Thursday, January 21, 2010

History in the Novel

Presenting history in a novel is not so simple as some might think. This is one place where the rule Show, not Tell definitely applies. You can’t just lump together a collection of facts and liberally drop them in as solid blocks of fact. That would annoy readers and distract from the flow of the story. Instead you must show history through the lives of your characters.

My current WIP, Fallen From Grace, involves a small town sheriff in 1897. His town is a generally peaceful place and Sylvester’s biggest problems are lack of a deputy and the refusal of his girlfriend to marry him despite many proposals. Lydia, his friend, is a new breed of independent woman. She manages the family store, serves as postmistress, heads the women’s temperance league and sings in the church choir. She contends she’s too busy to get married.

Life in Arahpot is turned upside down by the deaths of two newcomers—one by stabbing, the other by arsenic poisoning. The latter death could be murder, suicide or accident.

Arsenic and chloroform both play a part in the story. Both compounds were readily available to the public in the 19th century, as were cocaine, opium, mercury and a host of other chemicals we now know for their harmful aspects. Our ancestors were more blasé in their attitude toward these compounds for which they found a host of uses.

The use of chloroform as anesthetic became common after 1853 when it was administered to Queen Victoria for the delivery of Prince Leopold. Anyone with a quarter could buy a quantity at the corner store and it was used for such routine purposes as removing stains from carpets and quelling bees in a hive.

On the darker side, addicts also discovered they could get a “buzz” from inhaling it. And it wasn’t long before it became an aid to suicide.

As to arsenic, we know its deadly potential. But in the 19th century it was a common ingredient in over-the-counter medications and had many household uses, including as a skin cleanser and laxative. Those probably aren’t historic precedents anyone wants to continue.

1 comment:

  1. Ladies used to use arsenic for their complexion and to keep their hands lily white!
    Earlier ladies used to use "lead" to have those very white faces.

    I agree about show and not tell but it's really difficult sometimes.