I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

I had a plot, characters, theme(s), time-frame (1849) and setting. I had done a great deal of research (although that would not end throughout the process of writing my historical novel, Embracing the Elephant). I was ready to begin writing in earnest – no more delays. I was prepared to let my imagination take me anywhere it wanted to go.

The day I first sat down to write my tale, I had showered, dried my hair, fixed a cup of coffee, and fired up my computer. I was feeling a bit as I imagine Billy Collins may have felt when he penned his poem “Purity”:

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

A beautiful and apt poem (only partially quoted above).

Then it struck me – I could not have my characters doing any of those usual tasks I had performed that morning. Every one of those undertakings used technology that was not in existence in 1849. There was no indoor plumbing for a shower, no electricity for my hair dryer (no hair dryers at all), no electric coffee makers, and certainly no computers. Even typewriters were a thing of the future. Edgar Allan Poe died at the height of the California Gold Rush (in 1849), meaning that every story he ever wrote had been painstakingly set down in longhand, using pen and ink.

In 1849, books and other printed publications were the only form of scalable entertainment at the time. There was live theater, but that was not a medium that could be replicated – every performance, every production would be different for every audience and every player and every technical craftsman. Production values would vary wildly and the experience could not be posted on YouTube for the world to enjoy.

There was no TV, no radio, no movies, no video games, no recorded music. The world communicated by letter – no email, no telephones – and those letters took months to travel from New York to California (via steamships to Panama, across the isthmus, then to another ship bound for the new West Coast of America). Often those letters never got to their destinations at all.

So, with all of these wonderful things still waiting to happen, my first task was to scale back the way I looked at the world. Seems simple and logical enough, yes? Well, it’s hard. It’s really hard.

The website OnLine Etymology became a favorite. I was on the site every day to ensure that my vocabulary was proper for the time. I could not have any character yell out “That sucks!” because the expression did not take on a “contemptible” connotation until 1971! That made it more than one hundred years too late for my purposes. Not only were my characters not going to browse a website, they would not browse hardbound books at the local library – the word “browse” did not commonly come to mean “peruse” until the 1870’s (and there were no libraries in California in 1849 anyway). Better. That was only twenty years too late.

I came to rely on Wikipedia and other information-at-a-glance websites for quick insights into what did and did not exist prior to 1849. I could not have my characters firing bazookas, as those certainly had not been invented yet. Even common matches, at one time called “lucifers,” were causing problems in 1849: unsteady flames, unpleasant odors and fumes, igniting explosively and sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Do you think that may have been the inspiration for the bazooka?

Finding books that would have been in print in 1849 was the most fun and quite enlightening. Many of those titles are still available and still popular and still quoted or taught in English classes: Pride and PrejudiceLast of the MohicansOliver Twist, and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. That’s a testament to longevity. However, Treasure Island would not be published as a book for another 35 years, Jules Verne had not yet pioneered science fiction writing, and I could not have my characters reading anything by Mark Twain as he would have been only 14 years old in 1849 and had not published anything at that time. Wow, in 1849 he was only two years older than my main character!

Yes, despite my fervent wish to let my imagination take me anywhere it wanted to go, I felt the need for a certain amount of restraint even at the onset. There was no point in building a scene around something non-existent. So I set some rules. And they were:

  1. I would not use words that were not commonly in use in 1849;
  2. I would not reference technology that had not been invented; and
  3. I would not have my characters reading books that had not yet been printed or would not have been accessible to them.

I did need some stinkin’ rules after all.

About Lori Hart Beninger

Lori Hart Beninger is a native California writer with three critically acclaimed historical novels (Embracing the Elephant, A Veil of Fog and Flames, and A Peculiar Peace) that follow two 19th century young adults as they struggle with survival and acceptance in the pivotal era of the California Gold Rush up to the American Civil War. Please visit www.ontrackpublishing.com for synopses, availability, reviews, and more.
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