not yet widespread, she still ate cereals common at that time, which were grits and oatmeal. Still, there was a way to use processed cereals in the book. Mr. Hillman was a self-made millionaire, and I needed a startup business that would be successful for him. It seemed owner of Hillman’s Cereals would be a realistic occupation for him.
- Improvise with accuracy
Sometimes you’ll have no choice but to improvise. Educated guesses only — never wing it! Julia found work in a sewing sweatshop. How much did she earn? Search as I might, I couldn’t find employment numbers for this job. But I watched a documentary about clearing the land in 1904 for the St. Louis World’s Fair, and they interviewed a man who had a job cutting trees for 45 cents an hour. Based on a 40 hour week, he’d have earned $18 per week, so it seemed plausible that Julia would make a little less than half that – $8 a week. $8 was also the amount of a dress on sale, which seemed about right for a low-paying job at that time.
- Learn the layout
If you can, visit the location where your book takes place. Mine was set in St. Louis, so I went there to see what old buildings still exist, what bridges are still there. I read cornerstone dates, wrote down addresses, took pictures, studied the architecture. I also pored over old maps and read histories of St. Louis, noting photos of the buildings that existed in 1904 and the ways the city had changed since then. Make this trip fun. Bring an interested friend. I went with my husband, and we visited the World’s Fair Museum, which not only put us in the mood of the times but was a great opportunity to learn about the exhibits at the fair.
- Check out PBS
Documentaries offer a wealth of historical details and information. I watched The Roosevelts, The 1900 House and Meet Me in St. Louis, a documentary about the World’s Fair. Take notes.
- Read newspapers and magazines
The most helpful resources I found were newspapers of the day. Many newspapers include archives on their websites. But if yours isn’t available, see if your local library has these old issues on microfilm. Read the words your character would have read. Try to relate to their jokes and cartoons. I read an article about four Africans from the Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair who were arrested for wandering around the streets of St. Louis. So when Eric went to jail, I put him in the cell next to them. When Julia looked for a job, she read the “Help Wanted — Female” section of the April 2, 1904 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While you’re at it, find out what books and magazines were popular at that time, and get familiar with them. What’s on your character’s bookshelf?
- Don’t bore your readers with stuffy dialogue.
Language can be a tricky topic for historical fiction writers. Your voices should sound authentic to the times without being flowery or dull. A technique I found helpful was to use formal language for the wealthy and authoritarian characters and more casual speech for the middle and working class. An example of this occurs when Monroe pays Judge White a visit:
“What’s got you so riled up today, Mr. Michaels?”
“Julia Dulac’s court case.”
“Ah, Miss Dulac. I might have known. You both exhibit a similar lack of decorum. She paid me a visit earlier today, and as I explained to her, the evidence needed for her case was obtained by illegal means and is therefore inadmissible in a court of law. Please consider reason, sir.”
“Most of that information is right here in your own court records. And I don’t care if it is illegal. You’ll resolve this case or the newspapers, your wife and your family shall hear all about that mistress you’re keeping. You won’t be able to judge so much as a cockfight in this city. I’ll post a flyer on every tree if I have to.”
In this exchange, the reader gets the feeling of the formal language used in 1904, but Monroe’s dialogue could almost have been from our own time.
- Learn some of the slang
I read an article in the 1904 paper entitled, “Man Killed for Rubbering.” I’m sorry he was killed, but I had to use this word. So when Herman and Rose have an argument that attracts a crowd at the fair, Herman turns to them and says, “What are you rubbering at?”
These are some of the techniques I used to keep Finding the Raven realistic to 1904. Have you discovered others? I’d love to hear about them!