Be sure to check out my review for Grist here.
Take it away, Linda!
Researching for a historical novel can be a challenging business. Who among us has not read a historical fiction, come across some inaccuracy, and gone crowing through the house, “Look, she said they ate Corn Flakes and Corn Flakes haven’t been invented yet!” But when the shoe is on the other foot, then what? Now other people will be scanning my work for errors. I’ve adapted new standards in accuracy since I’ve learned what it is to be the person trying to compose in another time period. For me, the most import goal is to create characters that interact with the time, that express the time, and that personify the time. Of course we want to be as accurate as possible in the objects and styles that surround the characters but I think the worst historical fiction is the one that furnishes the period properly, dresses characters in period costume, but then peoples it with modern men and women. Cultural and intellectual history is by far the most important aspect of the temporal setting.
I have both an advantage and a disadvantage here. I have some academic background in history. This means I know what is most important, but it also means I know how much this entails and how difficult it is to achieve in its totality. Particularly in the lives of women it is difficult to assess levels of freedom and social censure in rural areas and in the lower classes. It can be difficult to know how people felt about the complications and combinations that naturally occurred in life. Modern western women in take for granted that women should have equal opportunities to choose their lives—equal to men, that is. It can often be a stretch for us here in the wealthy, post-industrial West to embrace the fact that this assumption is only true for us here and now and that in most places in the world this is not true today and it was not even true here until about the 1970s or 80s. It is important to grasp these cultural truths as wholes not as isolated facts. Culture influences everything a person expects and everything their neighbours expect. It drive what people have, do, want, and fear.
The three the most important historical sources for me in writing Grist were a diary of a Pictou County miller named James Barry, an 18/19th century millers’ guide, and a social history book called Sojourning Sisters. James Barry was clever, eccentric man who bought an old mill, refurbished it, and operated it through the last half of the nineteenth century as his main source of income. He was also a musician and composer and a bookbinder. He also appeared to loan money on occasion. He kept a daily diary—a practise picked up by his daughter upon his death. While much of the diary records weather and comments about his health, he will also go off on occasional riffs about religion or politics or, more commonly, the short-comings of his mother-in-law. The causes of the big disagreements in his family life are left unstated. Sometimes he will talk about the mill and milling. I think the character of James Barry might make an interesting study but I was interested in his milling activites, his chores, his prices, his debts, his purchases and profits. A few lines in Grist came from his words. The one I remember vividly is: “he ate like a Mohawk.” This must have been an “expression” and is particularly interesting because the Mi’kmaq are the first nation here. So he is not talking about real people or anyone he has met. This is part of a more generalized racist language. My guess is that this expression was probably widespread and indicates how far the local first nation population was from everyday sensibilities and awareness. “He was a sorry tool for the job,” is another Barry-ism and one of his favorite comments about other men. While Barry was quite the egoist and an eccentric, Ewan’s character does not reflect him. Ewan had his own problems. I did not study Barry deeply enough to know him, nor was I particularly interested in the real man. I wanted to make my own character. But a few turns of phrase from the day can go a long way to making a piece sound authentic. And what I find is that once our ears become attuned to the language we are reading it can be surprisingly easy to come up with “expressions” that sound authentic, even if they are made up.
The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide was written at the end of the 18th century by Oliver Evans and was revised and reprinted in many editions through the 19th century. The edition I used was the eighth edition, originally published in 1834. I had first seen it in the provincial archives in Halifax in the rare book section and I had to wear archivists’ gloves to read it. I’d made a couple of trips to the city to make notes from it when Lee Valley tools (Algrove Publishing) reprinted the book for sale in their stores. Imagine my delight! Really, what are the odds! So I had my own copy—text diagrams and all—right by my keyboard. The drawings at the back of the book were the drawings young Ewan first saw and recognized as the manifestation of mechanical theory. The laws and lists that he takes into himself as kind of a religion in his search for order in a chaotic world are taken directly from this text.
The third resource I would like to mention is, Sojourning Sisters: The Lives and Letters of Jessie and Annie McQueen by Jean Barman (U of T Press, 2003). This is a scholarly work but eminently accessible. It is a great read in its own right. The introduction gave succinct and valuable context. The bulk of the work is built on letters exchanges between two McQueen sisters and their family at home in Sutherland’s River, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. These letters give 19th century language for young women who lived at the same time and in the same locale as Penelope. Language, attitudes, and the ethos of the time rise off these pages. Again, Penelope is in no way drawn from these adventurous young women; what’s the point of writing a novel if you forego the fun of building your own characters?
I looked at lots of other resources and I certainly looked up all sorts of details on the web. What a resource the internet is—we never had that when I went to school! (Clearly, there is less and less excuse for getting details wrong.) But at some point it is important to get going on your characters and your story. Anyone who has researched anything knows you could be at it forever. It can take over and kill the very project it is supposed to be fostering. The more we find, the more questions are uncovered. I think it is important to get a sense of the backdrop then get going. Once you are on your way it can be relatively easy to fill in the facts and details you need as they come up. We enter a new world when we create and what fun to make that world in a time or place removed from our own. This is what makes historical fiction so rewarding to write and to read.
About the Author
Linda Little lives and writes in the north shore village of River John. Originally from the Ottawa Valley mill town of Hawkesbury, she lived in Kingston and St. John’s before moving to Nova Scotia in 1987.
Linda has two award-winning novels, Strong Hollow and Scotch River. She has published short stories in many reviews and anthologies, including The Antigonish Review, Descant, Matrix, The Journey Prize Anthology, and The Penguin Book of Short Stories by Canadian Women.
In addition to writing, Linda teaches at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and is also involved with River John’s annual literary festival, Read by the Sea.
For more information visit Linda Little’s website.
I'm pleased to host a giveaway for one paperback copy of Grist. Giveaway details are as follows:
- Open to residents of Canada and the U.S. only;
- To enter simply leave a comment on this post including your email address;
- One entry per person;
- The giveaway will run until midnight (EST) April 25, 2014.