Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Worldbuilding - Building a Fictional, but Historical, World

 The following is a Guest Post by the author of the book I discussed last Tuesday,
Gold Under Ice

I strongly urge you to pay attention to her other novels.  She has mastered the knack of "transporting" you to an "other" world and engaging your emotions with characters whose environment is foreign to modern readers.

The underlying writing craft techniques that produce this are the same for Westerns, Historicals, Romance in another galaxy, or infatuation with demons on the path of reform.  Our ancestors are as "alien" to us as any djinn from outer space.  Read, study, and watch how this is done.

Building a Fictional, but Historical, World
Carol Buchanan, author, 
God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana 

Just like humans, fictional characters need ground to walk on and air to breathe – at least most of them do. So we, their creators, have to build them a world, an environment, to function in. Some writers of contemporary fiction may not need to go far to find the materials for their worlds and provide points of reference for readers. A scene in a Starbuck’s is familiar to most of us.

But writers of science fiction (sci/fi) and historical fiction have to provide knowable points of reference into worlds unknown to modern readers.

In sci/fi, the story takes place sometimes very far in the future. It’s often populated with strange creatures and beings whose very substance differs from what we consider flesh and blood. Their means of transport may involve light and molecular transference, and sometimes they have evolved to a stage that does not require feet or other appendages.

In historical fiction, obviously, the story occurs in the past, sometimes very far in the past. (One definition of historical fiction requires a story to be set at least 50 years before publication.)

Unlike sci/fi characters, which writers can make up entirely, it seems, historical characters inhabit worlds that once existed.

It’s a historical writer’s job to reconstruct that world as accurately as possible. The people who populated these past worlds had far different clothing, food, social habits, and transport than we do. And they had different attitudes, too, which were part of their times. 

In writing historical fiction set during the Montana gold rush of 1862-1867, I recreate as best I can the world people lived in: their clothing, the books they read, their politics. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, so I depend a great deal on research. Both of my novels, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana (winner of the 2009 Spur award for Best First Novel) and its sequel Gold Under Ice, are full of information few potential readers could know.

This information is necessary if modern readers are to understand who the Vigilantes were and why they hanged 24 men. It’s difficult for readers to suspend their modern understanding of the term “Vigilante” in order to understand what happened during this period of Montana history and why.

I help readers enter into the gold rush world by defining the terms used by gold placer miners, detailing the legal situation in court scenes as my protagonist-lawyer works with the laws in place then, and letting the characters speak out on Civil War politics. To weave local law and national politics seamlessly into the narratives, I created the protagonist, Dan Stark, to be a lawyer from New York who is ignorant of gold mining (in God’s Thunderbolt) and gold trading (in Gold Under Ice). The reader learns as Dan learns. As he comes to understand the legal situation in Alder Gulch (God’s Thunderbolt), so does the reader.

For example, as he helps to bury a murdered friend, he grapples with his frustration in the following paragraph that also explains the situation in a territory without law, where ruffians ruled and murder was tolerated.

“If. If’s loomed in an aggregate as heavy as the stone he carried, staggering a bit, over rocks and pits. If they had a police force. If they had a court capable of dealing with matters more important than boundary lines and claim jumpers and petty theft. If the miners court had a judge who knew anything at all about the law, instead of the popularly elected president of the mining district, a medical man by training and a gold seeker by inclination. If they had a jail in which to incarcerate criminals that a police force caught and arrested. If they had police. If they had more than three punishments: whipping, banishment, hanging. If they had any body of law to go by at all, if Congress had allocated the Constitution to the Territory when they formed it. If the miners court had a formal, twelve-man jury instead of the jury of the whole, made up of anyone – drunk or sober – who happened by when the vote was taken for guilt or innocence. If. If. And if. “ 

Besides establishing the lack of law in Alder Gulch, I researched how the Civil War (1861 – 1865) divided the nation and defined not only politics, but vocabulary. Even the word “free,” as in a “free people” or “free man” primarily meant “not slave.”

Yet even this divide had its nuances within Union and Confederate sympathies. Some fought for the Confederacy though they hated slavery because they considered that the Union had invaded the South and the Federal government was prosecuting an illegal war. Some fought for the Union because they believed that the South had seceded illegally from the Union and they could give a damn about slavery.

To ignore these attitudes or judge them would have been to oversimplify the politics on the one hand and come dangerously close to writing a polemic on the other.

All in all, I researched God’s Thunderbolt for five years before I began writing it, and did more research during the two years I spent in the writing. For the most part, I could piggyback Gold Under Ice onto that research because the two novels occur in close sequence. 

For Gold Under Ice, I had to recreate New York City in the summer of 1864 and the relationship between the tides of war and the fluctuating values of gold futures and the Federal government’s paper money, the “greenback.” Because I had lived in New York for a couple of years, I remember how its sticky summers feel, and I don’t imagine that riding a crowded omnibus was much less comfortable than riding a subway at rush hour.

For how a lawyer acts and thinks in a courtroom and outside, I had the invaluable assistance of a former prosecuting attorney in Montana, a sweet man who said with a beatific smile, “Nasty is no problem. I can do nasty when I have to.” He also told me that frozen corpses do stink.

Oddly enough, some of the research that readers and reviewers have commended me for took no research at all. My rescue horse, Gus, teaches me about equines. Thanks to him, I know what barns smell like, and how different feeds change the color of horse poop. For nearly a year in my childhood my parents and I lived in a boxcar with no running water or indoor plumbing or electricity. I’ve primed a pump and worried about bee stings on my heinie in a privy. I’ve done homework by a kerosene lamp while my mother and father shared the newspaper.

Here are two sentences from God’s Thunderbolt: “Dotty, for once without much to say, set to drying the dishes. Martha poured the dirty wash water into the slop pail, and set the dishpan with clean water on the stove to heat.” Just like Mother did.

All I had to do to portray domestic life was remember that year in the boxcar.
In the next novels, the world I build will be founded as it has been, partly on research and partly on personal experience. After all, don’t people advise us to “write what we know?”

So now please go look up Carol Buchanan and watch what she does.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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