The woes of historical fiction… Nanowrimo Day 6

Ok so after fairing pretty well for the first week of nanwrimo, I hit a wall today.  A pretty big one.

It’s the I-don’t-think-I-know-enough-about-antebellum-Boston-or-abolitionist-societies-or-daily-1854-life wall.  I’ve researched like crazy online, haven’t found enough info, or I’ve found too much.  I’ve ordered and received a bunch of great historical books that I have been sorting through.  I just never feel like I have enough (or the right) information.

The problem is, I don’t know my city.  I don’t know its 1854 self.  And, it’s incredibly hard to try and find the right resources to figure it all out.

How have I worked around it so far?  Well, I have focused on writing scenes that largely revolve around interactions between characters and their relationships.  I’ve avoided the scenes I know I want or need to write — scenes related to the politics of the day, court room scenes, abolitionist scenes, fugitive slave plots, etc.  –All because I feel like I don’t have enough facts or enough vocabulary to credibly write them.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt that I battled through….  There are some historical errors that I will “fix in post”.  But in the interest of just keeping the writing going, that’s what I did — I kept going and made it up!  Please pardon the erroneous info 🙂

********McKendrick Saga Excerpt -Nanwrimo Day 6 *************

Jared walked at a brisk pace down Belknap Street.  His meeting wasn’t really a secret one, as he’d told Jo.  It was more a meeting of an exclusive type nature.  One had to be invited in order to attend – a much coveted invitation.  One that Jared could hardly believe that he had garnered himself.  He was sure his friendship with Frank had and something to do with it.  That and the fact that he was top of the class in Professor Swift’s Constitutional Law class at Harvard.

He pulled the slip of paper from his pocket and examined it again.  The address was on the north side of Beacon Hill, which was not a good part of town.

“Mount Whoredom,” Jared said to no one in particular.  His mind finished the rest of Reverend Talbot’s weekly diatribe against the seedier elements of Boston:  drunkards, harlots, spendthrifts, outcasts!  Beelzebub himself holds court there!  Jared had been here on a number of occasions with his friends, more than one he’d like to forget.  It was difficult to believe that all his work to get into Professor Swift’s good graces, to secure an invitation to one of the most exclusive abolitionists’ circles in all of New England, had led to this.

Looking at his pocket watch, he determined to pick up his walking pace.  He would need to hurry if he was going to make it on time.  Or make it in one piece.

The sun was just setting as he stepped up to the door and knocked three times.  A light appeared in the window next tot he door, someone carrying a candle, even though some light still lingered in the sky.  The door croaked an inch to let whomever it was inspect him.  Despite the glow of a candle emanating from within, it was quite difficult for Jared to make out the visage through the crack.  He pulled a card from his breast pocket and offered it, passing it through the gap.

“I am Mr. Jared McKendrick. Professor Benjamin Swift is expecting me.”  He said, politely.

The card disappeared into the crack, and the door promptly closed after a gruff, “wait here.”

Jared looked around uncomfortably.  The last vestiges of light were fading fast, and shadows extended and grew in every nook and cranny of the street around him.  He surveyed the neighborhood more closely, now that he had nothing to do but wait. The lamplighter walked down the street, extending his flame to the street lamps as he went.  Gradually the soft glow added to the mixture of natural and artificial light that made twilight hour seem otherworldly.  A boat swayed peaceful at the mooring in the dock, a gentle lapping sound beating rhythmically in Jared’s ears.  Somewhere a whippoorwill called his mournful evening song, an odd sound to hear in this part of the city Jared thought.  In the distance he could hear the din of some crowd beginning to unwind at a nearby tavern, and a violin sang out a merry tune.

Jared had just about decided that he must have the wrong address when the door opened once again, this time with Professor Swift there to receive him.

“Ah, there you are, Jared my young man.  Welcome to our humble meeting place.”  Swift flung the door wide and extended an arm, welcoming Jared across the threshold.  Jared smiled, relieved that he did, indeed, have the correct address.

“Thank you sir,” Jared said respectfully, following Professor Swift down the darkened hall.  He could hear animated voices coming from a room somewhere to their right, and saw light peeking out from a under a close door.  Swift noticed the direction of his gaze and said, “Oh don’t worry about that.  Lots of meeting are held here, and that one isn’t for us.  At least not this evening.”

Swift led Jared up a narrow stair case into a spacious loft.

“Here we are Jared.”  He said upon entering the room.

The scrape of chairs against wood floors filled the room as four large men all stood in unison.  Two he recognized, his friends Frank Sanborn and Robert Ellison from school, but two that he didn’t recognize at all.  One of the men had skin the darkest ebony that Jared had ever seen, but he supposed the light made him seem even darker.  It was hard to judge his age, though by his manner of movement, he seemed a young man much like himself..  The other gentleman was quite short and round, with a full white beard and balding head.

“Please allow me to introduce Mr. William Shannon,” he gestured to the elderly man with the white beard, “ and his companion a Mr. Cal Quick.”  Professor Swift indicated the young black man belonged to the final name.

“This is Mr. Jared McKendrick, one of the finest law students Harvard has yet seen.”

Jared felt a swell of pride at the complement, but also felt quite uncomfortable receiving the praise in front of his friends Frank and Robert, his peers at Harvard.

All the men shook hands and made each other acquaintances.

“Shall we get down to business then?” Swift said at last.

All the men assented and took up various places at the table and chairs provided for their comfort.

“As you know, the Fugitive Slave Act is anathema to everything we hold dear.  But as Bostonians, we have never upheld that law in the forty years since it was first enacted.  I’m proud to say that any slave, free or escaped, has always been welcomed in our fair city, and seen safely to  place of liberty – whether that be here or in our neighbor Canada.”

All four heads nodded their assent.  Swift continued, “and – we can all agree that damn Daniel Webster has betrayed us all with his traitorous role in strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act, and in helping to pass the Kansas-Nebraska act.  If President Polk has his way, any negro arriving in – or living in – Boston is fair game for the bounty hunters.  It seems cowing to the slave power is worth more to him than the liberty of a free man.”

The men were becoming more vocal with their assents and gesture of disapproval.  Jared considered all he knew about the Fugitive Slave Act.  It had originally been passed in 18XX, as a means of pacifying the slave states who believed that the federal government was marching irrevocably down the path to emancipation.  The southern states insisted on protections for their “property” – easily the biggest asset of the entire country.  The United States of America held over four million persons in perpetuity – fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons — as commodities to be bought, sold, traded, as their white masters saw fit.  It was as disgusting a travesty as Jared could imagine, and an ongoing stain on the nation’s character.  Bostonians had fought fiercely in the Revolutionary war.  They had started it for heaven’s sake.  And their troops included their negro compatriots that fought just as fiercely, which just as much courage – and to what end?  Every man, irrespective of the color of his skin, longed for liberty and deliverance from tyranny.  But what had their reward been?  Liberty for their white friends.  Citizenship for their white friends. A voice in governing those consenting to be governed.  What did the negros get?  A pair of iron bracelets, or a one way ticket to Liberia.

But the citizens of Boston would not be told what to do.  The descendants of tea-partiers and wild-eyed patriots had never countenanced being told what to do, not by king and not by the president — not unless they wanted to.

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2 thoughts on “The woes of historical fiction… Nanowrimo Day 6

  1. Your fears are unfounded–it’s great! I love the details and the attitude.

    I totally hear you, however, on the sensation that you don’t know enough or that you haven’t got out the scene or level of detail that you want. Last evening, I needed to do some head-scratching to figure out a way to navigate my story. There are two brothers who have a sailboat, but who don’t know how to sail, and they are being taught by Henry Hudson (they’ve all been drawn into a different world). Because I’m writing this book, at least in part, with my own boys in mind, I wanted to write in some more technical details about sailing that I think they would enjoy.

    But then it occurred to me, When did the style of rigging of the boys’ sailboat come into existence? Was it after 1611, when Henry Hudson disappeared? And if so, would Henry know how to use it? Like you, I ran to a bunch of books (I found my answer, btw), but I spent longer doing it than I did writing. And in the end, a little dodging of specifics not only made the writing easier, but will also probably make the reading easier. Remember that you are only half of the equation, and the reader is the other. 🙂

    Keep it coming!

    • I loved hearing about your challenges trying to write about sailing. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one having this problem! :). I took your advice tonight and just wrote, even though I didn’t feel ready to. Thanks for all the great encouragement! 🙂

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