Digging Deep into History

Edith, north of Boston in 1888

No, not really in 1888, but it feels like it these days. Keeping with this month’s Research theme, I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to. I’ve finished the manuscript of Breaking the Silence, the first in my Carriagetown Mysteries series. Here’s a blurb:

Quaker midwife Rose Carroll hears secrets and keeps confidences as she attends births of the rich and poor alike in 1888 Amesbury. When the town’s carriage industry is threatened by the work of an arsonist and a carriage maker’s adult son is stabbed to death, Rose is drawn into solving the mystery. Things get dicey after the same man’s mistress is also murdered, leaving her one-week old baby without a mother. While struggling with being less than the perfect Friend, Rose draws on her strengths as a problem solver to bring two murderers to justice.

For now I’ve checked and researched and tied off all those [CHECK THIS] comments I leave for myself while I crank out the first draft, and have sent the book off to five experts: three with historical expertise and two midwives/doulas. So what were some of the things I checked?

Words: Did they say “firebug” at that time? Yes. Was the word “brat” in use? Yes. What about “depression?” No – it would be melancholia, or a depressive state. “Purse” for a lady’s handbag? No. “Start from scratch” and “go for a spin:”  Yes.

Daily life: Did rich people have gas cooking stoves? No. Did women wear makeup? No. Did they bake cookies? Yes, sugar cookies and ginger snaps. Did they have electric CoalStovelights? The town probably did, a modest house like Rose’s probably not. Telephones? Again, rich people might, other homes probably not. Coal stove or fireplace? Coal stove. Most of the wood in this part of Massachusetts had been cut down for building. Quill pen or fountain pen? Fountain pens were new. Infant formula – it existed but wasn’t a good nutritional replacement for breast milk. What time did bars close? Any time the owner wanted to. School on Saturdays? Likely a half day. How much did shoes cost? Three to four dollars.

Medical/midwifery details: Did doctors know about germ theory? Apparently. How did midwives listen to the fetal heartbeat? With a Pinard horn. Was the nearby hospital built? pinard hornyes, six years earlier.

I taught prepared childbirth classes and worked as a doula many years ago, so I have knowledge of the normal process of pregnancy and birth, which hasn’t changed in, well, since prehistory, one imagines.

Police procedure: Did they have an alarm system? Yes. Did they use some kind of police  barrier (in lieu of yellow plastic tape)? Probably not. Would they have typed up a handwritten police report? Unlikely. Did they use fingerprints or blood type as evidence? It was fascinating to read that Mark Twain proposed the use of fingerprints in a novel some years before the procedure was  shown to be scientifically valid (and of course this went into the book!). No to blood typing.

Transportation: In Amesbury, there was a horse-drawn trolley through town that also crossed the bridge to the shipping town of Newburyport (and yes, the Esses-Merrimack Bridge was built by then). The electric trolley didn’t come in for Buggyfour more years. Rose also acquires one of the new “safety bicycles” with both wheels of even size.

But carriage terminology! Buggies, gigs, shays, phaetons, carriages; two wheels and four wheels; one person or more than one; covered or not; and so much more. Luckily I can walk right up to a couple of real carriages from the 1880s in my town and get a feel for how beautiful they were.

Quaker stuff: I’m a long-time Friend, and I attend the same Meeting John Greenleaf Whittier did, so I already knew quite a bit about the practice and beliefs of Quakers. DeskWhittier is a secondary character in the book, though, sort of a mentor to Rose, so I had a lovely time touring his home three blocks away and finding out the details of his study and his life, and I’ve been reading his biography. I learned how he’d escape out the back door if he didn’t feel like seeing one of his many admirers and I saw his silver-tipped cane.

All the Quakers in the story speak using “thee” and “thy” and use Friends’ terminology for the days of the week and months of the year: Sunday is First Day, Monday is Second Day; January is First Month, and so on. Did Quaker women only wear gray? No, they also wore muted shades of green, red, blue, but with simple styling to their dress.

I’m sure I’ve gotten a few things wrong, or missed details I could have included. My expert readers will help me out in that department, and I’ll keep checking things on my own until the book finally goes out.

I’ve had such a good time poking around in microfilm of newspapers of the time, local histories, the internet, and in person. This series isn’t even under contract (yet), but I’m determined it will be. I want to keep writing historical mysteries until I’m history, myself.

[Late addition:] I have also been reading other mysteries written in the same era to see deadlierthanthepenhow other authors handle the historical details. Kathy Lynn Emerson‘s Diana Spaulding series (from which Kathy was generous enough to share her research bibliography with me!), Anna Loan-Wilsey‘s Hattie Darvish mysteries, Christine Trent’s Lady of Ashes mysteries, Ann Parker’s Silver Rush mysteries, Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight mysteries (which feature a midwife-sleuth), and more. All very helpful!

Readers: Do you read historicals? Have a favorite era? What kind of wrong detail would make you put a book down? What would you give a pass to?

18 Thoughts

  1. As a former academic, I try to get details right, as you obviously are doing–even though we know that most of our readers wouldn’t know if we were making things up. And the details matter, because they make the past come alive (unless you swamp the poor reader with the wealth of details you’ve collected and can’t bear to waste). I once heard someone at a writers conference say that the writer has a contract with the reader, because there is an element of trust that the writer creates.

    The most annoying anachronism I’ve found? A writer (who shall remain nameless) described a late 18th century desk where a secret drawer was found, with a cache of documents belonging to the original purchaser–including a photograph. Uh, no–commercial photography wasn’t invented until around 1840.

    But having said that–if the rest of the book is strong enough, I’ll allow a few “oops” and keep reading.

    1. Good catch, Sheila. Language is so important, too. My son caught me writing that my Quaker was trying to “center” in silent Meeting. They probably wouldn’t have described it that way. Also a good catch.

  2. Fascinating stuff. Can’t wait to read the book!

    My favorite era is World War II–probably from listening to all those Big Band records growing up. I even have Glenn Miller’s String of Pearls as the ringtone on my phone! I have a short story set in WWII half-written, and would love to write a mystery set in that time period someday. Maybe if I ever figure out how to write two series at the same time…

      1. I’m not on Facebook yet. I know I should be-I keep putting it off.

        As for a second series–I have to learn to put everything else on hold to get more writing time! And not clean my house.

  3. Love the it blog, Edith! It’s wonderful how you broke down your research to show what it takes to write historical fiction and how difficult it can be. Using your example of “ladies handbag” versus “purse”. Women did carry “purses” and “pocket books” but not as we would think of them today. “Purses” were what we would consider a “change purse” for coins and maybe a handkerchief and “Pocket books” were wallets. It’s amazing how a little turn of phrasing can alter the entire image we are trying to convey! Can’t wait to read Breaking the Silence!

  4. I never would have thought of that amount of detail, especially the language.

    It would have to be a pretty big detail for me to notice it, but I do enjoy historical fiction. I just don’t read enough of it. I particularly enjoy stories set in America, time doesn’t really matter to me.

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