it is easier for a work set in the 20th Century because we have
so much archived in every shape. Records, paper, tape, film, photographs,
almost anyone of note has been interviewed, however briefly, and
if you want to know how say, Young Winston talked or carried himself,
the clues are in his own writings and comments made about him
in the newspapers of the time, even Punch magazine. But Winston
is an easy target and no challenge at all. Finding facts and details
on his wife Clemmie as a young woman would be a challenge worthy
of a historical novelist, for less is known, her opinions reserved.
However we do have her letters. Mary Soames had unique access
to the personal correspondence between Winston and Clementine
and these entitled Speaking for Themselves
was published by the Churchill Centre in New York in 1999. How
she tolerated a man with such an ego was then never remarked upon
in Tatler or The Times Diary.
We do not have, as now, the benefit of a gushing Hello
puff piece or a tabloid bust up on the lines of Winstons
cigars in bed drove me over the edge! This is for
latter day historical research for the likes of historical novels
about the Beckams and Rooneys for the next generation of
writers. With Clemmie we do know she spent most of her fifty-six
years of marriage apart from her husband. This resulted in nearly
2000 letters exchanged between them from 1908 to 1964. We are
fortunate that she also knew how to describe herself:
I am stupid and clumsy, naturally quite self-reliant and self-contained
was wistful too, missing her husband often Time
flies stealing love away and leaving only friendship which is
very peaceful but not stimulating or warming.
For the historical novelist looking to portray an important and
lasting marriage that spanned a turbulent period in British history,
these letters, are a rich vein in understanding both the characters
and the way decisions were made in those times.
The nineteenth century is still a rich vein to explore. Good records,
photographs for at least half a century and good sketches prior
to that, receipts, unpaid bills, servants hired and fired, gossip
noted, all buried in books and magazines and museums. In researching
for my own book Diamonds
The Rush of 1872 I read many books around that period.
America was in a post civil war economy undergoing rapid modernisation
as the railways colonised huge spaces and drew cities together
as never before. It is not just the research that matters here,
I needed, as a writer, to become someone who instinctively understood,
indeed thought with a 19th century values and attitudes, particularly
American attitudes and conventions.
I like the little details. On family life in the Prairies by Leroy
Judson Daniels in his book Tales
of an old horse trader he writes:
My Dad was a Southern Gentleman.
He would go in and sit on his chair, anybody who happened to be
in his chair would get right out, no other chair would do for
him. At four oclock in the morning hed give a war
whoop and everybody had to get up, but he stayed in bed until
breakfast was ready
Note that four oclock and shudder.
Leroy in his oral history chronicles something that
barely gets a mention when we romance history. We record the arrival
of the car and men like Ford or Chrysler or Hudson who developed
and mass-produced them, but we never talk about the horses they
displaced. It is offensive to some to talk of a holocaust when
talking about horses, but men like Leroy Daniels were paid to
despatch old and young horses to the slaughterhouses of Chicago
by the million. If not to Chicago, then hundreds of thousands
of horses and mules to the war front in Europe to die on the battlefields
in the First World War. He made a fortune shipping them there
and another bringing them back, but when they came home, the car
had taken a grip and no one wanted them, so with Leroys
help they were turned into dog food or stew for humans for shipment
back to a starving Europe. Has it any relevance to the tale I
was telling, perhaps not, but it was a reminder to me that sentimentality
had no place in the 19th Century or the early 20th. Progress took
no prisoners. When writing about characters that lived and breathed
then, it is good to remember that.
The joy of research is finding books or obscure accounts of real
people, perhaps not the heroes and people of note, but the ones
who do their bidding. Sometimes you uncover unpleasantries by
todays standards. There is a very poignant Canadian play
Ernestine Shuswap Gets her Trout by Tomson Highway; It
is about the Aboriginal concept of land ownership
and in this case, the rights of the Kamloops Indian Band. The
British contempt for native Indians in Canada is illustrated in
this play set in 1910. How a series of legislations about property
rights of white immigrants, slowly and deliberately impoverished
a proud people living off the land, until they become beggars
and were dehumanised in the eyes of the settlers. Fences are built,
cows removed from fields, intermarriage is declared illegal. Restricted
from even fishing for salmon in their own river or
eating berries on the hills around them, they developed health
problems they had never experienced before. History is also about
remembering and uncovering unpleasant facts and bringing them
alive to a new generation.
Research can also take you to places you hadnt expected
to go to and the writer can easily be side-tracked by a peripheral
character whose history seems so much more detailed than the ones
he or she may be writing about.
Such a case arose for me when writing Diamonds.
One of the principal characters was a prominent banker in San
Francisco called William Ralston. He plays a key part in the story
but is not the focus of the book. Yet the more I read about him,
the more I began to regret that the book wasnt actually
about him. Such a lot is recorded, whereas my own main protagonists
were slim pickings historically speaking. Real, but they neglected
to write their memoirs, leaving others, who plainly did not like
them, to record their impressions of them. Ralston, having achieved
an international reputation as a banker well recorded by George
Lyman, who wrote Ralstons
Ring in 1937,Scribner - detailing his life and somewhat
dubious business practices.
The discipline, of course, is to stick to the plan, not be distracted,
but it is an awful temptation.
My own story takes the simple tale of how two men John Slack and
Philip Arnold, found the first diamonds in the USA and parleyed
it into a fortune. Ralston, Chief Cashier at the Bank of California
is the linchpin of that story. In 1872 by George Lymans
account, and records of the Bank of California, Ralston is San
Francisco. Nothing happens unless he says so. He controlled the
flow of gold and silver from Comstock via his ring
and pretty much strangled all other attempts of enterprises that
he did not invest in. You could imagine him as ruthless, but no
account I found painted him anything other than a good guy, caring,
aiming to boost California at every opportunity. He didnt
cheat on his wife, or beat her, and was easily the most respected
man (and hated by those whom he didnt support) in the city.
Even his former business partner Asbury Harpending in his autobiography
(James H Barry Press 1913) who was eventually ruined by him did
not have a bad word to say.
But even so, he could not be the focus of the book. Yet the more
one looked, the more remarkable he seemed. Born in Plymouth, Ohio
to a rich ferry owner, at a time when the Ohio River was the only
road north and south. However the ferry sank and the family fortune
with it. Young William Ralston became a clerk on the Mississippi
floating palace The Constitution (The Palaces were like Las Vegas
Casinos today but steam powered ferries).
Each day Ralston mixed with gamblers, pretty girls, bounders and
pirates. The New Orleans of the 1840s was pretty exciting
and it is assumed that Ralston got a good training in all aspects
of finance and vice. He certainly liked the good life.
When the gold rush news reached them in 1849 Ralston wanted to
go, but didnt have the ready cash. In George Lymans
book he quotes Ralston saying I want to go like a white
man, he declared, And I think it will take about $300.
He was 23, bronzed, brave, smiling, courteous, eager eyed, ready
to put into practice what the river had taught him.
Yet he did not reach the gold fields in the rush. At Panama he
ran into old ferryboat friends Garrison and Feltz. They realised
that there was money to be made ferrying men and their goods across
the Isthmus (Between Panama and the Pacific) and it was here,
back in the ferry business that Ralston made his first fortune
as a ferry captain.
By the time my heroes met him in San Francisco in 1872 the former
clerk from Ohio was the Donald Trump of his day and not only ran
the Bank of California and owned the largest hotel in town and
building another, still larger, he also lived like Napoleon in
a 180 bedroom mansion, the only one lit by gas in the USA. In
the 18th Century and earlier, naked ambition, greed, and life
itself just had to be lived to the full, hang the consequences.
Young men talked of adventure, making fortunes, or dying grandly
to impress the ladies. At least thats what Bernard Cornwells
Sharpe would understand. A soldier on the make in a time of endless
opportunities. Cornwells popularity is a combination of
good writing, amusing stories, an indelible character who takes
great risks and possesses ruthless charm, all set against a background
of meticulous historical research.
A man who did not grasp opportunity was a plain fool. Risks were
taken daily and generally it was assumed another opportunity would
Ralston, in my book, is an older version of himself. The man made
good, the gambler suppressed but not entirely. Attracted to each
and every scheme that comes along with the instincts of a gambler,
striving to stay on top of the heap as new challengers emerge.
When history recalls him however, if at all, they remember only
that after a run on the bank he drowned himself in the bay. History
belongs to the victors it is often said, but the historical novel
belongs to the revisionists. The dead cannot sue for libel or
seek redress but the writer has a duty to represent them truthfully
, as the facts present themselves. The ethics of setting real
characters in impossible situations with incredible characters
is perhaps another debate, but the critical and popular success
of Susanne Clarkes novel would indicate that combining the
real with fantasy will work, as long as the backdrop feel authentic.
Jan Morris writes in Heavens Command An Imperial
Progress on the rise and fall of the Victorian Empire. Though
not writing historical fiction, her research, as others who help
us decode the past, can form basic tools for authenticity. Letters
reveal so much about the times people lived in. (How delightfully
convenient they have found 1000 letters written by Lord Nelson
in his bicentennial year). Writing the past as fiction means that
one has to understand how they think and talk. Morriss work
on the Victorian Age enables understanding.
Morris quotes Ruskin: If we can get men, for little pay, to
cast themselves against cannon mouths for the life of England,
we may find men who will plough and sow for her who will
bring up their children to love her.
Disraeli wrote The English have a choice, a comfortable
England or a great country, an imperial country, a country were
your sons, when they rise, rise to paramount positions and obtain
through their actions the esteem of their countrymen but command
the respect of the world. His words that could have
been spoken by any Roman Emperor.
If Disreali, a Tory Prime Minister and novelist (Sybil and Tancred)
was colourful, which he certainly was, what was it that made him
so attractive to voters? His politicies or his personality? Can
one mine his books and speeches to find the essence of the man?
Fortunately we have Dizzys own words to help us portray
him: A man can know nothing of mankind without knowing
something of himself. Self-knowledge is the property of that man
whose passions have their full play, but who ponders their results.
The same for Shaw, Wells, Jules Verne. There are photographs,
transcripts, letters, memoirs and their own words but without
also bathing oneself in the social context of their times, it
is impossible to recreate them with any authenticy. Bernard Shaw
the playwright, according to Mrs Patrick Campbell, the noted actress,
with whom he was obsessed, was cantankerous, witty, stiff, awkward,
shy, and yet dextrous in his writing. In the play by Jerome Kilty
Dear Liar he brings their copious correspondence
to each other alive and their stormy, often petulant demands.
Shaw and Campbell are of their times and peculiar to it, but their
sentiments and feelings are universal.
The fact is that the past is full of inconsistencies, moral turpitude,
ineptness, stupidity, fallibility, sexual perversion and the odd
moments of luck and opportunity. Sometimes you get to thinking
that these people had no concept that they would be found out
and be judged. Luckily for us there was John Galsworthy to record
it for us in his novel The Forsyth Saga which documented Victorian
England and perhaps froze it for all time in aspic, as indeed
A le Recherche Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust did for France.
For myself, the most useful histories are not written about Prime
Ministers or about Captains of Industry, but by those who were
there, the ordinary men and women recording each day, good or
bad, often without judgement.
Bayard Taylor wrote his Eldorado
about his experiences in the Californian Gold Rush in 1849.
It is a nice contrast with Mark Twains account Roughing
It ten years later. Horace Greeley of the New
York Tribune commissioned Taylor to go west and record
the events as they unfolded. The result is the not so accurate
but fascinating record of the birth of a new California during
the first gold rush. Hardship, greed, generosity, death and the
law (or lack of it) described with much colour.
Through Taylor we discover not just the trials and tribulations
of the gold prospectors but the astonishing profiteering of all
those who would supply food, lodging, drink, tools and land to
support the endless army of hopefuls that arrived. The history
of the gold rush is exciting, simply because it is about risk
taking, thousands winning the lottery overnight and even more
thousands losing it all at a game of chance. Where prospectors
went, whores, bankers and storekeepers followed.
Ships came in from all over the world. Taylor records that from
China (and yes China was there from the beginning) one ship arrived
filled with men armed with 250 prefabricated houses. Later historians
would recall the resentment between the white incomers and the
Chinese and the tensions that grew out if it. By 1851, as the
easy money ran out, despair set in for those who hadnt made
it. 100,000 men and not a few women came in 1849, most stayed
to become Californians for lack of any resources to go back. Curiously,
although rising crime is often associated with the tales of the
Gold Rush, the first recorded hold up didnt occur until
Legends were quick to grow. The honest miner
by Joseph Henry Jackson recalls many of the stories of each new
town as the gold fever took hold. Songs began to circulate that
had a realist take on the situation:
Hangtown Galls are plumb and rosy
Hair in ringlets, might cozy,
Painted cheeks and jossy bonnets
Touch em and they sing like hornets
Hangtown gals are lovely creatures
Think theyll marry the Mormon preachers
Heads thrown back to show their features
Ha, Ha, Ha Hangtown gals.
But the reality was often quite different. Women with skills could
command a price. Jackson cites a real advertisement from a Miners
newspaper of the period.
A Husband Wanted
By a lady who can wash, cook, scour, sew, milk, spin, weave, hoe,
(cant plow), cut wood, make fires, feed the pigs, raise
chickens, rock the cradle, saw a plank, drive nails. She is neither
handsome nor a fright, yet an old man need not apply, nor any
who have not a little more education than she has, and a great
deal more gold, for there must be $20,000 settled on her before
she will bind herself to perform all the above.
Address answers to Dorothy Scraggs with real name to PO Marysville
One wonders what kind of response she got and it does reveal quite
clearly what a wife was supposed to perform to keep her man in
Jackson reveals that contrary to general images of the gold rush,
the average age of the 49ers was between 18 and 35.
It was tough up there. Not many men actually got rich or at least
held onto their fortunes, despite the fact that some 600 million
dollars was extracted by hand in the first few years.
An early death was common, there were no hospitals, and the doctors
there were, were charlatans and the dentists often killers leaving
their victims to bleed to death. Men would pay any price for a
cure or to be rid of pain and it was rich pickings for the medical
In Mountains and Molehills by
Frank Marriot, he recalls a funeral of a preacher which went from
pious to chaos as diggers discovered gold dust in the grave and
the body was abandoned in the mad scramble to get their hands
on the gold.
There was glamour in the mud too. Anyone looking for a subject
to write on in the context of the gold rush should look to the
In Nevada City in 1859, a Mrs Hayne put on Camille
to great success one night. In the next ten nights she also staged
full productions of Romeo and Juliet,
Lucretia Borgia, The Lady of Lyons, The Love Chase, The Hunchback,
and Camille for another three performances.
Miners were great supporters of the arts. Other nights
theyd come to watch snake tamers, French Ballet, even Oscar
Wilde reading prose. Civilisation followed the prospectors as
small towns grew.
A favourite story took place in Silver City in 1863. It was told
to me by a real estate agent keen to sell a particular "Victorian
styleproperty. Its about a successful silver miner
who imported a grand prefabricated metal Victorian Villa. Its
still there, stamped corrugated tin, the wallpapered walls, and
a stoop all around the whole house with its beautifully
crafted fitting. It was erected and the rich prospector moved
in. That very night, at a game of poker, he lost the house and
his fortune. The new owner decided to dig a hole for an outhouse
the next day and promptly fell into a mineshaft to his death.
The house was clearly cursed and remains there, to this day 140
years on, currently for sale to one lucky owner.
In bringing the past back to life it is these little details,
the very human elements of extraordinary lives that fascinates
and enables the writer to animate the characters they conjure
up from the dead.
Historical Fiction is popular; one only has to look at the best
seller list any month.
As Professor Allan Bloom writes in his seminal work The
Closing of the American Mind, all
the world was mad in the past, men always thought they were right
and that led to wars, persecution, slavery, xenophobia, racism
and chauvinism. The point of (writing history) is not to correct
the mistakes and really be right but rather not think you are
right at all. Not to take the moral stance is important. Todays
set of standards and morals do not fit comfortably with the mores
of even 20 years ago, never mind 100, 200 years
American history, as well as British is filled with unimaginable
cruelties, with often a complete disregard for the environment,
the welfare of mankind or the creatures that inhabit it. We suffer
guilt because we displaced the native humans in America, Canada,
Australia and more but we cannot undo it or even make amends.
Everything was in the name of progress. Only now we realise that
Columbus and Hobart or Hudson or Captain Vancouver discovered
nothing that wasnt already there. Elsewhere was filled with
indigenous people who had a history of their own, oral history,
rituals and rules that we totally ignored. History is about battles,
political and military. Even as I write this one is being fought
now over the last of Americas forest where President Bush
has decreed open to exploitation. An indelible act of aggression
against the environment that will have devastating consequences
if not defended. This is how the tectonic plates of human history
History as taught is often about heroes, royalty, pioneers, but
perhaps only now we realise that there is another history, untold,
We are nations living in constant denial of history, distorting
events because we no longer find them palatable. What stories
will come out of Iraq? What will emerge from the ruins of Zimbabwe?
Who will they blame? the tyrant or us for not coming to their
Is history important?
Right now there are tensions between China and Japan over events
that happened seventy years ago or more. Massacres that will not
be forgotten. We in Europe have recently celebrated our 60th VE
day when we found peace again after five years of war. We still
recall the fallen from the First World War and the reverberations
from that mindless war echo through everything we are and do.
History is a part of us.
The 20th Century was one of constant displacement and people flowed
like seismic waves across the world fleeing one oppression after
another. America was filled in the previous two centuries with
people fleeing starvation or religious persecution. This century
will also find upheavals as we learn to live or die by the consequences
of decisions taken in the last.
We can take lessons from history too. In New York of the 1880s
almost seventy percent of the population were immigrants, often
Irish or German, living in unimaginable horrors. The census figures
complied for New York by Jacob A Ruis gives in 1889 for example
349,233 immigrants landed at Castle Garden, New York. 43,000 of
them Irish, 75,000 German, 44,000 Italian, all heading to live
in the tenements, poor, often illiterate, often sick, vulnerable
to all kinds of exploitation where the statistical death rate
was 25 in every thousand.
The result of this immigrant explosion and the crime that came
with it was all recorded in the amazing book by Herbert Asbury
The Gangs of New York. Written in 1927 it shows
a transforming society undergoing huge change, ruled from top
to bottom by various levels of the elite. For the top of the heap
you can read The Age of Innocence by Edith
Wharton in 1920, both stratas of this society have been filmed
with a real respect for authenticity by Martin Scorcese. That
these titles still resonate is testimony to the importance of
historical fiction and records to make sense of our lives.
I started out by considering how it was we create the people of
the past with any sense of authenticy, yet end up talking about
the future. The society you encounter through research has rules;
one must observe the beliefs and structures of that society, no
matter how alien they may seem to the present. The duty of the
historical novelist is to time-travel, discard the values of the
present and become one with the characters you meet, be the sword
in Sharpes arm, be the locomotive in Stephensons yard, be
the target for German bombers, be the executioner and the heart,
once stabbed, that stops beating.
© Sam North June '05
Presented at the Great Writing Conference Portsmouth June 11th
Editor of Hackwriters.com
Part One here