Rabbit Holes

or How Writers of Historical Fiction Are Easily Distracted

One friend of mine who writes historical fiction is incredibly disciplined.  He sets himself File:The White Rabbit (Tenniel) - The Nursery Alice (1890) - BL.jpga schedule for completion of his work and sticks to it.  He even has a system to deal with rabbit holes, which can be a downfall for almost anyone, but especially for those who want to write accurately about the past.

So what is a rabbit hole? I can explain this by using the internet as an example. It is the phenomenon where you read about one thing, see something interesting and follow that link and then another until you wasted too much time and have drifted far from your original topic.

The piece I am now writing takes place in the early 1900s. One character returned from a trip to Pittsburgh with her father where she shopped. Was Kaufmanns’ in business then? What would her father do? See a baseball game? What about the Pirates? What was their season like?  Where were they playing? Oh, Honus Wagner was on the team that year, and I am down a rabbit hole learning about baseball history.

One recent rabbit hole took me into automotive history. I considered having one of my female characters get a car, but discovered that automatic ignitions did not exist in 1907.  I knew she wouldn’t get a car she had to crank. She will wait until 1912 or later before getting her car, and even then, I will have to decide what type of car she would get.  Consider writing a book set in the present day.  Does the character drive a Prius, or an Audi, a Bronco, or a Maserati?  Writing that someone got into their red Mustang reveals much about that character.

Next to my computer is a copy of the Sears 1908 catalog. It has proven helpful in giving me the name of pieces of furniture and accessories found in a house of that era. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the engagement ring from the Sears catalog is a nice touch during the proposal.

Sometimes I look at lists of world, national, and regional histories—including old newspapers from the Library of Congress.  The fellow writer I mentioned sets a timer and only allows himself twenty minutes to search the papers.  Me? I read the advertisements, reports of social events, and the more serious news. Although for some communities, who was visiting from out of town was serious news. The next thing I know, time has gone by, and while I might have learned a great deal, I didn’t write a word.

Yet, often in my forays down the rabbit hole, I find a tidbit which makes a chapter and my characters come to life. It links their fictional world of more than one hundred years ago to us.

In the opening chapter in Princess to Prioress, Adele does needlework. That required me to find out about needles in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Most readers probably wouldn’t think about the material a needle was made from. They would imagine the needle in their sewing kit, but when they read a bronze needle, it takes them to a different time and place.

I love rabbit holes. I just need to get better about staying too long in that wonderland of information that exists at my fingertips in books and online.


Image was created by John Tenniel and taken from The Nursery Alice.

Originally published/produced in London: Macmillan & Co., 1890

The image is now in the public domain

Words Matter

Words Matter

Just like Eliza Doolittle I am sick of words—sick of how people misuse them to prove a political point—and how something simple can get blown out of proportion because of word choice.

When I taught, I often put my hand on a student’s shoulder and then described the action with different verbs. Did I slap the shoulder, punch the shoulder, hit the shoulder, tap the shoulder, touch the shoulder?  If the verb used was hit, could the hit on the shoulder explode into a punch, or was the shoulder pummeled or beaten up? How, I asked my students, could the incident be recounted at home over the dinner table?

Words matter.

In school you might have learned about the Boston Massacre and had visions of bodies of “innocent” colonists covering the ground. Did they mention that only five men died?

 If you ever heard about the Battle of Wounded Knee, did anyone tell you that on that early morning in 1890 when most of the Lakota men had been disarmed, Army forces killed perhaps as many as 300 Lakota—200 of whom were women and children.  In the history books, it is a battle that the Native Americans lost.

Which of these events was a massacre?

Words matter.

In this time of frustration in our society, we need to think carefully about the words we write, post, repost, or tweet, and the connotation of those words.  Is the word or phrase emotionally charged?  For example, should what is happening in cities and towns across the country be called riots or protests? Which is the best description of the events we are experiencing? I will not deny, I cannot deny, that there has been looting and violence, but that does not seem to be the bulk of what is happening. Are there thugs and lowlifes among the protestors? Well, are there thugs and lowlifes serving in government jobs?

Words matter.

Why am I up on my soapbox? I am giving serious consideration to defriending someone I like on Facebook because of words. Because the posts, she chooses to post or repost are filled with words and phrases which intentionally or accidentally are designed to inflame rather soothe. And words matter.

I am not perfect. There were times in my classroom when I made a flip comment and chose words that were not appropriate.  I can apologize, but I spoke as the teacher, and the damage was done. The relationship with a student and a family was stressed, strained, and perhaps severed forever. I have no defense for my misuse of words. I can only hope that if I were in a crisis situation, I would be more careful, more cautious, more thoughtful about my word choice.  In truth I have done that as I have written this.

No two people see the world in the exact same way. Accept that your view of the world might not be the experience of another person or another group.  We need to stop assuming that if we are right that those who disagree are wrong. Maybe instead of spewing so many words, more of us need to listen—really listen and hear what is being said.

And think about the words we use, because words matter.