Friday, January 25, 2008

History Lesson

Confession time. I used to get Cs in history. I never saw the merit of remembering the names of war generals, types of foreign governments, or other equally fascinating details (see, I really didn’t pay attention). I don’t write historical fiction. So why am I spending more time researching than writing?
Each time I write a new scene in my Bodley Boys book (suggestions for a new title greatly appreciated!) I stumble on a topic involving research. If I’m describing Broad Street in the fall of 1935, I need to know details of building architecture, which cars were being driven, whether horse & buggies were still clomping through the cobblestone streets. (If this is one of those really obvious facts, please forgive me. I’m smart in other ways.) If the librarian is shuffling through the Bodleian in 1947, I need to know his real name, the clothes he wore, and the phrases he used.

Wait a minute; am I writing historical fiction? Granted, most of the book is set in current day Oxford. But once the tour group enters Duke Humfrey’s library on the second floor and touches the centuries’ old books hanging from original chains, the reader needs to be transported back in time. When an English professor lifts a book off of the shelf in the Upper Reading Room, I need to make sure that particular book is not located in the Lower Reading Room instead. When the kids in the 1930’s bicker at each other, their language needs to be accurate.

Maps and brochures from my visit to Oxford are very useful and internet research is invaluable. A fascinating book, Most Noble Bodley, edited by Ursula Aylmer, an anthology of writings from prominent library historical figures (even Thomas Bodley himself), sits on my desk, yellow post-its sticking out from the pages. I’ve been scouring local libraries (online, of course) for History of the Bodleian: 1845-1945, by Herbert Henry Edmund Caster (former librarian) so I don’t have to pay the $55 for a used Amazon seller’s version (plus shipping!) But, imagine that, the Plano and Frisco libraries don’t have a copy. This morning I located a copy at one of SMU’s libraries and I’m off to see if they’ll loan it to me.

If only my high school History teacher knew his C student was this excited to learn. Maybe he’d change my grade. In the end, though, we all know my goal: to hop a British Airways flight for another site visit to Oxford.

5 comments:

pamela hammonds said...

Make that two tickets and I'll happily go as your research assistant. I, too, was not good in history. Maybe the fault lies with the teachers we had for not making history fun to learn. I know I've learned more about history from my kids' history projects than I ever learned from a textbook. This year my son made a travel brochure for Lewis and Clark and a four-page newspaper about the Boston Massacre. Now that's interesting!

Maria Zannini said...

I love history, but my latest wip (circa late 16th Century) has taken soooo long to finish due to all the research for details on things like food, dress and mannerisms.

Next time it's back to the future for me.

Joan Mora said...

You're on, Pamela! Yes, the teachers today are much better than the ones I remember.

Joan Mora said...

To me, speculating about the future would be more difficult than verifying the past. My mind doesn't work that way! Although, if Picard gave me a few pointers...

BostonCowboy said...

1935? I don't understand why you go to books to find out about people, places and things, in that time period when you have people around you that lived them.