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Monday, October 31, 2011

MODERN SENSIBILITIES

by Kate McMurray



I like the idea of writing a historical novel, but I keep getting snagged by my modern sensibilities.

I had an idea for a story that took place in Brooklyn in the 1870s, two star-crossed lovers who meet and fall in love under unlikely circumstances. The twist was that these two lovers were both men. The problem I had was that I was interested in the historical context, too, and interested in how the story would be contrasted with modern gay relationships. I wanted to write something both modern and historical. Thus ACROSS THE EAST RIVER BRIDGE was born.

I started with the modern characters, Finn and Troy, as sort of a framing device. They're both historians who specialize in nineteenth-century America. But I needed some conflict, so I thought, well, maybe they're rivals. They don't like each other much, or something bad happened between them before the novel starts. But they stumble upon this mystery and feel compelled to solve it.

And then they took over the novel. It's really the story of how Finn and Troy first reconcile their differences and then fall in love.

The mystery Finn and Troy stumble on is the murder of two men who died in 1878. Troy curates a (fictional) museum that used to be a house owned by Theodore Cummings Brill, the son of a prominent New York family. But how can Finn and Troy unravel such an old mystery when no one really knows what happened?

I did research into historical Brooklyn for this novel, so I applied some of what I did to the characters. In order to find clues, they'd have to sift through plenty of paper evidence: police reports, newspaper articles, other records. I read a handful of articles from the New York Times from the era to get an idea for what that might read like. But evidence is one thing. I wondered how I could tell the story of these historical characters.

I'm kind of an agnostic when it comes to ghosts and haunted houses, but when used well, I like them in fiction. The historical murder victims, then, come to haunt the museum, and by doing so, they guide the characters toward important evidence, including their journals. Those journals are where Finn and Troy find the meat of the story.

Therefore, I had to also research language, the ways the Victorians spoke and wrote that were different from contemporary language, and I had to use language in a way that didn't sound too stuffy or British (since these were American men writing casually). Luckily, there's a lot of language to analyze (and even prolific New York diarists in this era, such as George Templeton Strong). I created the journal entries of two men who didn't exist, so I had to read a lot of nineteenth century prose, hoping to make it sound authentic.

The ghosts also get into the heads of Finn and Troy—literally. The ghosts are capable of making the historians "see" their memories, sinking Finn and Troy into the historical landscape of Brooklyn in the 1870s. I had to research what this would look like. That was easy enough—parts of Brooklyn Heights, where the story takes place, haven't changed much in 140 years. But parts are really different. There was no Promenade in the 1870s, no BQE; instead, fancy homes faced the East River. The view would have included Trinity Church but none of the other skyscrapers that populate the landscape now. There wasn't even a Brooklyn Bridge—construction on the East River Bridge (later renamed for the city it connected to Manhattan) began in 1870 but wasn't finished until 1883. There were plenty of other differences, too. If the characters wanted to take in a play, they might go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, located on Montague Street rather than its current location of Flatbush Ave. Brooklyn was still an independent city, with a City Hall rather than a Borough Hall.

I'm enough of a history nerd that this was fun to research, and it was fun also to put some of my ideas and analysis of the era into the heads of my characters. The result is a story about two star-crossed lovers who can't have a happy ending and two modern lovers who can make things right.

ACROSS THE EAST RIVER BRIDGE is available for purchase.   Check out my website, where I've got a book trailer, an excerpt, and special features including historical background, suggested reading, and a bunch of photos: http://www.katemcmurray.com/books/across-the-east-river-bridge/



Kate McMurray is a nonfiction editor by day. Among other things, Kate is crafty (mostly knitting and sewing, but she also wields power tools), she plays the violin, she has an English degree, and she loves baseball. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. She's on the web at http://www.katemcmurray.com/ or on Twitter @katemcmwriter.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kate!

    It really does sound like you did a lot of good research! I myself am a history nerd, but I stick to modern history and my greatest interest falls on World War II. Nice to know that there are still authors that do real research. (No, reading a Wikipedia article is not considered research.)

    Can't wait to read your book! :)

    Beatrice
    beatrice.g.tan [at] gmail [dot] com

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