|Photo Credits, from left to right: Sharon Wildwind, Cindy Kirkpatrick, Ashley Wilson|
THIS POST, AS THE TITLE SAYS, IS PART TWO OF SHARON WILDWIND'S excellent article on writing nearly historical fiction. If you haven't read it yet, you can read Part One here.
NEARLY HISTORICAL FICTION, PART TWO
If the story is set at least 50 years in the past, it is an historical novel. ~ The Historical Writers of America
If the story is set less than 50 years in the past, but still feels like it’s taking place a long time ago, it’s a nearly historical novel. ~ Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer
In 1975, I was going to graduate school by distance learning. Two evenings a week, I drove 53 miles (83 kilometers) along Interstate 40, through the Great Smoky Mountains, sharing the road with high-balling truck drivers. I went to class, then drove home, often arriving after midnight.
Bored out of my skull on those drives, I spent car time developing a romantic-mystery. The premise was an American nurse seeking adventure, who takes a job in a northern Alberta nursing station. She knows nothing about, and is totally unprepared, for nursing station work, northern Alberta weather, and living in a tiny hamlet. (Never mind about why I chose Alberta. It’s complicated.)
So, I’m living in the U. S. south and writing about northern Alberta, about which I know nothing. Nada. Zip. The big mistake I made was that while I bought an Alberta map, it wasn’t a topographical map. Regular maps show distance — how to get from here to there. Topographical maps show if there might be up and down obstacles, like canyons or mountain ranges, between here and there.
The Caribou Mountains form a large part of northern Alberta geography. I’d seen photos of Banff, so I blissfully transferred a Rocky Mountain landscape to the north, and set my story in a Banff-like setting in the Caribou Mountains. (Those of you familiar with northern Alberta can stop laughing now.) The Caribou Mountains are a flat plateau, rising steeply in an impossible-to-traverse escarpment for some 1,864 feet (568 meters), and then levelling out into a flat, boggy muskeg plateau. There are no mountain peaks there, and certainly no gold mines, both of which were essential to the story I wrote.
Fast-forward forty-two years.
|Sharon Wildwind in High Level, Alberta.|
I bought a topographical map, and went over it with an oil and gas man who had actually walked the Caribou Mountain escarpment, and didn’t care to do it ever again. I moved my hamlet, Whiskeyjack, off the plateau to the base of the escarpment, ditched the mountain scenery, substituted logging and oil and gas exploration for a gold mine, and started again.
When we’re writing a near historical novel — something that happened less than 50 years ago — lots of readers will remember the year, the month, and sometimes the exact day in our stories. If we make a mistake, they will let us know. We owe it to our readers to have at least a nodding acquaintance with things like geography and weather. That doesn’t mean we have to be constrained by real events such as weather or real history, but if we choose to ignore or tweak something major, we owe it to our readers to tell them we are doing that. Our introduction might say something like this, “Those of you familiar with sawmills in High Level, Alberta, know that Leo Arsenault didn’t build the first mill there until the late summer of 1964. This story required that the mill be in operation several months earlier, so that’s what I did.”
How to ground nearly historical writing in a semblance of the real world:
1). Live there. The best near historical research is to live in the place, at or near the time. I wrote more about this in Part One of this blog.
2). Talk to people who lived there. My engineering buddy gave me details I would never have invented.
3). Read journals and diaries of people who lived there. The following books gave me a sense of the time and place about which I wanted to write.
• Joy Duncan (ed). Red Serge Wives. Centennial Book Committee. 1974.
• Ruth Lee-Knight. When the Second Man was a Woman. Imagine Publishing. 2004 – a story of Mounties’ wives in remote settlements.
• Gordon Reid’s set of first person accounts of Northern Alberta. Lower Peace Publishing Company, 1963 – 1978.
• Dr. Brad Stelfox, and others. Logging the Fairview Area. Publisher and date unknown. – While Fairview is some distance from my setting, one chapter had a general view of logging in Northern Alberta.
4). Download a calendar. There are any numbers of sites, which will produce a calendar for dates specified.
5). Download a sunrise and sunset chart. Here's one to use: http://www.sunrisesunset.com. Fill in the place name and the dates you want, and it makes a chart for you.) I once had two characters enjoying a lovely October sunset, north of Fort Vermilion, at 8:00 pm. At that latitude, in October, the sun sets at 6:30.
6). Look at a topographical map. Here's another good site: Canadian Topographic Maps: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/geography/topographic-information/maps/9767. Note: This site is a little hard to navigate. Instead of carrying maps in stock, they now have a printing arrangement with regional map companies to print maps on demand. On the site, find a map company near you, and send them an e-mail about what you might need. Or visit your local library. They may have a topo map or be able to get one.
7). Find out what the weather was at the time. Look for the so called “weather incidents” that people would remember. The Government of Canada Historical Climate Data: http://climate.weather.gc.ca/
can get information for specific dates or monthly summaries. For a lark, some of the weather in Whiskeyjack follows exactly what the weather was in 1977.
8). Always be on the lookout for little gems. I recently discovered Merrily K. Aubrey. Place Names of Alberta; volume IV, northern Alberta. University of Calgary Press. 1996. After looking up real places, like Fort Vermilion, High Level, and Margaret Lake, I was able to construct the following, imaginary summary for Whiskeyjack:
- Whiskeyjack (settlement and eventually a hamlet)
- 84 J/5 — Whiskeyjack (this is the topographical map reference)
- 34-111-10-W5 (this is where it’s located on the topographical map)
- 58 degrees 40 minutes North 115 degrees 35 minutes West (this is its longitude and latitude)
- Approximately 110 kilometers east north-east of High Level (how far to the nearest larger population centre).
Located near the Beaver Ranch River, the area was first surveyed in 1915. The settlement was founded in 1922 as a farming community by Henry Martel, who named it after the large flocks of grey or Canadian jays in the area. After a typhoid epidemic in 1929, the settlement was abandoned, though two or three families remained in the area. In 1946-47, brothers Steven and Jonathan Randall founded the hamlet. A post office was established in 1954. The first postmaster was Thomas Purdy.
Oh, yes, always make up an imaginary cover before working on a book. Pin it some place you can see it. It’s a great reminder to keep writing. Featured above, are my imaginary covers for this trilogy. The photo for Whiskeyjack is mine. Cindy Kirkpatrick (Fireweed) and Ashley Wilson (Tamarac) have my thanks for allowing me to manipulate their copyrighted photos (personal use only). The photography is entirely theirs. Please do not forward or reproduce these photographs.
Whiskeyjack is with beta readers. I’m about a third of the way through Fireweed. I have a major event outline for Tamarac. So far, I’ve managed to stay firmly out of Banff.
(Thanks so much, Sharon. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we look forward to reading your new work. All the best with it! - Susan).
Sharon's Bio: Sharon Wildwind is a Calgary mystery writer. You can find more about her and her books at www.wildwindauthor.com.