Welcome to fellow Clean Reads author, Brigid Amos, with a post about researching her novel, A Fence Around Her!
I was on the editing team for this novel, and I loved the story -- especially the historical aspect -- so much so that I asked Brigid to come on the blog to talk about the research she did.
As I journey into the world of the writer, I find myself more and more accessing my right brain, the half that favors creativity over logic, feelings over facts. But old habits (or in this case, old brains) die hard. You see, in my former life, I was a soil scientist, and it’s nearly impossible to get any type of scientist to completely surrender to her right brain. Nevertheless, when it came to doing the research for my novel, A Fence Around Her, my fact-obsessed left brain served me well.
A Fence Around Her is set in the mining town of Bodie, California in 1900. You might wonder: Why Bodie? At the time I started the novel, I was living in Northern California, soaking up the history of the California Gold Rush of 1849. One evening, I was watching a TV show called California’s Gold, which highlighted little known points of interest around the state. That evening, Huell Howser, the jovial and enthusiastic host of the show, visited a ghost town in the Eastern Sierra. That ghost town was Bodie, and when I saw it, I got so excited I practically hurled myself into the screen. I knew I had to go there!
Bodie was far from my home and quite remote, but I managed to visit twice before relocating to Nebraska. On both visits, I took the tour of the stamp mill, where gold- and silver-bearing ore was crushed into dust and the precious metals amalgamated with mercury. The result was a substance not terribly unlike the stuff they still use to fill cavities in teeth, but in mining, there is a whole lot more mercury involved. On that first trip, I bought a respectable number of books from the museum bookstore. A year later, when I returned to Bodie, I threw reason to the wind and bought as many books as I could carry, although I couldn’t afford them at the time. I could tell the man working in the bookstore was worried about my sanity, probably because I bought so many things. I bought items they rarely sold, for example, obscure pamphlets such as “The Stamp Mill for Recovery of Gold” by Roger P. Lescohier. I’ve read this gem multiple times. (Yes, I am a mining nerd.) But he really reacted when I picked up something he probably never sold before: a detailed street map of Bodie in its heyday. I keep it in a fancy poster tube in my clothes closet, and regularly unfurl and examine it to get my characters going in the right direction.
Now the trick to writing historical fiction is to read, read, read, and read more about your time and location, but not to, under any circumstances, bore your reader with all those details. All that information should be parsed out naturally as the story progresses. Using two excerpts from A Fence Around Her, let me demonstrate what I mean by that. First, here is a scene in which my main character, fourteen-year-old Ruthie Conoboy, visits the stamp mill where her father works as head machinist:
As I moved through the door to the stamp room, the sound of the stamps crashing down onto the ore seemed to envelope my arms and legs, slowing me down as if I were trying to swim through a sea of syrup. It made my heart tremble and in some mysterious way tickled the bottom of my throat. I had to remind myself to keep breathing and moving forward. While the pounding of the mill was with me everywhere in Bodie, standing in the stamp room was to this day the most exhilarating experience of my life.
Watching the men working at the apron, I felt a light nudge at my arm like a dog sniffing at it. Mr. Waxum, the small, sallow man in charge of the amalgamation process, stood next to me. He held a little bottle up to my face with a grin, revealing big yellow teeth. I held out my hand to him, and with a precise tip, he poured into it a droplet of mercury. With a satisfied smile, he went back to his work.
For a time, I became absorbed in the little gift Mr. Waxum had given me, although he did this every time he saw me in the stamp mill. I rolled the mercury around the crevices of my cupped palm, wondering at its liquid silver softness. It seemed to be a tiny, mirrored globe, depicting the entire world in microscopic detail on its bright metallic surface.
You see? Not too much detail from Mr. Lescohier’s fascinating (ahem…to me) pamphlet about stamp mill operations. But what about that map? Well, later in the book, Ruthie is sent by her mother to look for a very bad man by the name of Tobias Mortlock. She really doesn’t want to find Mortlock and instead goes to her friend Susanna’s house for an embroidery lesson. But what will she tell her mother? So as not to flat out lie, she walks around Bodie, pretending to look for Mortlock. Here’s her route:
As I stood for a moment on Park Street outside Susanna’s house, considering what to do next, I realized that Susanna had swept back the bee and flower embroidered curtains and was watching me like a mother sending a small child out to play. Nodding my head and pointing in the direction of my own house, I moved out of her line of sight to where Park Street emptied onto Green Street. I thought better of walking home up the hill. The problem was that I had promised my mother that I would look for Mortlock, and while I had no intention of finding him, I hated to tell her an outright lie. It seemed like a short, cursory search was in order. That way what I told her regarding how I had spent the last few hours would at least have some small morsel of truth in it.
First I turned north on Main Street and passed the Comstock Saloon, after which I walked up Standard Avenue to linger for a moment in front of the Stamp Mill. From there I came back down to Main and went north of King Street, passing by John Wagner’s and the New Bonanza Saloon. Then I turned around and headed west on King Street through the old Chinatown, making a circle on Fuller and Green Streets back to Main. Walking a few blocks south on Main Street, I stopped to look at a few of the lodging houses there. Again I headed north, and as I turned the corner to climb up Green Street to our house, I glanced at the Old Sawdust Corner Saloon, catching my breath in my throat. From a distance, I had seen a group of men conversing on the porch. From their way of standing and physical build, I had already concluded that none were Mortlock. Nevertheless, when I forced my eyes in that direction, I still expected to see him there, pausing in mid-sentence, leveling his cold smile at me over his companion’s shoulder.
Yes, I wrote that with a map stretched out in front of me, a map on which most of the buildings mentioned no longer exist. Had I not, would anyone be the wiser? Only I and a bunch of other folks who are also obsessed with Bodie would know the difference. And that’s the thing about writing historical fiction: if the writer doesn’t believe it, it is very difficult for her to make the reader believe it.
A Fence Around Her
YA Historical Fiction
September 7, 2016
Can a girl break free from her mother’s past?
Having a mother with a past is never easy. For Ruthie Conoboy it becomes the struggle of a lifetime in 1900, the year Tobias Mortlock arrives in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. Ruthie is suspicious of this stranger, but her trusting father gives him a job in the stamp mill. Soon, Ruthie suspects that her mother and Mortlock have become more than friends. Can Ruthie stop this man from destroying her family?
About the Author
Brigid Amos’ young adult historical fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Storyteller, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Words of Wisdom. A produced playwright, she co-founded the Angels Playwriting Collective and serves on the board of the Angels Theatre Company. She is also an active member of Women Writing the West and the Nebraska Writers Guild. Although Brigid left a nugget of her heart behind in the California Gold Country, most of it is in Lincoln, Nebraska where she currently lives with her husband.
Connecting with Brigid:
Join Brigid’s mailing list: http://www.brigidamos.com/mailing-list-signup.html
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Follow Brigid on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brigid_Amos
Visit Brigid’s website: http://www.brigidamos.com/