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.