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Friday, April 16, 2010

HISTORY DOES A NOVEL GOOD


By Karen Sharpe



When I began to prepare for National Novel Writing Month, I was at a bit of a disadvantage. I selected a genre that was unfamiliar to me as far as researching was concerned – historical fiction.

The very first thing I had to do was figure a time and place for my main characters to meet. I selected 1870 New York City, because being a born and raised New Yorker; I knew it wasn’t always a great place to live, especially after the Civil War. I knew there was a melting pot, as seen in the movie “Gangs of New York,” but I wanted to dig deeper into how my characters made their way to New York City out of the many places they had already been.

Since New York is a big place, I started looking at the areas near the piers for clusters of immigrants from various countries, as well as migrants from the South, and came upon a large stretch of land near what is now Chinatown and Little Italy. I started reading about the immigration explosion in the tenements and found out that in 1812, the city’s population was 150,000, and within seven decades, it was close to a million and a half, leaning toward 2 million by 1890.

As I began to pick through reference books in the Central Library in Queens, I found maps and old stereoscopic views of old New York, and was surprised to find things I had no idea of – like Canal Street was named that because there was really a canal! In fact, there was so much polluted water in lower Manhattan that the once fresh water lake called the Collect Pond was filled in with construction debris (and garbage) and became Pearl Street. A few years later, the filling began to emit foul odors; it caved in and concerns about public health hazards were apparent, but the population surrounding this area had no voice to complain with. The area was used as a place for public executions, and then they built a detention center – the notorious Tombs, which also began to sink. Nearby this section was the infamous Five Points slum, which is one of the oldest residential areas in the city.

While going through the photographs, I found one of the slums called Mulberry Bend. I could sense the depression the residents felt, and saw several different ethnic groups thrown together. Then I went through the New York Times archives to get a feel of the time. The police reporter Jacob Riis photographed many scenes of tenement life, and I understood what he meant when he wrote that the residents were “victims of their environment.”

I took copious notes, copied photos and started to piece everything together. Soon I had a binder full of things that could be used … or that were just good to know. There is the Internet Public Library-- http://www.ipl.org/ --that pointed me in other directions regarding the history of the area, and the almshouse that became Bellevue Hospital. I found out what the red light district was; when the first washing machine made it to commercial laundries; what a hot sheet hotel was; and who ran the stale beer dives and rat pits near the South Street Seaport. There was so much going on, I wanted to use everything I found, but stayed focused on the basics.

I didn’t use February to edit my NaNoWriMo novel, instead I decided to give it to a fellow writer to read so she could tell me where it dragged and sagged. I read in one of RWA’s latest magazines that perfectionists like to keep their work to themselves. Even though I am a perfectionist, historical fiction was not my usual genre, so I allowed another writer to see if I had wasted the 30 days on a fruitless pursuit.

Some of it upset her because of the tragic circumstances that brought the main characters together, but when she finished it, she just smiled and said “Don’t change a thing, I felt like I was there!” I thought to myself, that’s just what I wanted to hear! ♥




Karen P. Sharpe has been an astrologer for over three decades. She majored in cartooning and animation, which she uses today in her decorative painting business. Karen worked for years in the typography industry, as a proofreader and quality control specialist. She wrote nonfiction articles for several weekly NYC newspapers, and monthly astrology columns for CableView Magazine, Harlem News Group and Street News. Karen’s NaNoWriMo novel is available on Amazon under her pen name, Sydelle Houston, and she is currently working on a collection of erotic short stories called, THE HOT PAGES.

4 comments:

  1. Reminded me of the days spent at the NY Library looking through books that were published in the early 1800's. Historical research can be amazing. Thanks for the link, and I can't wait to hear news that you found a publisher for this work!
    Anne

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  2. My book also take place in 1870 New York! Although I find research a time consuming and sometimes boring process, it really does inspire and inform my writing. Thanks for the post.

    Mari

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  3. Marvelous post. That's the best part of historical research: you go in looking for a few facts and come out with an entire world. Kudos to you (and Mari) for picking an era off the beaten romance track, and one with all sorts of dramatic possibility.

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  4. Thanks all. Mari, you might like this New York Times link, I spend hours combing through things in there month by month...
    http://spiderbites.nytimes.com/free_1870/index.html

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