Research

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Historical fiction as a time machine - Vanderbilt mansion, Fifth Avenue, 1910
    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • Avoid this location issue in your novel

    Avoid this location issue in your novel

    In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.

    One example is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.

    It’s a hugely ambitious novel and can sweep the reader up for days on end. However, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)

    Rice really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.

    But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.

    Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.

     

    A tale of three cities

    This second published author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

    The European capital was strangely lacking in detail compared to the other two. It felt like this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since street lights exist, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

    It felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.

    Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar settings in the same novel, it’s best to avoid this location issue. Therefore, you need to ensure your locations are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means research.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book.

    But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

    Research, research, research

    In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something about the daily life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

    I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there.

    Of course, in a lot of novels, location is less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar settings, try not to leave your reader feeling that one is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.

  • Researching your novel’s locations online


    Researching your novel’s locations online

    Researching your novel’s locations online

    This blog covers researching your novel’s distant locations online with tools like Google Earth, Street View, Estate Agents, travel and genealogical sites. The chances are you already use some of these resources for location research, but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

    So, let’s imagine you live in the US, but you’re writing a novel set in Scotland. You’d love to fly over and check out your locations, but you can’t afford it or have too many other commitments.

    It goes without saying that a contemporary location is better researched using, say, Google Street View. But if you’re writing an historical novel, you will still find historic districts, see cobblestone streets, old stonework, and many other useful details. Meanwhile, Google Earth will tell you a lot about topography.

     

    Using Estate Agents/Realtors

    And of course, estate agent Sites (realtors), will let you see both the exterior and interior photos of buildings. If you’re writing an historical, many of these buildings will be too new, and others will be former townhouses and terraced houses redeveloped into a set of apartments. It’s worth checking out any details on this given by the estate agent site.

    If you’re looking for a fancy historic building in the Highlands, you should find something fairly easily. I’m not talking about castles, though you never know what’s up for sale.

    Check out any details regarding when the building was constructed or renovated. Check the exterior and interior photos – some buildings have a lot of old features still intact. If there’s a property prospectus, download it, and keep it on file.

    Check out the area on Google Street View. ‘Google drive’ around the area. Then have a look at the area from above using Google Maps – you can get an idea of where the area is located in relation to sea, lochs, mountains, etc.

    Of course, you could always take a building from one area, and, using it as a model for your location, move it to another, and add in your own fictional details.

    All of this applies to other locations in other countries. Have a novel partly set in Paris? Check out property sites, Google Street View and Google Maps there too.

    Don’t forget YouTube and photo sites

    This then brings me to YouTube and photo sites, where there is a wealth of visual information linked to different areas.

    If you want to set part of your story onboard a train running on Scotland’s West Highland Line (considered to be one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world), go over to YouTube and check out any videos posted by tourists and others.

    You can put together your own inspiration or location board – on Pinterest, for example.

    And, remember, Pinterest is a huge visual search engine, so if you’re looking for images for inspiration or research, that’s the best place to start.

    Genealogical records – a hidden resource

    If your novel is historical, it might be worth checking out the likes of census and parish records to get an idea of the people who lived in an area at a particular time, their occupations, how many people lived in the building, their relationships to one another, etc. This kind of information usually comes up during genealogical searches. And if you are interested in genealogy, Scotland’s People is the best site to check out. You can also check out old post office directories.

    Additionally, you might find local history groups or local historians you can contact – you might even find them on Twitter or Facebook.

    Check out local writers

    It’s also worth checking out writers and books from your location, to get an idea of how people speak. Some writing groups have websites, and YouTube can provide you with recorded videos of readings and poetry slams, etc.

    Then there’s local newspapers, and local radio, etc.

    In 2020, it’s easier than ever to research your novel’s locations online. Just be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of endlessly fascinating facts and places. Researching the background of a novel can be too addictive. Never lose sight of the end goal – a well-researched book with a strong sense of place.

    There’s another reason to research your novel’s locations online if you can’t visit in person. Especially if you include locations you know well alongside places you hardly know at all. Check out this post