What do a picket fence, a work boot, and a petticoat have in common? They can all be used as emergency medical supplies for characters fleeing from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
I’ve always been a big fan of The Borrowers books by Mary Norton. The borrowers are a family (and a species) of people about as tall as pencils. They live in normal people’s homes, “borrow” household items, and transform them. Sheets of blotting paper become carpets, razor blades become chopping knives, cigar boxes become beds, and stamps become wall art.
It isn’t just The Borrowers books, either. I enjoy any author who takes ordinary objects and has his or her characters adapt them to a different purpose—like castaways who use turtle shells for bowls. So I’m excited that I finally have a chance to join the club, even if I only qualify for associate membership.
My current work-in-progress has two girls fleeing from the 1871 Chicago Fire. After they get separated, Julia wants something to wrap her sore wrists and rips a row of lace from her petticoat. So a petticoat becomes a bandage.
But Fannie has bigger problems. A cart runs over her foot, so she needs both a crutch and something to protect the foot from bumps and blows. In my story—as in real life—many people tried to save too much and ended up abandoning their possessions as they ran.* There are many types of debris littering Fannie’s escape route, but finding an actual crutch would be too much of a coincidence for my readers (and for me). It also deprives me of an opportunity to be creative, which is at least half the fun of writing. So here’s my solution: when Fannie passes a fence and spots a loose picket, she wrenches it off and turns it so that the point is down. Now a picket becomes a crutch. She also finds a man’s work boot and stuffs it with cloth, so a boot becomes a splint.
Those ideas don’t put me in the same league as Mary Norton (hence only associate membership), but at least they take some imagination.
And creativity is what feeds my writer’s soul.
- The illustration at the top of this page appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 4, 1871 and shows people fleeing through a cemetery on their way to Lincoln Park. If you look closely, you can see an abandoned desk, a chair, and other household goods in the lower-left-hand corner. The picture is in the public domain because of its age.