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Taking soundings

April 23, 2014 | Marina Endicott | Comments (1)

When I first set out to write a novel about vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century I found little advice on methodology. Each novelist, it seems, hacks his own route through the wilderness of history. The research process for historical fiction is private; sparks are often kindled years before formal work begins. Sometimes it's ideas that set us off: Annabel Lyon has talked about her long research for The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl—beginning, although she did not realize it at the time, with her philosophy degree and Aristotle's Poetics. Sometimes it's landscape: Fred Stenson, whose novels The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo are splendid examples of deep research into place, gave me a piece of good counsel when I was setting out on The Little Shadows: “Don’t let the research get too far ahead of the writing. Use the gems as you find them.”

For me, the gems lie in the sound of the period, the words they used. Language holds ideas—it may even be that ideas cannot be held too far in advance of the language to express them, that vocabulary must be quickly invented. In an interview in Puritan Magazine, Guy Vanderhaeghe talks about authenticity of voice, discussing The Last Crossing: “When reading bad historical fiction what often struck me was how the characters often sounded ludicrous, wrong. Queen Boudicca in a metal brassiere, talking like Andrea Dworkin.”


To achieve the vocabulary of the period, I read the words of the period, in fiction, essays, poetry—and particularly the ordinary, intimate language of letters and diaries. The same reading gives entry to social codes, mores and religious thought, subtly or blatantly delivered. How we say things informs, codifies and limits how we are able to think. Until the vocabulary of women’s rights was painfully bashed out, it was literally unthinkable for many people, male and female, that a woman ought to be able to vote. It seems the limits that language puts on our thinking are very often related to who is human, Us, and who (that Other) is not.

Vaudeville language was slangy, expansive, ornate, funny—even ridiculous; the language of an upright sea captain and his wife in 1910 will have an entirely different diction and social code. Fluency and linguistic class markers reveal and betray our origins, our current position, our ambitions; the exercise of a refined woman teaching a savage child not just to climb stairs but to speak and read English is an interesting aspect of Miss Ladd’s story.

The long program of reading I’ve embarked on for The Difference starts within the period, from the seagoing books of Joseph Conrad (particularly his novellas The Shadow Line, Youth and Within the Tides), Jack London, Somerset Maugham, Melville’s Redburn and Stephen Crane’s Men, Women and Boats; my list includes period novels that address practical problems of sailing, like Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, and Forester’s The African Queen; and ranges into the larger picture of sea-routes and navigation (Along the Clipper Way by Francis Chichester, and Sailing Alone Around the World, by Nova Scotia’s Captain Joshua Slocum).

Letters are invaluable for novelists—no other source captures the quotidian life so well, even letters which would have been boring in their day. The letters Miss Ladd’s mother wrote to her father while on her voyages have been collected in Quite a Curiosity: the Sea Letters of Grace Ladd, edited by Louise Nichols. Donal Baird’s Women at Sea in the Age of Sail was one of the books that set me on to recalling Miss Ladd’s stories. There is also a satisfying wealth of edited diaries, not only from seafaring women but from their children, like P.B. Albee’s Letters From Sea, 1882-1901: Joanna and Lincoln Colcord's Seafaring Childhood, and Catherine Petroski’s A Bride's Passage, Susan Hathorn's Year Under Sail

And that’s only a fragmentary list… I’d better get back to reading.


Upriver to the Source

April 23, 2014 | Marina Endicott | Comments (0)

I’ve come to believe that the image is the original source—the most primary of sources. It seems to me that we move, in writing and maybe in other arts, from the image to the word—and that the senses are inextricably linked or tangled with both image and word. The portal from writer to reader seems to be that link of sense and image, conveyed (as well as possible, of course) in words.

My childhood piano teacher, Miss Kay Ladd, was brought up on a clipper ship, from 1901-1918 or thereabouts—her accounts varied with her mood. Here she is with her mother on the deck of the Belmont, her father’s ship. 

Writing fiction always means writing from memory: from emotional and sensory data, and from experience and intellectual understanding, recalled and arranged into an invented reality. So the first necessary task in historical fiction is fabricating memory to write from: immersing ourselves in period, from the smallest physical details of life to the largest philosophical concerns. 

Without lived memory of the distant past, we require evidence. Written evidence in the form of diaries, letters, laundry lists, wills; visual evidence in photographs and paintings, house-plans, ship’s manifests; detritus left on the shelves, the attics, the walls of old houses. 

I use physical objects too: this was Miss Ladd's stove onboard the Belmont, but (very conveniently) my parents have an identical one. The glaze on the medallions and the women's patient faces are familiar to my childhood fingertips, ghost digits that still remember the heavy movement of that iron fender. Physical objects anchor images for us, propel them.

Yarmouth stove

In some sense Miss Ladd’s story belongs to me, by virtue of remembering her, her house and her artifacts so well; by my having spent every Tuesday evening for seven years in her darkened drawing room, staring at the convolute whorls of the narwhal’s tusk that hung over the piano, while Miss Ladd drifted off into a story that I helped her to string out as long as possible, so as to avoid going on to Barcarolle, which I had not practiced at all.

When I travelled to Yarmouth to work in the archives of the County Historical Museum, which now houses Miss Ladd’s papers and belongings, it was peculiar and evocative—haunting, almost—to see her external self displayed. To refresh my memories of her, and create new imagined memory.

In an interview with Herb Wylie, the novelist Michael Crummey said that visiting a man whose mother had known a historical character in his book River Thieves (about the last of the Beothuk in Newfound­land) was “…a very freaky moment, to be sitting with him and to have the sense of touching his hand, and he is touching his mother’s hand, and his mother is touching John Peyton Jr.” 

I can still feel Miss Ladd’s bent, arthriticky fingers pushing my hand into the proper position on the keyboard; I have the sense of her mother’s hand cupped over her fingers, teaching her to play.


Approaching the Difference

February 21, 2014 | Marina Endicott | Comments (0)

Katherine Ashenburg and I talked together at the first WIR event on February 6. She's a delightful conversationalist: interested, informed and acute. We talk about fashions and approaches in historical fiction, and the origins of my current research for a new novel, The Difference. 

During her residency, Marina Endicott will research her next work of historical fiction, 'The Difference', and share what she has learned through workshops and one-on-one meetings with aspiring writers.

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