Research and Frustration

In specific, historical research and frustration. There are a lot of wonderful resources and people keep churning out more. Which is terrific and worth celebrating. And yet, and yet . . . the course of research nevertheless includes a myriad of dead ends and unexpected road blocks.

And sometimes, that terrific, wonderful resource is terrific and wonderful about everything except the particular facts for which one is currently searching. While I’m mostly writing historical fantasy, I’m invested in making it as historical as possible. Yes, some events and likely people are different, and there most certainly is magic, but magic doesn’t change everything. Moreover, the particular kinds of magic in this world haven’t slowed or stopped certain technological developments (they haven’t stopped various other developments either, but that’s another matter and one that, inasmuch as it can, the stories address).

At any rate, I’m experiencing a variation on that at the moment. I used a number of resources while writing “Drinking Unhappiness” aka Twisting the Border #2 (out in mid-July), which is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi River in an alternate 1850s America. All was well (enough).

Then the characters had to go and disembark in New Orleans (site of story #4) where they waited for a ship to carry them to the port of Indianola in Texas.

So I promptly began the next round of research. (These rounds mean I have an ever-growing bibliography of sources, which I’ll start adding to the website in June as they become available.) Did the characters take a steamboat along the Texas coast? A sailing ship? How much (or rather, little) space would they have had? What did it smell like? How many crew and in what capacity? How long did the journey take. Oh, so many questions flew through my brain.

To my delight, I found some excellent, decidedly relevant books . . . except they’re missing the very information I require. One, just checked out today, discusses all manner of Victorian travel–but not, evidently, along the Texas coast. The other discusses the shift from sail to steam, but doesn’t have the details I want.

In the end, I’ll mesh these and others together to come up with the equivalent experience in my historical fantasy world. It will be as historical as I can make it–but even writers of historical fiction face research limits (not to mention inconvenient events plot-wise).

Here are the two main secondary sources I’ll use for now. I have a couple of primary to draw elements from too, and perhaps there are more where these come from. I only need enough, after all, not every detail out there under the sun.

Richard Francaviglia, From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History, 1500-1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

John H. White, Jr. Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Silencing the Past

This is a great book, and that isn’t just my opinion! It received a 20th anniversary reissue, which speaks to influence, reach, and the number of people who have/continue to buy it. I highly recommend anyone writing historical fiction or historical fantasy (as I do) read it and consider how the issues it discusses impact the times/worlds in which they right.

Okay, so what is the book?

Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.

To quote from the 20th anniversary description, it offers “an indispensable analysis of the silences in our historical narratives, of what is omitted and what is recorded, what is remembered and what is forgotten, and what these silences reveal about inequalities of power.”

Even if no characters in a given work are historians, this addresses questions which matter in terms of world-building and character-building.

Who was there—in that particular place and time?

What might they have been doing, or not doing, and why?

How do we know, or do we?

Which is not license to say oh we don’t know, so I can make it up. Go ahead and make it up, but call it what it is: fiction.

Or well we don’t know so-and-so was x, so I can pick-and-choose. Yes, you can, but there are (often) consequences.

Now, most authors of historical fiction and fantasy are well aware of these considerations. Hence the author’s note at the back of many published works, or lists of references on webpages. The agonized worrying over what we can change for the sake of story and what we can’t (and who will / won’t notice).

What Silencing the Past offers me is an apt reminder to consider who’s in a story, who’s telling it, who knows what. And an elegant, powerful discussion of ways this has manifested, with examples drawn from the author’s scholarship and research on Haiti and the Haitian Revolution.

The main series of stories / novel installments I’m writing take place in the 1850s United States. They start in Chicago and head for San Diego by way of New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso, and Tucson. So I need to think about who was there, in reality—and what that means for the story / stories I’m writing. Whenever possible, I use primary sources for research. Many are wonderful because they document what people noticed / did in the places my characters go and at that time. They are also, one and all, problematic. What don’t the authors notice? Why are these accounts available now and not others? And, of equal import to me, at least: how can I work through these books to make the fantastical version of reality reflect diversity.

I don’t pretend to have solved anything. Or to be the first to have thought about these matters. I’m not in either case.

That’s okay. I don’t have to be. I appreciate the work others have done and are doing (and I will appreciate the work they will do, when done) to explore these issues with respect to history whether non-fiction, fiction, or fantasy.

Which is all a long-winded way of endorsing this book for those interested. It has and continues to make an impact on me. So thanks Michel-Rolph Trouillot, even though you’ll likely never see this entry.

Character Origins

I’m in the mood to think—and write—about characters. More specifically, what’s on my mind is the matter of developing characters. Is it author choice, or does the character arrive on-page and begin dictating things, or are there negotiations between end points?

I’ve heard various people muse on different aspects. One author may aver characters and stories come from story gods (or other external but intangible sources) and the writer merely serves as the channel or perhaps embarks upon a trip of discovery. Others invest time in developing characters, perhaps completing forms or filling pages with descriptive information as they create the character—who then serves their purposes in the story.

And some of us fall in between.

Coming up with characters can be considered to resemble sculpting. Some sculptures are built up out of materials (clay, bicycle chains) and others formed through subtraction (carving stone or wood).

Those analogies work for me, for the most part. A number of my characters are built up. They serve certain needs, and I try to make sure they’re as fully rounded as possible (and likewise try to convey that on the page, sometimes more successfully than others). Other characters involve discovering things about them, learning who they are and who they’re not as I subtract extraneous material to find their shape. And still other times it’s a negotiation process where I offer a deal, they counter, and maybe we can find a way to meet both of our needs.

Then again, sometimes it feels as though my main characters just like to boss me around. They’ll tell me if I get things really right—most of the time. They’ll drag their feet or roll their eyes when I’m trying to make them do things that don’t fit—most of the time. Occasionally, they go along pretending only to say “about time” or the equivalent when I finally figure out I’ve been going in the wrong direction. There’s one particular story I’ve started at least four times and still haven’t gotten it to work. Twice the characters let me get quite far along before things fell apart. I think the latest start will work, but the key pov character hasn’t decided whether to tell the story 1st pov or 3rd (and in this case, given the trouble I’ve had, I’m going to defer to her).

Because the thing is, when these characters are right they’re REALLY right.

And, for me at least, most of the time they’re the POV characters and/or the main characters (the two not necessarily being the same thing, after all).

I’ll give you an example of how this works out in practice, albeit with some details obscured for the sake of not spoiling things for anyone who actually reads this and starts following my work.

A number of years ago, I had a very vivid dream. A character was watching a particular pivotal moment in US history in full knowledge that, if all went according to plans, the moment would turn in a very different direction than it did in our reality.

I knew various things about that character—or I thought I did. She was an older woman named Janny (50s or 60s) and a tracker or otherwise very savvy in living in the wild.

I distinctly remember waking up thinking this could be really neat, but it was also going to require a lot of time and effort to do it right. At the time I was on a writing hiatus. The character accepted my decision. I thought.

A couple of months later, I happened to see an anthology call which generally fit the parameters of the dream world & character. Janny showed up in my head and insisted I write the story of the dream.

No, I told her, not happening. It’s too big for a short story.

Fine, she replied (or did she?), start here.

Next thing, I wrote a short story set 50 years earlier—Janny showed up, but as a supporting characters. Long story short, it didn’t make it into the anthology (though I got a very nice rejection letter)–which was just as well because I didn’t know enough then to realize what I was tackling.

Or how much I’d gotten wrong in that story.

Do I know now? Not necessarily—though I do know more.

For one—the character in my dream? Turned out to be an amalgamation of two characters, neither fully fitting the description and neither answering to the name of Janny. (Although one of the two does go by something close.)

It’s just as well I didn’t realize the full extent of my characters’ ambitions. Several more have slowly stepped out of the shadows and begun to share themselves with me.

In part because I’ve backed up. I’m starting at a beginning point—where a particular character makes a decision which sets her on the road to being part of this big story . . . assuming she survives long enough.

I haven’t written the story about the moment in the dream and probably won’t for a reasonably long time. The big tale has decided it wants to be made up of moments and developments. I’m telling it as a sequence of short stories or a serial novel — or a mix between those two (some installments work well as short stories, others not quite so well).

The main characters want to share their journey as well as the end destination. (If push comes to shove, I’ll admit I don’t actually know how the whole thing ends for once. I know the first and second turning points, but this will be three arcs / acts / serial novels and I don’t know the end of the third.)

Most of them don’t tell me when I’m getting things wrong, they just slow down and drag their feet. But I’m getting better at recognizing this and negotiating with them.

Because I want to know how this ends.

I can’t tell you . . . yet.

I can tell you when and where it starts—in June, 2019, when I will publish “Hollow Ghosts” the first installment in the Twisting the Border sequence. Come, pull up a chair and take a peek as one character takes the first step on the road to heroism . . . and infamy.

Links of Interest

Here are some links and items which caught my eye over the past weeks. Not so many as some times, but I had a few distractions along the way.

Don’t Let Comparison Steal Your Joy” – this is about writing & publishing, but the points apply in many other aspects of life as well

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle – not a post, but a book just out – I had a bout with burnout earlier this century, and it’s not fun!

No, Really, Why Do You Write?” – I write because characters get in my head and they won’t tell me their stories unless I write them. Writing gives me a chance to explore characters, ideas, places, and more. Because I want to give forward in some measure, even as countless authors have given forward to me by contributing their stories to the world. Because I believe stories matter and can make a difference.

When You’re Just Not Ready For Rejection” – Rejection isn’t fun (sarcastic understatement). My two cents is don’t let rejection cancel out acceptance of whatever sort. I had a really good news (no re writing fiction) one day and a short story rejected five days later. I refused to allow the rejection to diminish my pleasure in the good news, but I did have to remind myself of that.

“Taming the Critical Voice” — I get fear better than I’d like. It both is and isn’t comforting to read about other people struggling with fear — but it’s encouraging the read about people working through and beyond it. Plus, I like the idea about giving the critical voice something to do. Now to figure out a good assignment for mine!

Ireland’s Immortals

My latest history book purchase: Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Picked up because I wrote a short story which for <reasons> took place in Dublin.

No Irish fairies / elves / gods / Tuath Dé / Tuatha dé Dannan played a part in the story per se . . . and yet it all came about because of them.

And this is a new world, one in which I expect to write many more stories. An excellent reason to do some more research. What met my eyes when I started it? This book. I haven’t read it cover to cover (yet), but what I have read touches on fantastically weird days, times, and possibilities.

Many authors before me have drawn on Irish myths for inspiration. I hope to go in my own direction as I write (at least at first) of a world much like ours but dealing with the results of Irish gods (and their equivalents in other regions, I must add–for they’re far from alone) meddling in human affairs which they consider only fair since humans have meddled in theirs . . .

The vital importance of laundry

While visiting a historic fort in the middle of Texas (or somewhere in the middle, it’s a big state!), I of course perused the site’s book selection. (As an aside, these are almost always worth checking into because they’ll feature books that can be difficult to find on purpose and thus almost have to be stumbled over by accident.) And what did I find?

Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876. Jennifer J. Lawrence. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016.

Usually main and/or point-of-view characters come into mind (through various ways, some are really sneaky about this) and then I go off and do research to ensure I’ve got details about times and places and cultures done as right as I am able (on the understanding that I will get things wrong, hard though I try to avoid it).

In this case, I already had a crew of main and/or pov characters for the Twisting short story sequences. No more were needed. Except . . . the instant the cover caught my eye, I realized that there had to be another main and/or pov character — a military laundress. I haven’t reached the point where she’ll appear on the scene (she’s in San Antonio right now, and the key characters gathering for the expedition are in New Orelans, preparing to leave and head west) — but I already know which story she’ll show up in first and the pov of that character would have a hard time without her!

That’s the thing about research. Sometimes it follows stories, sometimes it leads, and sometimes it goes wherever the heck it wants.

Other Hats

I’m off wearing different hats this weekend. Therefore, in lieu of a post about books or a list of links, here are a few photos of sites which I’ll discuss later this year. If you’re so-moved, feel free to guess at the where of them (note: this is not a requirement!). Or just sit back, and visit here again to see when the sites show up.

Hill surrounded by ridges (part of a caldera)
Bushes in the foreground and rocky hills containing caves in the background
a vista of sea with San Diego in the distance

Numbers Games

How many national or national historic parks does the US have? How many state, local, or private historical sites? What about other countries? And how many millions of historic sites are known only to a few (sometimes very deliberately to keep them safe from despoilment).

A lot of questions, not necessarily easy to answer. Perhaps of more import — how many has any given individual visited?

I can’t count the number I’ve visited in my life. I didn’t keep track until recently. But in the past couple of years, I’ve been more proactive about noting and tracking those places I’ve visited — and identifying others I want to someday. Having a good digital camera built into my smart phone helps, but it’s not the only reason.

Indeed, part of this interest in historical parts arises because a few years ago, I had a dream which contained the germs of a large, long, continent-wide speculative fiction tale. I didn’t appreciate just how ambitious my characters were at the time–I’m starting to figure this out, but too late! I’m caught and need to write to know how everything ends (I know some elements in the middle, but the ending is still pretty mysterious).

In service to that dream-born tale, I visited a number of historical parks and sites. I lived close enough to trace a route close to that my characters took in their version of our world.

I plan to publish the first stories in that long sequence in June. In advance, however, I’m going to retrace some of my steps here on this blog by posting shots and sharing some memories/experiences of visiting assorted sites. Enjoy vicariously–and perhaps identify some places to visit yourself!

“It Happened Here”

A decade or so ago, I recall hearing historian David Blight give a talk during which he recounted an anecdote about a New-York Historical Society exhibit. The market poster–plastered around the city, including in subway stations–had “It Happened Here” in big letters. People wondering what happened had to get up close to find out: slavery.

Slavery in the United States is often (not always!) presented in terms of the Civil War — and as being practiced in the South with the North being free territory. Sad but true, this wasn’t always the case. One of the many history books in my possession is a companion book to the New-York Historical Society exhibit: Slavery in New York.

It’s a comparatively short book — vertically-speaking, not length-wise for it runs just over 400 pages and contains an introduction plus several chapter essays along with a number of illustrations. In point-of-fact, it doesn’t have as many illustrations as other exhibition books I’ve seen (there may have been a second, separate and more visual book for sale, I don’t know as I picked up my copy at a used book sale).

I picked it to write about today because the jacket cover includes the image from a daguerreotype taken circa 1850 of Caesar, supposedly the last enslaved person in New York to be manumitted. In the last 24-48 hours, I’ve read several articles about the Connecticut woman who is filing suit against Harvard for two other daguerreotypes of enslaved peoples from whom she traces her descent.

It’s important, in my mind, to remember the extent to which peoples enslaved others–in this country and without. The amount of time it took for number to recognize the wrongness and act upon it. The delays built in to manumission. The extent to which property rights trumped human rights.

We’ve got the materials for stories right at hand, all around us — fiction or non-fiction?

Russian Folk Belief, by Linda J. Ivanits

This is a fascinating exploration of Russian ideas about the supernatural and the intersection with Christianity. First published in 1989, it’s been reissued in the mid 2010s. I picked up a copy when I realized I was writing a story set in eastern Russia in the 1830s (aka western Poland)–and the pov character would encounter a rusalka. There are a lot of different ideas about what rusalka are, and the Dvorak opera was not at all suited to the story the character in my head wanted told. The book offered alternatives — many of them. Indeed, I learned of several other kinds of female water spirits, both kind and unkind. I shared the story with a Russian-born co-worker. She told me later that I’d included types of Russian spirits she hadn’t heard of! (She also said my story was quite Russian, except for the ending.)

So if you’re interested in different types of spirits, consider picking up this book and learning about not only rusalki, domovoi, and leshii, but also vodianoi and vodianikha, or the beregini.