The Thrill of Discovery, The Agony of the Fact

research2I decided to write a historical novel because I wanted to get completely out of my day-to-day life and contemporary everything—terrorism, the failure of capitalism, modern marriage, childhood and adolescence, politics, racism, climate change, you name it. Did I have any idea what I was getting myself into? No!

And six years later I’m not only doing the hard work of revising, but also of fact checking. Did you know, for example, that poker wasn’t first mentioned until 1822, so it is unlikely my 1821 character was sitting with a poker face.

My novel takes place between 1810 and 1822 on a sheep ranch in Taos, when New Mexico was still part of the Spanish Empire and then part of Mexico at independence (1821). There is not a tremendous amount written about New Mexico at all, and certainly not before it became a US Territory after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848—I know! So many dates). This is both a plus and a minus. The plus is that you don’t have to wade through reams of history, as I would have had to if I were writing a novel about, say, the Civil War. The downside is you have to do a fair amount of sleuthing to find anything at all and then extrapolate from there. No matter how obscure the material, one is acutely aware of the Amazon reviewers lurking out there who will land on you with both feet and give you one star for getting one fact wrong (as Lily King learned when she put a South American sloth in New Guinea in her wonderful novel Euphoria).

That said, I quite enjoy the sleuthing and have had moments of great joy, such as when I found a book on sheep ranching in colonial Mexico…Ah, but I need to digress, because I was checking Google to track down the title of said book, rather than get up and walk into the next room and dig it up (cat in lap)… and it sent me down the research rabbit hole (RRH) and I found another book with the intriguing title Jesuit Hacienda in Colonial New Mexico that has more details on the economics of sheep ranching. (Aren’t you just dying to sit next to me at a long dinner party?) The point, however, is that for me this is thrilling. I love finding out new stuff. Another thrill was when, quite by chance, I happened upon the gallery of arms and armament (16th-19th century) at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where I spent several hours extracting enough information to write a long academic article or four sentences in my novel.

So that’s the thrill. What’s the agony of the fact? I had a great scene where two rivals for a woman’s affections get into a fierce, dirty horse race in deep snow. The two men end up in a ferocious fist fight, with blood vividly splattered against the pristine white. Mmmm, I thought, I wonder what’s the deepest recorded snow fall in Taos? Four inches. Damn! More seriously, the Taos Pueblo Indians who play an important role in the story have guarded their history and culture very closely. They only once let an anthropologist into their community (in 1934) and then said ‘never again’; they have kept many of their cultural practices private; and they purposely haven’t written their language down because they don’t want outsiders to learn it. Here imagination (and digging into the available record) sometimes feels like transgression, and I’ve had to think long and hard about what to include and what to leave out.

Finally, I have a male character whom I regarded as a good guy, but my readers thought he was sexist, patriarchal, and creepy. I was really taken aback, but then I realized I’d written him when I was totally immersed in the period, whereas my readers were, of course, reading with a 21st century sensibility. I’m quite attached to this character, but he could end up as a dead darling.

 

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2 comments

  1. Deborah Good

    Laura: what a great post! It has certainly been my experience, researching for an historical novel, feeling seduced or nearly seduced again and again by facts, large and small. Did you know that Germans play a game called Faustball? Seriously. It’s a kind of volleyball. “OMG, I have to use that,” I thought. But the risk of it reading like a smarty-pants info dump is great–so probably not. Your book sounds terrific and enjoy your Incubator year!

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