The novel I’m writing takes place over the course three centuries. Two of the centuries are easy for me to set scenes in–I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in 2017 and I was a girl in the mid-20th century so was eye witness to a time when one newspaper could become the talk of dinner tables all over the country, as could a TV show. There were only three channels and whatever you’d watched last night, there was a one in three chance that that’s what someone else had watched, too.
But I wasn’t alive in 1892 when my protagonist was born, and no one else I know was alive either. Sure there’s Google for finding out who was US President (Benjamin Harrison), what was the population count of New York City (1.5M), what did a dollar buy (a dozen eggs, half gallon of milk, a pound of bacon and a man’s fine felt hat), –but what was the grit of daily life back then? What did it smell like? Sound like? What colors were people wearing and what was the mattress you slept on made out of?
Of course, novelists before me have risen admirably to this challenge. Lynn Cullen set Mrs. Poe in 1845 and did a wealth of research to set into motion “a young dandy wearing jeweled reings over his gloves” and a “well dressed Temperance lady handing out tracts.” The protagonist in Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is a Victorian woman who comes alive on the page in part because she deals adroitly with artifacts of the era, such as corset stays , Godey’s Lady’s Book and lobelia drops.
Jack Finney’s Time and Again gives a remarkably vivid account of what it was like to live in 1882 New York City; it even includes photos. It is said that Finney researched his novel for ten years. He searched for nineteenth-century photos at flea markets (this was before internet) and worked them into the narrative. There’s a grainy black and white shot of The Dakota apartment building and one of ice skaters on Central Pond. Both photos are supposedly taken by the narrator who shifts back and forth between 1882 and “the present” which is 1970—history to today’s reader, as he’s a Mad Men era ad agency art director whose work brings him into contact with paste-up girls, retouchers and bicycle messengers. Still, the novel remains one of the best, most captivating narratives bringing a former era to life.
To research what it was like for my sixteen year old character to wake up to 1908, I’m reading books written during the era by the usual suspects (Wharton, James, Woolf) and also obscure authors such as writer of Reveries of a Bachelor in which the narrator, “takes up a coal with the tongs, and setting the end of my cigar against it, puff—”
With great pleasure, I’m dipping in and out of a new guide to the era Unmentionable in which Therese Oneill draws back the veil on what it was like to be a Victorian lady living without tampons, text messaging or even crotches in underwear. (No wonder saucy, high-kicking Can Can girls drew so much attention.)
But the most valuable sources of info to me are primary sources: unpublished journals, diaries, letters and calendars, some from my mother’s basement, others shared by a former town historian who has kindly steered me to memoirists to whom the twentieth century was new. Today, I’m reading a teenaged girl’s descriptions of playing Clock Golf (a lawn game, all the rage in 1915), cross-stitching card table covers to give as Christmas gifts and watching suffrage parades. She herself is on the fence about suffrage and notes that “There are a lot more ‘anti-s’ than suffragists at my school.” Her school is all girls. That young women of the era could have been against themselves getting the right to vote is inconceivable to this woman writing a century later–and serves to remind why research is important even if what you are writing is fiction.