Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Power Outages and Learning to Write Historical Fiction

The other night, my sleep was interrupted by a loud bang. This summer has been so hot and once again we had closed up the house and turned on the air conditioner. I much prefer open windows, breezes, and crickets to the hum of machinery. On the other hand, waking up sticky isn’t fun either. But on this sultry night suddenly the world was silent. The dreaded bang was the transformer behind our house, and thus, no power.

Thinking about past lives and cultures has always intrigued me. However, as I conducted my day; no coffee, no hairdryer, no radio or TV, and no laptop, as it was not sufficiently charged, I decided that even though I love history, I didn’t want to be a woman in the 1870’s that day.

You see, for the past 10 months, I had been “living in 1877” as I sweated through the first draft of my historical middle grade novel. The novel begins in June, 1877 along the Mississippi River in a place called the Bohemian Flats. The Flats still exist as a green grass park bordering the winding river near downtown Minneapolis. Recently it held the twisted steel of the 35W Bridge collapse so the engineers could study and determine what went wrong.

The remains of the bridge are gone, making it even easier to imagine over 500 immigrants living in poorly constructed shanties so close to the river. When I began this 1877 adventure the first thing I did was go to the site itself. I read the kiosk with its brief history and noted the sources.

Because there isn’t much written about the Bohemian Flats I grabbed every source I could find. From real immigrant letters illustrating their struggles, to histories of the Minneapolis Fire and Police Departments, to Bohemian recipes. When I checked out the Minnesota Historical Society, I hit the jackpot. I found dozens of photos from the time period and a book about the flats written by the Writers Project during the depression.

The pictures were my gold mine. For with them I could imagine the children, women, and men, as they made their way through this life. Many of the men walked up the seventy-nine steps to the city each day to work in the flour, lumber mills, or cooperages. The women stayed on the “flats” as they were called, and ran their homes by collecting wild mushrooms, planting small gardens, baking in a large communal oven, and raising hordes of dirty-faced children.

The river flats drew in immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Russia. A real melting pot crammed on the flats, beneath the growing city of Minneapolis.

The more I read about this community the more I knew I had to write about it. A story appeared in my head and I backed up the facts with books, articles, and photos. In order to try and get a feel for the time period, I read literature written around 1877, as well as fiction about this time period. One of the best sources I found was called, “The Boat of Longing,” by O. E. Rolvaag. This takes place a little bit after my story but the feel was what I was looking for. I listened to music, looked at period clothing, and even attempted to bake a loaf of bread, without a bread machine, mind you!

Putting the draft aside for a few days has helped me garner the courage to dive back in for revisions. But when our power went out, I was back there again whether I wanted to be or not. This is the first historical fiction manuscript I have written, learning the genre as I typed and loving every minute. Since our brief power outage, I’ve decided I like living in a new time period for only a few hours at a time, reassuring myself that I can surface again, sip my coffee and enjoy other comforts of 2012!


  1. Great post, Susan! I'm working on a historical fiction manuscript too, and the research is fascinating.

  2. Great post! That's one of my favorite aspects of writing--I always try to learn something new!

  3. I have a lot of admiration for anyone tackling historical fiction! So much to know. Sounds like you have really enjoyed it, and I wish you much success with the book!

  4. I absolutely LOVE reading historical fiction, and like Michele, I admire and appreciate writers who write it. Glad you got your modern goodies back on line though!