By Sarah A. Chrisman
A Book Is A Time Machine
A book is the best and cheapest time machine you will ever buy. As a writer of books about the Victorian era I often think of myself as a tour guide to another time. When showing my fellow travellers the delights of a foreign time, I always remember the importance of not only knowing the terrain through which we’re travelling, but of being respectful of its people as well. Something I was once told about understanding modern cultures is just as applicable to understanding cultures defined by time rather than mere distance: on my first day of French class at university the professor opened her very first lecture by telling us, “French people do not say things in French because they mean them in English and just don’t know any better. French people say things in French because they mean them in French!” So, too, with people of different eras. They were not modern people acting certain ways and doing certain things because they didn’t know any better: they were members of a vibrant culture of time. If you are going to bring strangers into their world to walk amongst them, you must first understand them.
Choose A Destination
Be very clear with yourself about the time and place that form your setting. The Victorian era was very long and covered an immense diversity of places. Tombstone, Arizona, of the 1880’s was very different from London of the same time, and Paris of 1900 was a radically different city from Paris of 1848. A specific choice of where and when you’re going is the first step towards getting there.
Research, Research, Research!
I draft all my manuscripts by hand – a number of interesting studies have shown that the creative process works differently when writing by hand than when typing. Next to my desk is a wicker basket full of notebooks, and each one is devoted to a different book in my series. In the back of each of these is a reading list I’ve compiled for myself of materials I want to either read or revisit before I start writing that particular story. For example, I just finished a novel about a reporter in the American Pacific Northwest in 1889. Looking at the reading list I assigned myself before I started writing his story, I see the memoirs of a 19th-century journalist; four Victorian-era style guides and two period articles on the subject of how to write for the press; five detective memoirs from the time; two 19th-century novels about journalists; a journalist’s trade magazine; and a number of books, magazines and newspaper articles related to my hero’s personality and the historic events through which he’s living – and this is all just background! As I write a book, I’m constantly doing still more research and delving deeper into my characters’ world and their motivations.
How do I put together these reading lists? By constantly reading everything I can about the Victorian era and compulsively taking notes on them. When I see a quote, fact or witticism that seems like it might fit into a particular story, I’ll jot it down in the notes I’m compiling for that story. When I come across things that don’t fit with any planned project but are nonetheless worth remembering, I add them to my latest commonplace book. This may seem like a slow and haphazard way to go about things at first, but once you’ve been at it a while you’ll be amazed at how much information you’ve compiled and how much more you’ve learned than a simple keyword search could have taught you.
Get Your Facts From the Original Sources
Remember what I said about books being time machines and authors being tour guides? Your research is your tour guide training, and it’s best to get that training first hand. In other words, read materials actually written in the Victorian era, not just modern things about the Victorian era. Think about it this way: if you landed a job giving tours of Paris, wouldn’t you rather learn your routes from a native-born Parisian than from someone who’d never been there?
So many written materials of all sorts were produced during the Victorian era there’s really no excuse for not reading some of them. Try to read the same materials your characters would have been reading. If you’re writing about a middle-class American woman, read Godey’s magazine or period issues of Good Housekeeping. If you’re writing humor about late 19th-century London, read the hilarious novel, The Diary of a Nobody. If your hero’s a doctor read The Lancet; for a nurse read the works of Florence Nightingale.
You can buy a wide variety of antique or reprinted books through websites like Abebooks.com and eBay. Digital copies of many hard-to-find works can be downloaded for free by using the Google Books Advanced Search function, and you can then print these out and bind them into a hardcopy format. Don’t forget about period newspapers, too! Many communities operate digital archives of their periodicals, and these can be absolute goldmines for knowing exactly what was really happening at the precise time of your story.
My favorite resources of all are diaries written in the 19th-century. A surprising number of these have been published – I highly recommend Maud: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman. Large archives often contain original diaries from people associated with their institutions; and if you’re very lucky you can sometimes find original diaries for sale from rare book dealers or even on eBay. There is no more intimate connection to an era than reading the hand-written diary of someone who lived through it.
Some Travel Tips
Before I send you along on your journeys, oh fellow tour guides, here are a few tips for your journey:
—Avoid Anachronisms. I don’t need to tell you not to give your Victorian heroine a cell phone. Be aware, though, that it’s just as inappropriate to give her modern opinions and motivations. Unless you are literally writing a time travel story DON’T give it a heroine who reads like she just stepped out of the twenty-first century. Respect the world and culture you’re depicting by learning as much about it as you possibly can, then write characters appropriate to that world.
—Don’t Stereotype. Don’t insert modern characters into historical settings, but don’t fill those settings with flat clichés, either. Remember that you are painting a picture of a diverse community where every individual has a complex personal history. Flesh out those backgrounds for yourself and you can make the world come to life for your readers.
—A Couple Basic Guide Books. Every work of historical fiction has an entire library behind it, but there are a couple types of books that are useful to every writer of the genre. You’ll want a period style guide. My personal favorite is Wolstan Dixey’s The Trade of Authorship from 1889. (Give particular attention to pp. 74-91, “The Trade”.) Familiarizing yourself with writing advice from the time will help you settle into a style of your own that feels natural for the period. Besides this writing guide, you’ll also benefit from a period etiquette guide. I’m a fan of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. This will give you a succinct overview of advice from the time and help you (and your characters) avoid common pitfalls.
Bon Voyage! Your readers are depending on you to bring them to another time and place. Be worthy of their trust by learning as much as you can about their destination and presenting it in a respectful and realistic way. Pleasant journeys and happy trails!
|“Books are the windows through which the mind looks out.” —Anonymous, Zion’s Home Monthly, January 15, 1889. p. 197.|
Written by Sarah A. Chrisman