Writing historical fiction can be a bit of a challenge, especially when one is writing about a period as strange and wild as 19th century America. It was a monstrous time of social and racial oppression, outrageous financial shenanigans, environmental catastrophies, grinding poverty and the lack of any kind of meaningful social safety net—not at all like the world we live in today.

That was a joke, son. Just in case you missed it.

It is often said that the difficult part of writing historical fiction is resisting the temptation to put all your research into what you’ve written. The implication is that the writer, having slaved over many a dusty tome, wants to show off a bit—because really, what other reward is there? But I think the truth is a bit different. I think the writer of historical fiction comes forward, Cassandra-like, bearing an insight that is often given lip-service to but is actually understood all-too-infrequently: that there are crucially important lessons that we as a nation and a civilization and a species keep getting pounded over the head with, and yet we simply do not learn. It’s evocative of the old chestnut, “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” But I find that statement a bit wishy-washy for my taste. I think it needs a bit more force, vis: “Darlings, if you can’t bother yourself to learn from history, then you deserve whatever the hell you get.”

I chose to write about America in the 1870s for several reasons. First, it was the time in our history when the institutions which would come to be known as uniquely “American”—including mass media, free market capitalism, the cult of celebrity, and consumerism—flowered in a way never seen before. Second, with the Civil War a decade past and a hundred years of history under our belt, there was a newfound sense that America was a country with a larger destiny—a global destiny. While America would remain largely isolationist for many years to come, I think the idea that this incredibly rich country could become a new kind of empire—one founded on luck and pluck and steam-powered innovation—was born in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, inspired by marvels like the Corliss Engine, the typewriter, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

And last (but not least) the clothes were just to die for. (Corsets notwithstanding.)

With so many important elements of history intersecting in 1876, I could have written a couple of much longer and drier books. But I’ve found that readers tend to get a bit tetchy when the drama, adventure, and romance are put on hold in favor of exposition describing the far-reaching financial and political ramifications of the gold standard. But while I’ve curbed the urge to expound on these historical events within the text, such pedantic instincts cannot be held in check forever. Thus, I’ve decided to write this series of articles, in which I will provide a humorous and most likely incredibly slanted view of the major historical events referenced in The Native Star. I hope they will enhance the enjoyment of those who know little about these events, and I expect they will also spark debate amongst those who are intimately familiar with the events in question (historical afficionados being a notably picky and quarrelsome lot.)

And before you even say anything, yes, I know the Elevated Railroad didn’t run through Chatham Square until 1880. But I liked having it there, and so there it stands in 1876. Because in a 19th century America with magic, everything happened earlier, faster, and more interestingly. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Next up: America’s 100th Birthday—The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition

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17 Responses to Introduction: Welcome to 1876

  1. I chose 1905-08 Saratoga Springs…and kept wondering what I was thinking. I have one pivotal buiding that I'm not sure about. The company was founded in 1901, but I can't find anywhere if they built that building in 1901….but it's there in my story. I dare the casual reader to find conclusive evidence that I'm wrong!

    I say, go for it!!

  2. Jamie says:

    The late 19th century provides fertile ground for the writer's imagination. Having read THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE and INCIDENT AT TWENTY-MILE, I look forward to THE NATIVE STAR for its promised blending of the magickal and mundane in this remarkable milieu. Yes, it was a time of great hope and technological innovation. But it was also a hotbed of government corruption, yellow journalism, unacknowledged (and widespread) sexual dysfunction and violent social transformation. (Plus, you could buy cocaine and opium at the corner pharmacy. Cheap.) As a Canadian, I am left with the cold historical fact that our country dragged itself together at this time largely out of fear of annexation by the burgeoning American juggernaut next door. Lots of ironies (- and you do irony well). Looking forward to the novel!

  3. M.K. Hobson says:

    But it was also a hotbed of government corruption, yellow
    journalism, unacknowledged (and widespread) sexual dysfunction and
    violent social transformation. (Plus, you could buy cocaine and opium
    at the corner pharmacy. Cheap.)

    The 19th century … come for the sexual dysfunction, stay for the
    drugs! ;-P

    You know, if all these unregulated free market Republicans would just
    let us have our hop and coca and morphia back, they'd find us stoner
    liberals much more amenable to their cause.

  4. M.K. Hobson says:

    I'm going to get a t-shirt made to wear to cons: “Suck it, History!”

  5. Awesome ;o) (It is fantasy, after all)

  6. Jamie says:

    … but that would require them to take the unaccustomed step of using logic. Plus, isn't it a Conservative tenet to oppose fun in any form? (I'm pretty sure I saw that on a t-shirt one time …)

  7. rstefoff says:

    These are going to be fun.

  8. adamilenkovicbrown says:

    “That was a joke, son.” Wait, did you just reference Foghorn Leghorn?

    My WIP is set in the late 1890's and has two alternate versions of 1929. I've already been told this was foolhardy because of the research.

  9. Serge says:

    “Never let the Truth stand in the way of a good story!”

  10. Serge says:

    I for one think that exposition describing the far-reaching financial and political ramifications of the gold standard can be quite sexy. As long as it's not done by a flabby Terry Jones.

  11. M.K. Hobson says:

    I think Foghorn Leghorn is one of the great underappreciated
    characters of our time.

    And TWO alternate versions of 1929? Yikes!

  12. M.K. Hobson says:

    Well then, you're in luck my boy, because I'm writing a proposal for a
    whole NOVEL dealing with the far-reaching financial and political
    ramifications of the gold standard.

    No foolin'. 😉

    And no flabby Terry Joneses allowed.

  13. I like this! I want to read more such. And by the way, do you know of the opera that actually does deal with the gold (and silver) standard? It’s called BABY DOE, by Douglas Moore, set against the silver mining industry in Colorado, if memory serves.

  14. M.K. Hobson says:

    Louise, I’ve never heard of that opera! I’ll have to go find it. Did you know (you probably do) that some folks believe that Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz as a symbolic treatise on bimetallism (silver slippers on a golden road …)

  15. Serge says:

    No Joneses at all. Not even an Indiana one?

    Is it in the 1870s that the Republican Party became the Party of Business? I seem to remember reading that in the late 19th century, while that was happening, the Democratic Party was becoming the Party of Social Justice, and that William Jenning Bryant (yes, THAT William Jenning Bryant) was instrumental in that transformation.

  16. Serge Broom says:

    I thought “Oz” was about Labor, Unions, that stuff.

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