Making It Real: Bringing Historical Fiction Alive
Carbone, Elisa, Teacher Librarian
THIS WAS THE PLAN: I WOULD GO TO A PET STORE AND BUY A COUPLE BOXES OF THOSE MEALWORMS THAT WE USED TO FEED THE PET CHAMELEONS THAT WE GOT AT THE CIRCUS. I FIGURED, THEY COULD NOT BE THAT GROSS--AT LEAST, THEY ARE NOT SOFT LIKE SOME WORMS. THEN, I WOULD SPEND 5 DAYS EATING ONLY WHAT THE JAMESTOWN COLONISTS ATE DURING THEIR HUNGRY TIMES: ONE CUP OF WORMY GRAIN IN THE MORNING AND ONE CUP OF WORMY GRAIN IN THE EVENING.
I wanted to feel the colonists' hunger, their weakness, their wanting. I wanted to see what I thought of meal worms floating to the top of my dinner when I was very hungry. Would my sensibilities change? Would I hardly notice them as I waited impatiently for my grain to cook?
On a week in mid-May, I set up camp on the shores of the James River, within sight of the original Jamestown fort. On my camp stove, I cooked just one cup of plain oatmeal in the morning and one cup of plain pasta in the evening. But ... I did not add worms. I chickened out of that part and decided to use my imagination to fill in that detail. I did, however, experience hunger and how amazingly good even plain food tastes when you are that hungry. And the sights and sounds that greeted me at sunset, at dawn, at midday, gave me the feel of what the Jamestown colonists must have experienced that May of 1607, when they first landed. I sat with my pen and paper, making notes about everything--the way that chirping insects announced the dusk, the way that sunlight filtered through early spring leaves, the sound that the river made lapping the shore.
TOUCHING THE PAST
The challenge for me in writing historical fiction is this: How can I see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and know what my main character experienced? I have always done this through a combination of book research, exploring original records, searching for artifacts, doing interviews, and reenactment. I am an experiential learner. I am also somewhat dyslexic, so the book research can take me just so far. Touching real original records and artifacts can often transport my imagination back in time in ways that no microfilm ever could.
Near the place where I camped in May, the newly rediscovered original Jamestown fort is being excavated by archeologists. One day, I left my campsite and wandered into the old fort. On display were original postholes (stains in the dirt from where the wooden posts of the Jamestown fort palisade rotted), the old well, and building foundations. I watched the archeological dig for a while--two young men and one woman carefully troweling dirt and passing it through a large sieve, and one archeologist on hand to answer questions for tourists. I chatted with the archeologist, and she answered questions for me.
At one point, the archeologist scooped up some of the artifacts that had just been unearthed--pottery shards that were seeing the light of day for the first time in nearly 400 years. "This is a piece of pottery from England, late 1500s, probably around 1585," she said pointing to a quarter-sized piece with intricate blue designs on white glaze. "And this is Powhatan pottery from the contact period," she said of a half-dollar-sized rugged brown shard. She explained that the contact period encompassed the early years of the colony, when trade between the colonists and the Powhatan Indians was common, before European-Powhatan relations deteriorated. The heart of that time was 1608, when 10-year-old Amonute, the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan (nicknamed Pocahontas), did cartwheels through the fort with the young English boys, when Captain John Smith strutted thought the fort enforcing his "He who will not work shall not eat" rule of law.
I stared at the pottery in her hand. "So, Captain Smith could have touched the piece that came over from England?" I asked. "Of course," she said.
"And Pocahontas could have touched the bowl made by her tribe?" I asked. "Absolutely," she said.
"Can I touch . …