Bringing History to Life Through Fiction

Bringing History to Life Through Fiction

One hundred and fifty six years ago this July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.

I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure.  I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top.  The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene.  But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.

I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly.  All other characters and events are real history.  This letter might well have been written at the time.

July 3, 1863

My Dearest Sara,

I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed.  I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended.  But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.

Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured.  The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg.  Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated.  Finally, victory, and an important one.

It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes.  There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes.  Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.

I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm.  But don’t worry.  The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain.  Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.

I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields.  The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet.  I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.

The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace.  I rely on my apprentice more.  I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people.  Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains.  I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.

Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days.  I look forward to working with them.

Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera.  Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived.  Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves.  Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only:  “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.”   It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.

On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric.  There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end.  But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle.  Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded.  I doubt this town will ever be the same.

Tomorrow is July 4.  I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.

I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.

Yours ever truly,

Joseph

 While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive.  Also, please note, the gentleman with the camera above is Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, not Joseph Thornhill.

 

The Language of History

The Language of History

Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times.  The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.

The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past.  The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it.    Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception?  A vile and sinful imposture?  Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme?  Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”

When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time.  For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:

“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”

Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.

In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use.  For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport.  However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time.  Interesting, eh?  It actually came into use around 1852.  The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.

The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems.  Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.

Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.

Writers, I welcome your thoughts.

Triangle Fire Transforms the Workplace

Triangle Fire Transforms the Workplace

March 25, 2019, will commemorate the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11.  It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future.  You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh some weeks ago.

When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for.  Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.

But I also researched the time and place of the disaster.  1911, Greenwich Village, New York City.  A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse.  A time of Tammany Hall and corruption.  A time of women’s suppression.  But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.

I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up.  I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half.  I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU)  to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.

The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect.  

For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.

Murder, in particular.

Our Fascination With Jack the Ripper

Our Fascination With Jack the Ripper

Mystery writers and readers have long been beguiled by Jack the Ripper.  Numerous serial killers have upstaged the Ripper since his murders in 1888.

From Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who began murdering in 1913 and killed at least nine before surrendering . . . to Belle Gunness, who slayed more than 40 men by luring them to her farm through lovelorn notices . . . to Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 men from 1978-1991 . . .  to H. H. Holmes, one of the first American serial killers, featured in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The Devil in the White City . . . to Albert DeSalvo, who was, in 2013, finally proven by DNA to be the Boston Strangler.  Thank you, forensic science!

 Still today Jack the Ripper holds us captivated and if one asks us to name infamous serial killers, his name will often be at the top of the list.

When I started researching Jack I told myself the reason was timing.  The characters in an earlier book would land nicely in the Victorian era some twenty years later.  But that was only one reason for my interest in Jack.

In truth, there were several motivations for pursuing him as an interesting subject.

First, the ambience of the time and place in which he killed.  There’s nothing like a foggy, damp, dreary night in Whitechapel, London, to set the stage for murder.

Second, his Modus Operandi.  He did not just kill his victims, all prostitutes apparently.  He butchered them with ritualistic precision, leaving body parts exposed to the night.

Third, Jack did his work so quickly and efficiently, no one chanced upon him during his grisly task, nor bump into him following the murders.  No witnesses.

Fourth, if the letters that the police received were authentic, Jack taunted them with his deeds.  He made a mockery of their ineptitude, which gave the press a field day.

Fifth, Jack the Ripper was never caught.  There were a number of suspects, including the grandson of Queen Victoria.

My other personal fascination with Jack and the time period centered around Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I always wondered why Sherlock never solved the case.

Hence, I did solve the case, with the help of Conan Doyle, and, jumping forward 120 years,  the assistance of modern DNA technology, which zeroes in on Jack’s true identity.

Add a little imagination.  I mean, really, could there have been evidence remaining from one of the Ripper murders?

In Time Lapse, I resolve those questions.  Are my solutions believable?  Read it and let me know.

 

Historical Fact Vs. Fiction

Historical Fact Vs. Fiction

Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War.  I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century.  Scene by scene, chapter by chapter.   Well, I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?

Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible.  What does that mean?  There are many books written about the Civil War.  About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.”   These sources are written today by historians looking back in time.  I wanted to go back there myself.  How?

Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand.  Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past.  In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then.  The originals, if you can imagine!

Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals.  Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones.  If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time.  If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period.  A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)

Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period.  An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott.  Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book.  If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:

My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”

From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.

In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time.  As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period.  I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!)  Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.

Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you.  The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.

There are no shortcuts.  Ideas welcome.

Learning From Our Mistakes . . . Or Not

Learning From Our Mistakes . . . Or Not

When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.

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But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.

For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted.  It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day.  For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle.  https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america

Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them. 

“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted.  You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.

Fast forward to recent times.  On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”

A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Why?  Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits.  One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.

Yikes. What am I missing here?  With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right?  Why must we wait for  a disaster to occur before we decide to act?

There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes

We can do better. We must do better.