Friday, January 8, 2010

Historical Details--in a Place Near You

I do historical research. My main focus is the lives of people. Nobody needs me to explain Gettysburg. But they might want me to tell them how a shovel was made.

We can find the dates of the Civil War battles, but local variations and frontier skirmishes are harder to track down. Sometimes you get lucky with a local historical library. Many of them feel a budget cut when the economy starts to slip. They can't always afford to collect the best, so they take what they can get. Sometimes you have to dig. You have to gladhand your way into the basement, and bring a flashlight.

There are still people in America that know how to hitch a twenty-mule team and drive it on a stone pass along the side of a canyon (as they did for General Cook as a matter of course, during conflicts with the Apaches), loaded down with barrels of pickled beef. I would like to find the people that know this.

What was a soldier's uniform made of? How much did the manufacturers stint on the fabric? (Because they did). How long before the dye started to fade? What was the effect of wool on human skin in the middle of guard duty in the Sonora desert?

You can find these things out. They will take up, in a historical novel, about three phrases. But they lend realism. They are priceless because they grow in the reader's mind, add richness of detail, make the reader believe he can taste the dust and feel the prickly heat in the small of his back. They create empathy.

Historical cookbooks
What did people eat and how did they eat it? How did they cook it? I have this great but unfortunately small collection of historical cookbooks. If I can get them in facsimile edition, (originals are beyond price) then I do. They are not just about cooking, but cosmetics, medicines, soaps, and the change in technology and household management. A facsimile edition gives you the typefaces, the illustrations, the weird spellings.

I have one such cookbook that struggles to teach women how to cook a tasty roast in an oven, by which I mean the meat was not barbecued any longer over a hearth. The lack of flavor had to be 'remedied'. I learn which tools were available and which not, what they were made of. I learn about import-export by the fancy ingredients reserved for 'best dishes'.

The True Meaning of Horror
Besides home remedies, what did they do for medicine? I sat in a medical library on and off for a year, reading old medical journals. Did you know you can cure syphilis with elderberry tea? No, I don't think so, but it was in a proceedings journal for 1851, in a box of decaying old papers. The article was written, as so many medical articles back then, in an anecdotal form. "I met this sailor with a difficulty . . . . two weeks later, he was cured."

If you know the epidemiology of syphilis, you know that initial symptoms of syphilis disappear in about two weeks. Some cure, eh? That beats any horror story you ever paid seven bucks to read.

So, food, medicine, clothes, tools from spoons to forceps to anvils, ways of doing things that are now unfamiliar. The sad thing is, these items were always taken for granted. Everyone knew how to tie up a horse or dress a chicken, load a revolver, dial a rotary telephone. The information's not gone, but it's going. Things change so fast. We can preserve an artifact, but not a memory.

How We Are
Our everyday actions and terminology are part of history. We should not take them for granted. We should write them down, so that historians of tomorrow can know us for who we are, and not just what made us notable in politics, war, economic triumph. It's the little things that so often make us remarkable.

Somebody who made it through Iraq should be writing down how he avoided getting blisters, and then just keep on writing from there.  A car mechanic should talk about how he removes grease from his hands and a truck driver should tell how she stays awake over long miles. They should talk about what things smell like, taste like, feel like. Somebody who raises children should write down every theory she ever read and rejected in favor of sitting in the sandbox, singing Mother Goose or Billie Holliday to her four-year-old.


The Bug said...

I'm married to a historian so I'm exposed to history a lot more than I would be otherwise - I was never a fan, growing up. I remember when we went to the National Archives to do his research. Untying red ribbon & reading letters. His dissertation was about the aftermath of the Civil War in Kentucky & I spent hours reading about outrages against freed people. Kind of made it real for me...

My grandfather had a dairy farm. They kept a black rotary dial phone in the barn - a real antique! For years my dad used that phone in our basement - it was always so much fun to dial a number on it - the dial was slow & the holes were big enough for my fingers.

One last thought - back when I used to be part of the Creative Memories cult (I stopped making albums when my mother died - apparently I was making them for her) they always said - crop your photos if you want, but leave in some of the details sometimes. Years from now you'll want to remember what the cars looked like, or that terrible kitchen cabinetry, or the way the stoplights looked.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
I remember when they still had phone exchanges! We lived inside the FEDeral exchange FED-1234 and my grandparents the FRAnklin exchange.
FRA-4321. Just thinking about that, and comparing it to the iphone technology we have now:

Those letters--I love how the ribbon was also preserved, just as the tacky kitchen cabinet or beater car in the background shows that you worked your way up.

Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Fascinating info Ann. For work a few years ago, I got to create a tour related to Underground Railroad history in our region: the facts, the mysteries, the myths, and the part of could not write about (the bias' of other "researchers").

I would love doing that work full-time as reading newspapers from the 19th century was eye opening.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I'm going to check your blog and see if you've written about this already. But if not--I'd love to know what you learned!

Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T

I love looking at the incidentals in old newspapers and magazines. Ads, small columns, that kind of thing. If civilization collapses, printed matter is what will still be around and accessable. We need to keep wisdom around on that printed page, not to mention history. I have a "LIFE" magazine with the famous picture of President Nixon at the dinner table with the Chinese. He is holding up a food item in chopsticks and has the most priceless look on his face. I LOL'ed when I saw it.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I love those things too, and share your dedication to works on paper.

I mourned when they got rid of the library card catalog.

Life and Look were two of the coolest magazines ever.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Unknown said...

I've made it!! You must have changed something cause now I can comment without changing internet formats. squeeeeeeee!

Okay, I've saved up a lot to say!!
I've been here multiple times and I read a lot of what you write and I must admit Ann T a bunch of it just flies over my head. You are so flippen smart and full of information I stand in awe.

Your comments on other blogs slay me!! You make me laugh so hard I pee a little. Thank you!

Now about this post specifically...I used to sit with my grandfather and just make him talk to me and tell me things about everything he'd seen and done. He was an old man from Hungary and a different world alltogether than where I was at the time. My only regret now was that I didnt record our conversations. He was such a gentleman and a hero in my eyes.

As far as history and research I am very specific in my taste. Its all about the medical for me. I can read case histories from long ago and how they performed the first appendectomy with no anesthesia all day. The other stuff, not so much.

I agree with what you've written though, so much is lost after a few generations go by. I think thats happening even faster the older humanity gets.

Well, I guess thats it. I'll stop by, read and lurk more often. I learn from you and thats a good thing.

Ciao for now!

Ann T. said...

Dear PeeDee,
Knock my socks off! Thank you!
Ann T.

Anonymous said...

You're right, in that the realism such details add to a historical novel are worth the effort it takes to discover them.

I've often thought about this, how so many details get lost. Even in our own lineage, I think off all the things I would have asked my grandfather, had I been old enough, and had I known.

"We can preserve an artifact, but not a memory." There is so much implied in that simple statement... it could be the start of novel all its own.

Ann T. said...

Dear Warrior Poet,

I also missed some opportunities to get stories from my granddad. He was more reticent than other, more voluble members of the family. But he did a lot of incredible things, so now I realize I missed the details.

Those of us who blog or journal or save written/recorded passages are leaving something that will make us human to those that come after. We are uncommon in that the 'state of technology' and the 'ways of contemporary thought' are ours to express.

Thanks for the many kind words,
Ann T.