This is Jeffrey Ford's first guest blogger post. There will be another later, and he'll be responding to questions in the comments, so chime in.
When I first started writing novels, I never pictured myself working with any themes that would be remotely historical. My first four books were out and out Fantasies and I liked it that way, because although I did not mind scouring the library shelves for big ideas and odd tid bits of information I could throw into the mix of my speculative worlds the thought of doing actual historical research in an attempt to create a convincing fictional facsimile of a time period I had not lived through seemed like an overwhelming amount of work. I could build complete and convincing fantasy realities out of sheer imagination that more or less adhered to their own laws, and that was a blast, but even the freedom of that, or I should say especially the freedom of that had its limitations, and I wanted to try something new. What it was, I wasn’t sure.
After finishing the third novel, The Beyond, in the trilogy that began with The Physiognomy, I had an idea based on a little bit of info I’d read about Emily Dickinson. She’d supposedly been a great recluse and would hide behind screens and in her room when visitors came to see her. In a book I had, it made the claim that Emily’s good friend, Mabel Loomis Todd had only ever seen her in her coffin. The secretive Emily gave me the idea for the novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque – the tale of a painter commissioned to pain the portrait of a woman he is not allowed to see. She sits behind a screen and he questions her and from her answers, which are never about her physical appearance, the painter is to intuit what she looks like and render her portrait.
Initially I saw the book as a fable-like story, set in a faux-Germanic, Hoffmannesque reality with no bearing upon any actual time period. When I pitched the book to my editor at Harper Collins, Jennifer Brehl, she loved the idea, but she asked me to think about setting it in a definite time and place. At first, I was put off by the idea, mainly because it seemed like it would be tough to do. I’d never done any kind of real focused research before. El drago, I thought, my fiction writing is turning into fucking homework. Still, Jennifer’s suggestions had always been on the money in the past, so I gave myself over to it and really gave it some thought. During that time, I had a glimpse one day of the painter character, Piambo, on the street in old, 19th century New York. I only saw him for a few seconds, but the vision returned later that day. It returned more times and remained for longer durations until I began to think of the story set in that time period.
I told Jennifer that I was going to set the book in late, 19th century New York, specifically 1893. Why 1893? I had no idea what made me pick that exact year. So I started doing the research. Now if you’re going to write something that at least pretends to historical accuracy, and I never promise more, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. There are the big events that shape the time. There are famous personages. One must be aware of the economic status of one’s character and what the every day life of a person living in that time period would have been like. Clothing. Scientific inventions. What had or had not been invented yet? My painter lived in Grammercy Park and Grammercy was one of the first places, in the early 1890’s, that was fitted out with electric lightbulbs and door buzzers, but you probably wouldn’t have thought it of the time. Then I had to know a little about Grammercy. The development’s attending park was, at the time, only for residents, and they each had a gold key that unlocked the gates of the park so they could use it at their leisure. Once I’d gotten inside Piambo’s home and studio, I had to figure out what kind of materials he might use, what kind of techniques he might use, what subject matter would interest him beside the money making portraits. In my research about painting I found out that old masters, much older than the age of my painter, would grind their own materials to make paint from. My painter bought it either pre-packaged or in fish bladders. But those ancients, the great masters, knew how to grind the substances for their colors to certain thicknesses which would make the light refract and reflect from them in certain ways at certain angles so that the application of different colors in different fields in a painting would cause the light to refract and reflect in ways where the beams would cross or meet and it would make the painting glow from within. That’s what I call painting. But, alas, I couldn’t use that tidbit to any good end. And that’s the way things went, the need to research new items and practices and ideas and events and personalities of the time burgeoning out in all directions (this was the year of the famous Chicago World’s Fair – the Crystal Palace) and my falling in love with pieces of information that would end up being totally useless to me (completely nude reviews on Broadway).
1893 went from being a year I’d never even thought about to being the most interesting damn year on record. The research brought so much more to the table of this story than I’d ever initially imagined it involving. Just one thing that gave another layer to the story, setting it in this time was for me to become aware of the role of women in society – as it was, as it was depicted in the contemporary art of the time, as it was hoped to become by many woman with their sights on the future. Most women of this time were expected to be seen and not heard, and I love that Mrs. Charbuque circumvents that convention. Here’s a little fact I found that will give perspective as to women’s standing at the time. Women in mental institutions of the day were, each night, administered a warm whiskey douche. Now, I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure this was not a treatment conceived of by a woman. Seems like an awful lot of trouble for one thing, and crazy in a kind of sexually perverted way for another. By the time a couple months was up, I had boat loads of research. I had anecdotes out the wazoo. I had photographs, art books, strange tidbits you couldn’t beat with a stick. The most difficult thing to find was stuff on everyday life in New York in the early 1890’s.
I’d looked high and low for something that would give me some info on the layout of the city then as opposed to now. I had to start writing soon, and I was desperate for this info, not finding it anywhere. Here’s where something happened that every future writer of an historical type novel should know. There is this thing that happens in research that is completely metaphysical. It defies random chance. Do you know the word Kismet? It can only be described as a kind of otherworldly luck. For instance, I was at the end of my rope on finding a good source of info about 1890’s New York. After I suffered for a good long while, my karma must have gotten right, cause I found, sitting on a shelf in a local Barnes & Noble of all places, completely mis-shelved in the wrong section, a copy of Moses King’s Guide to New York, a facsimile edition from 1892. This book offered up every bit of info about the city I could want – where to buy the best coffee, who was in charge of the Department of Health, where all the statues were, what they served at each individual restaurant… I almost crapped em on the spot. No lie. That weekend I went with Lynn and the kids out to the shore and stayed in a rented beach house. Whoever owned the beach house had left only one set of videos for the television – the Ken Burns four volume set on the history of New York. I was rolling in it. Amazing. And that same kind of thing has happened to me numerous times since where strangers will mention weird facts from history to me that I had been researching or that had to do with what I was writing about. Or the one book that has been left out on the library table where you sit down to work is the exact book you would have been looking for had you known it existed. Keep your karma right if you intend to write historical type novels.
The next problem I had was when I started to write the damn book. I had done so much research, had so many cool facts, that, baby, I was determined to use every fucking scintilla of it. Big mistake. The book looked like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. Jennifer looked at the early pages and she told me, “Get rid of this stuff. When you’re writing a novel, it’s the story that counts first.” That there was a real lesson. So I looked around to see if I could find anyone else who was doing similar work (historical) that I could get a clue from. I found the answer in my own home town of speculative fiction. The short story writer Andy Duncan, one of the best damn writers around, had done a number of historical stories and to my mind had a pitch perfect blend of story and historical detail. I noticed the dispersion of details was very fine. At the same time I was reading novels of the time period I was writing about – like Edith Wharton and Henry James, and what I noticed was that I got a sense of place and time more from the style and voice of the writing than I did from any historical detail. I read Wharton’s novel, Summer, and I was there, in that time, but all by the power of her line and her voice.
All of this instruction from Jennifer, Andy, Edith, conspired to help me understand that you can’t forget the story. And you can’t clutter it till it chokes by dragging in useless monuments and architecture and famous personages, etc.
When it came time to start researching The Girl in the Glass, my next novel, I had a few clues as to how to proceed. I went straight for the language. There are these great sites on the internet that explain lingo from the 1930’s. Those were a blast. I had to learn to lay-off the snappy phrases after a while – too much of a good thing. I did manage to get in “coffin varnish” “the blower” “cheaters” etc. And once I got in the groove I made up my own phrases from the time period, like Antony saying of how slick a con was and describing him as “smoother than gin shit.” I think I’m more proud of that confabulation than just about anything else in the book, cause I still crack about it sometimes (I know, calm down, throw some saw dust under myself). Also for the sound of the voice, I read Hammett, Chandler, and though they weren’t from that time period other mysteries like the James M. Cain books or James Crumely’s The Last Good Kiss (if you haven’t, read this freakin book). I also watched a lot of movies from the early 30’s, because that was the date I’d decided on – 1932.
There were quite a few avenues to go down in the research for Girl in the Glass – spiritualism of the time, Long Island and New York, Prohibition, The Gold Coast on LI, butterflies, Coney Island, Side Shows, etc. But this time out I was far more effective in gathering material. It’s still good to simply spend a few weeks, 2 or 3, and immerse yourself in the time period generally, reaching for anything that piques your curiosity. Then when you get down to work, you want to have some direction. It was in the last days of this general searching on Girl in the Glass that I plugged the year, 1932 and perhaps another term into google, and I came up with a site about something called The Mexican Repatriation. Ever hear of it? If you’re like me or most people I’ve spoken to, you have no idea what this was or when it took place. For some reason it struck me as an interesting piece of history because at the time there were murmurings of trouble coming from Arizona and New Mexico about the border (nothing like what it would turn into of late). I read about it, was amazed by it, and then filed it away. The next thing I found mention of right after that was an essay from the site of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, about the prevelance of the KKK on Long Island in the 20’s. I found it rather unnerving to know that 1 out of every 7 natives of Long Island (where I grew up) was involved in the Klan. Following this discovery, I found a site that talked about the history of the Eugenics Record Office; an institution funded by the wealthy elite of the country to cleanse the nation’s bloodline through sterilization, deportation, and scientific discoveries. Once I discovered these three issues, I knew I had to use them in the book. I immediately saw all kinds of correlations to today’s world and they shared a theme of persecution. I had a feeling that these themes would resonate with certain readers.
This is one of the most important aspects of historical research, and it really applies to everyone, not just writers. All you have to do is scratch the surface in history and you’ll be rewarded with information about amazing people and events that you never knew existed. It absolutely changes the way you look at the world. For instance, after getting to know about the Mexican Repatriation of the 30’s I can put what is happening on the border today in some perspective. We never learned this in the schools I went to. We were never taught that many of our grandfathers on LI were part of the KKK. No one mentioned it. The Eugenics Record Office, the precursor and most likely the institute that put the seed of genocide in Hitler’s head through Henry Ford, we never heard a peep about. Shit, Henry Ford was considered a hero of America in our text books. All (this one’s for VanderMeer) BULLSHIT. Our history is so different than the popular line affords – it is more terrifying, more beautiful, more insane and more full of hope than is ever taught in school. All of these things blew me away. The fact that the issues on the border flared up right after the book came out, that Bush’s grandfather was one of the many money brokers behind the ERO, the idea that in times of economic duress this country always seeks out and finds scapegoats to persecute (and believe me, times of economic duress are on the way), all made me feel how alive the past was. When I was researching Mrs. Charbuque I went to New York one day to look at a few places, and because I’d been studying its history, it struck me that the city was like a palimpsest, where one layer covers another and peers through from beneath, still breathing, still full of influence. That’s how I see history now after writing these books.
And the last thing I’ll mention about this research is that you often get a chance to actually speak with people who were there, like I did with my father and uncle for The Girl in the Glass. And they told me about Long Island in the 30’s, about the mansions and the Motor Parkway and Coney Island, bootleggers on the beaches and the Nazis goose stepping in rows out in Yaphank. I think people are the best resource because although memories can fade, it helps somehow to know that there were real people living through these things. You sense first hand them brushing up against the past and see it manifest itself in their laughter and tears and secrets, and in this way you can almost touch it yourself.