Getting the Details Right

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sometimes I feel sorry for authors who write contemporary stories. Unless they generalize current trends (which some do very well), they run the risk that their stories will become as outdated as the technology and fads embraced by the characters. Who knows if Facebook or Twitter—or even cell phones—will still be around in two years?

Since I have been writing historical fiction, I don’t have that problem. People know that the story takes place in the past, and that’s part of the reason they read it. My technology doesn’t have to be up-to-date. In fact, it had better not be if I want to story to ring true.

So historical fiction solves one problem, but it creates another.

For the past week or two, I have been wrestling with fictional closets.

The story takes place in 1871 and has two protagonists, who are 12-year-old cousins. Julia has come to stay with Fannie’s family in Chicago for six months, and the girls share a room and limited storage space. When I wrote the first draft, Julia was upset at the size of the bedroom closet.

Then Roland and I took a short vacation to Savannah, Georgia, and toured a couple of historic houses. And I discovered that none of them had closets.

Instead, they had trunk rooms. Everyday wear may have been kept in dresser drawers in the bedrooms, but most clothes were neatly folded inside trunks. The trunks were stored in a room that was often reached by a door from the hall but not directly from the bedrooms. If a trunk room was attached to a bedroom, it was likely to belong to the parents but not the children.

Change #1 to my manuscript removed the closet from the bedroom and replaced it with a trunk room in the hall. But now I had another problem. When the Great Chicago Fire breaks out, Fannie throws on the dresses that are handy in her bedroom. For reasons I won’t go into here, I want to keep that scene.

Change #2 added back a closet but made it a very tiny space with a few hooks. (The hangers and clothes rods we are used to were mostly unknown at the time.)

But that didn’t seem right, either. Then someone from my critique group suggested a wardrobe (as shown at the top of this page). Unfortunately, wardrobes weren’t a common feature of children’s bedrooms in 1871, even among the well-to-do living in urban areas. I considered that solution but rejected it before making the next round of changes.

Change #3. I eliminated the closet again but added several pegs along one wall in Fannie’s bedroom. That’s where I’m at right now.

When writing historical fiction, authors don’t have to keep up with today’s technology and fads and hope they won’t pass too quickly. But we do have to get the historical details right.

And that isn’t easy.

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