Excavating the Past for Stories

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image: Hulki Okan Tabak for Unsplash

The problem with talking about the past is that there’s no one “past” we can all learn from. The truism that history is written by the winners is underlined when we try to find out about any under-represented group (which in general, and certainly in the west, means anyone who isn’t white, male, and reasonably affluent). Because there aren’t a lot of primary sources (2nd-century slaves in Greece didn’t exactly pen their memoirs, for example), we need to dig more to find lost voices. And we have to be careful to account for bias in reading the actual sources as well — for example, everything we know about the druids in the British Isles is what Julius Caesar, their sworn enemy, wrote about them.

I’m speaking now from the perspective of a writer of fiction, but one who wants to get it right. There’s nothing more annoying than reading a novel and coming across a glaring mistake — it makes you lose trust in the writer. So it’s always been important for me to create fiction that nestles inside fact, so to speak.

This is especially true when it comes to excavating the past to find women’s voices. My academic work was in history, and in particular I specialized in medieval Church history, so that means I pretty much know the patriarchal line about everything! And, surprise, surprise, women are pretty much conspicuous by their absence for whole swaths of history. I remember writing a short story about Hilda of Whitby for the now-defunct feminist Christian publication Daughters of Sarah, and it took me a good year’s worth of research for that one short story!

A lot of learning about medieval women means reading between the lines, paying attention to what’s going on in what we might call the margins, not just of manuscripts but of life itself. The writer who’s looking for consistency is going to be disappointed. And that’s most of us. Our culture tends to think of history as happening in neat tidy “periods” — preferably delineated in the west by the rule of one king or another — and we try to make the facts we uncover fit our story, our narrative. Plus as humans we like order, we like patterns, we like consistency, and yet we live in a world that’s often wildly out of control, not just in this the year of our Lord 2020.

For example, despite the fact that Hilda was solely in charge of a tremendous double monastery of thousands of monks and nuns, was a trusted advisor to the king, and had a strong hand in both sacred and secular government, not far from her in Durham Cathedral was a blue line of marble inset into the floor near the west end, which acted as a boundary marker prohibiting women from advancing any further into the cathedral.

So: let’s set that aside. Because I’m currently in the middle of a mystery series that takes place in Provincetown, my research these days is far closer to home, both geographically and historically. And that’s a great asset, because I can get information from living people as well as from documents and artifacts.

It helps if you’re there. The internet has opened up a wide world of research possibilities and of course you should use it. But nothing substitutes for physically becoming part of the area you’re writing about, no matter what it is you’re writing.

I’ll give you two examples from my own work:

I was writing the first of my Montréal mysteries. A lot of my work is to present a mystery, usually a murder, that has taken place in the present but that is the result of something that happened in the past, of old secrets not dying and instead coming back to haunt the present. I was in Montréal for several months looking for ways into a particularly heartbreaking part of the city’s past, when thousands of orphans were sent to insane asylums and very bad things happened to them there. I had the background already when I went. But because I was actually there, I was meeting people who knew someone who knew someone and before you knew it, I was getting totally illegal tours of old steam tunnels and forgotten children’s graveyards. Not only did this make for a better book, it also allowed me to become the voice of those voiceless, to make sure they weren’t forgotten. That became my novel Asylum.

The other example is for my current Provincetown series. Just about everyone in town knows what I’m doing, and when odd artifacts used to come to the museum, I’d be invited to take a look. The museum’s administration has since changed and priorities have shifted and I won’t say any more about that, but before, when the museum had a curator, he’d give me a call. A house on Pleasant Street was being renovated and the workers had found all sorts of things inside one of the walls, including Civil War-era newspapers and children’s shoes. That became the basis for The Deadliest Blessing.

I don’t think our stories should be told in isolation, and while writing is an enormously solitary task, the research shouldn’t be.

Sometimes it’s just frustrating. As you may know, this year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing into Provincetown harbor. The crossing took 66 days, they started out way late in the season for a dangerous North Atlantic crossing, and to say it was rough would be to wildly understate the situation. Somehow, Dorothy Bradford, wife of the future governor of Massachusetts, managed to stay on board throughout the dangerous passage; but once the ship was safely anchored in our very sheltered harbor, she mysteriously “slipped off” the deck and drowned. I want to know more about this. I’m a mystery writer, I have a naturally curly mind, and you know where I’m thinking this is going. As a writer of fiction, I can imagine. As a historian, I want to find out what really happened. Yet there just aren’t the sources; her husband noted her passing in his journal, expressed some grief, and then moved on.

I’d like to find Dorothy’s voice. I’d like to find a lot of the hidden voices here, the Wampanoag women, the Portuguese fishermen’s wives, the bohemian artists. Even staying in just one place geographically, there’s so much to find, so many echoes to listen for. I’ve always believed that if you can write the stories for a society, it doesn’t matter in the long run who writes the laws, and through fiction I think we’re able to uncover voices, some real and some created, that speak of women’s experiences through time.

If you’re a writer, my advice to you is this: Use your imagination. If you already do fiction, then you’re already on board with that. But even if you don’t, it’s a good exercise in empathy to imagine what these people were like, their needs, their pleasures, their worries. If you can truly care about them, then your readers will, too.

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