Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trying to make it all real

Historical accuracy is a tough thing to keep your eyes open about. When I first began writing Woman of Ill Fame, my intention was to make it absolutely true (while the characters were fictional)… so, for instance, I was going to situate Nora’s brothel at the same address that I would be able to locate one on a map of the time, any saloon she frequented would be an actual one from 1849, etc., etc.

However, right away (first page!) I ran into a sticky mess: the name of the ship Nora comes to San Francisco on. I knew I wanted Nora to arrive on November 11—a little bit of number superstition on my part—so I went to the UC Berkeley library microfilm room to look at the Alta California newspaper. That’s the actual newspaper that the Gold Rushers read—pretty astonishing that somehow copies existed long enough to be photographed and stowed on microfilm. The Alta California ran lists of the ships coming into harbor on any given day. And to my dismay, none of the November 11 ships had evocative names. I even loosened my superstition enough to look a few days after and before the 11th… nothing good. I always thought ships had very cool names!

So I decided to break my own self-imposed historical accuracy rule and just completely made up the name of the ship, The Lady’s Peril. And what a relief! This instantly freed me up to invent addresses and names of liveries and such. The historical background of the novel is still truthful: things like the Christmas Eve fire, the details surrounding contraception and prostitution…but I felt free to devise small details.

And then came… the final editing phase.

For a writer, few things are as scary as realizing the pages in front of you are your last chance to fix any errors. I was frantically googling and using my dictionary to determine whether things like isinglass windows, the penile appellation John Thomas, and Panama hats were in existence in 1849. And then, too, I was trying to go through garment history to see whether women wore bell sleeves at that point, because I really liked the consonant sound of them –and boy, if you try to google anything about clothing online, you get hundreds of hits for Renaissance Festival costumes and it’s hard to navigate around that stuff to get to solid historical clothing history…

And then you come up on bigger issues.

Here’s my little frustrated note to myself at the time:

Major sticking point. Shit. All along, I’ve had Nora on the ship called The Lady’s Peril, but also had her crossing the isthmus of Panama, canoeing the Chagres River… I did not think it through to realize that if she got off the ship, the ship couldn’t continue… so it would be a different ship that brought her the rest of the way. I got confused between the ships that go round Cape Horn and the ships that make the Panama cutoff.

Shit. So, now I have to restructure all the references to her ship and to the other prostitute on board… or should I make her a Cape Horn person as well and cut all the stuff about the canoe trip?

Damn. Exactly NOT what I need when I’m trying to finish my edits a mere 14 hours before I have to go to the airport for a two-week trip to Paris I haven’t even packed for yet.

Well, I got to Paris and I think/hope I caught all the glaring mistakes. Note to self: next time, write a novel set in the modern day!


Linda C. McCabe said...


I understand where you're coming from because I'm agonizing over similar details.

I was going to have my heroine eat some cassoulet when she was in Toulouse because it is a regional specialty, but I happened to do a Google search and found out that it was created during the Hundred Year's War which is a few centuries past my time period.

So she's eating bean stew instead.

I thought of using sunflowers since I've seen them in bloom during the Tour de France when they are near the Pyrenees during July.

Except, those flowers were brought over to Europe after Columbus. D'oh! And at first I was only concerned with whether or not the symbolic meaning of sunflowers would contradict the underlying meaning of the scene in which they were to appear.

Who cares what their symbolism is? I can't use them at all.

But, you know, writing in the modern day would come with its own pitfalls. Technology changes so rapidly that it might seem quaint roughly five years after its published, or you might have to keep changing things while you are writing.

I mean, if you read a story where someone had harassing phone calls you'd wonder why they just didn't use call screening or call blocking, when those technologies weren't available fifteen years ago.

I hope your pregnancy is going well.


Anonymous said...

Right: and researching medieval stuff is a thousand times harder than just 150 years ago! But that's another post...

Sounds like you're going great guns with your book; that's great.

The pregnancy's going wonderfully; she is a lively one and we can't wait to see her!