It Depends. That’s it—my most used answer to just about everything, including researching historical fiction. A National Parks historian in St. Louis said something that’s stuck with me for years: “Historians are bound by what did happen. Novelists are bound by what could happen.” Oh, yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about those words and the topic of researching because one of my current projects is digging into specific details for an in-progress historical romance. (I do broad-stroke research ahead of time, but when I’m writing, I try not to be tempted into stopping to research details.
So I put in [chk amateur artist supplies for travelers in 1888] and keep on with the story. After the draft is done, I go back and track down all [ ]s.) In this research binge, I’ve encountered some statements from bloggers that are like fingernails on the blackboard to me. (No, I’m not using blogs as a research source. But when they pop up on searches, I’m nosy enough to want to read them. Which explains why I don’t research while I’m writing the story – I’d never get back to the writing.) ~In their absoluteness, these statements are the antithesis of it depends.
~Things were different “in history.” When “in history”? Where “in history”? Who “in history”? Under what circumstances “in history”? “History” is not a monolith
~Everyone was the same in the past. Time, geography, class, occupation, life-circumstances, family and more combine to create a specific set of expectations of behavior. To say “women in the Victorian era never X, Y or Z’d” is not useful (I’m being so tactful!) “Victorian,” as in the reign of Queen Victoria, covers 63 1/2 years. A comparable period is from the summer of 1948 to today. It defies reason and human nature that there could be a unified, good-for-half-a-century-all-over-the-world way of acting for half of humanity.
Despite all that logic, when I started researching my first historical romance, WIDOW WOMAN, I almost fell for this one. I wondered if the character of Rachel Terhune, whose voice I heard so clearly and whose spirit I felt so strongly, was too modern for the 1880s in Wyoming Territory. I delved into journals and other first-person accounts of women in the western United States in the last quarter of the 19th century. And soon had a huge wake-up call, followed by the proverbial light bulb moment.
The wakeup call was reading the words of a range of women in that period and that region…and realizing that the women then were as diverse as the women now. Some accepted the mores of their time and place, some rebelled against them, some challenged them because that was their best (or only) path to where they needed to get. One of the most revealing documents was a privately published account (that I read thanks to terrific Interlibrary Loan librarians) of a woman traveling west that included both her journal and letters home. Invariably, she removed a good portion of the sass and bite from the journal when she recounted the same event in a letter. Haven’t we all done that—buffing out the rough edges on our reactions before presenting it to anyone. So, even when we read primary sources such as letters or transcripts of oral histories, we’re getting the buffed version. Heck, even journals are often run through an individual’s I-don’t-want-to-look-bad-to-myself censor.
And then there was the light bulb moment. If everyone acted the same – if everyone colored within the lines of societal expectations – we’d still be acting that way. Because there would be no source of change. Change comes from someone coloring outside the lines, then others following, then more, and more, until it hits a tipping point and the lines of societal expectations move to include the new behavior. So it is far, far more likely that there are rebels (from necessity or conviction) in any slice of the past than that there are not. Plus, the rebels are more interesting to read about than the conformists, as well as more likely to spark conflict, which is a core element of fiction. Sure, there are likely to be consequences for our characters for coloring outside the lines. The answers to what those consequences are, and how they affect our characters boil down to my favorite: It depends.
~Everyone talked the same, and they all talked like textbooks. Even the cleaned-up letters and slightly less cleaned-up journals contradict this. But there’s an even more basic argument against this statement: We don’t all speak the same now (and certainly not like textbooks), so why would we think people did so in the past? I think a kind of myopia comes into play here. When we look at our own lives, we see the details with great clarity. As we look back to a past that we have not participated in, the individual blades of grass blur and blend into a bed of green, so we generalize and say people walked on beds of green, rather than on an accumulation of blades of grass.
~Everyone dressed the same. Reading those first-person accounts knocked the teeth out of this one. For starters, some of the women talked about how their ways of dressing changed during the journey West for practical reasons, and a few tsk’d at other women who adopted changes at a faster rate. And that’s on top of what I’ve learned from museum curators, starting as a docent in a North Carolina house built in 1774: The clothing items that have endured from the past tend to be special events clothes, not everyday wear. So when we look at historic collections or old photographs, we see Easter Parade finery, not going-to-the-grocery-store outfits.
I think of this as the Split Skirt issue. In WIDOW WOMAN, Rachel was running a ranch. I had read accounts of women doing comparable work. But nobody mentioned how they dressed to do it. I had great difficulty imagining Rachel roping cattle from a sidesaddle, so she rode astride. Yet the citations I was finding for split skirts were for the late 1890s, while Rachel was operating in the early 1880s. Then I wandered into a small museum in Wyoming, and there was a canvas split skirt on display with the handwritten label marked 1884. Okay, this wasn’t just a small museum, it was teeny-tiny. And informal. And I wondered, could the label be off by a decade?
Ahh, but then I came across a woman’s written memories of growing up in the early-to-mid-1880s near where WIDOW WOMAN took place, and she wrote about her family going to parties. The females would ride astride in their workday split skirts until they were close to the house hosting the party, then switch to party dresses (bunching up the skirts around the astride saddle) for the grand arrival. It was a head-thunking moment. Of course. Those late-1890s citations were the societal expectation lines catching up with what women had been doing on their own for some time. And women working on ranches were certainly likely to adopt—if not develop—clothing that suited their needs ahead of most. So Rachel wore split skirts to work, but a “proper” dress for company or when she was in town.
~Everyone X, Y or Z’d the same. I once saw a blog post blasting a book because the author had a trip take X amount of time in the Gold Rush era in California, when the blogger had calculated for that distance based on a report of a trip in England the same year and came up with Y. Are you all screaming It Depends! with me? Terrain, conveyance, equipment, load, weather, wherewithal to make the trip faster/easier…and probably another dozen other factors pile into that hopper of It Depends. Generalizations are the enemy, specificity is the goal of research. So, if you come across folks making categorical statements about “everyone in history” raise that banner of It Depends!