Writing a historical novel is a balancing act of the modern and the ancient, from current and past ethical boundaries to a balance of the literary styles of two different eras.
On the first topic, I have a friend, Albert A Bell, who writes ancient Roman mysteries, and his protagonist, Pliny the Younger, is a slave-owner. Part of Albert’s task is to include in Pliny the attitudes of a wealthy Roman toward those slaves, while still keeping him a sympathetic character to the reader. It’s a definite balancing act. I don’t know what Pliny really thought about his slaves or how he treated them but Albert keeps him distanced yet reasonably compassionate and makes it believable. I doubt many Roman slave-owners thought much about their slaves as people but to the modern mind it’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to a character who treats people as inferior. Modern readers, for the most part, want a protagonist they can see as a good guy, which sometimes blurs the line of historical accuracy.
In my novels, set in 1910s Detroit, many people with social status would have been raised with very definite opinions regarding people of color, the poor, and the ‘insane’ – which would have included gay people, who were considered sexual deviants. My protagonist, Will Anderson, was raised in that type of household, and when an openly (or as openly as was possible) gay man tries to befriend him, Will rebuffs him again and again. He accepts the man’s help only when he has exhausted all his alternatives. I felt like I was walking the line there. I wanted to include a historical perspective on homosexuality but I also wanted this character to be significant in the book. The only way I could do that was to box Will in enough that he had no choice. From there it felt right.
On the second topic, writing style has obviously changed a great deal over the years. Even though my books take place only a hundred years ago, if I wrote in the style of the early 20th century most readers would yawn and put down the book halfway through the first chapter. (That’s not strictly true. If I wrote a book in the style of the day no publisher would touch it, so no one would read it at all.)
Our goal as historical fiction writers needs to be to create the impression of the historical style. Our books are not written in the verbiage, syntax or particularly the style of the time period we write but are instead our approximation of that language – to create the feeling of authenticity to the reader while keeping the book moving along.
The most common method employed is to use loftier language for the well-to-do. With most historical novels set in the US, I tend to read with an English accent. There is a definite reality to that. Depending on time and place, it wasn’t unusual to hear educated Americans speaking much more like Brits.
However, poor people did not speak that way – in America or anywhere else. They used terrible grammar and had horrible vocabularies, and many of them swore like stevedores. (How’s that for a historical word?) I personally get suspicious when I’m reading a book in which the peasants speak like nobility. Okay, there probably were a few – somewhere – but the other millions of poor folks didn’t even know anyone who talked like that. They didn’t go to school. They didn’t read. Heck, they didn’t bathe. When survival is the rule of the day language tends to be left behind.
I imagine this is a somewhat contentious issue, so what do you think? Should historical writers strive for absolute historical accuracy or should they write in a way that readers will find more accessible? You’ve seen which side I come down on. How about you?
July 25th, 2012 will be a major anniversary for Detroit.
July 25th marks the centennial anniversary of the arrests of nine Detroit aldermen and the secretary of the council committee in a fascinating, yet oh, so familiar, bribery "sting."
It seems the Wabash Railway Company wanted to have part of a street vacated so they could expand their freight warehouses. The City Council was opposed to this and delayed the action. Mayor William Thompson suspected the council was stalling in the hopes of obtaining bribes, so he enlisted the William Burns Detective Agency to investigate.
Burns was already considered "America's Sherlock Holmes" because he had, over the past few years, cracked a number of cases involving dynamiters, corrupt politicians, grifters, thieves, and murderers, seemingly with no useful clues. By 1912, the public had been made aware that Burns' incredible success came from his secret use of the dictograph, a device originally designed as a business intercom.
Dictographs had become so popular for eavesdropping that a model called a "Detective Dictograph" was being manufactured. The whole works fit into a case no larger than what people used to carry their "Pocket Kodaks" (cameras). Inside the case were a microphone, a long pair of wires, and a small amplifier connected to a telephone receiver. The microphone would be planted in a room and wired back to the amplifier in another room. With a detective dictograph, one of Burns' men would monitor and transcribe any incriminating conversations.
By 1912, Burns had moved, whenever possible, from a dictation-style dictograph to a "telegraphone," a high-quality recording device most often used for office dictation, which made convictions a snap. The best telegraphone at the time recorded with electromagnets onto wires that ran from one reel to another, similar to more recent tape recorders. The sound quality was good enough that voices were immediately recognizable, and made it impossible for defense attorneys to claim that someone was impersonating their client. The telegraphone would also record up to thirty minutes on a wire, which was much longer than could be accomplished on a record or cylinder recorder.
Burns had one of his detectives play the role of a Wabash representative, and he did an excellent job, forcing the aldermen to each come to his office and make their demands, which ranged from $200 to $1,000. Burns himself was there to arrest Thomas Glinnan, the president of the council, as he walked out of the "Wabash" office with $1,000 in his pocket. Faced with the telegraphonic evidence, Glinnan confessed, and the sting concluded as a complete success.
This is a case in which the mayor of Detroit concocted a sting operation detailed enough to use as a plot line in a movie. In doing so, he removed ten criminals from City Hall. Huzzah! (as they might have said at the time.)
Though I have no evidence of any scheme on Thompson's part, I wonder just how pure his motives were.
"Honest Tom" Glinnan, the president of the council who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, was in the midst of campaigning for a higher political office, which would be decided in the November election.
Glinnan was running against Thompson, for mayor.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Vito Adamo controlled much of the crime in Detroit. In The Detroit Electric Scheme, my protagonist, Will Anderson, runs afoul (as we say in historical mysteries) of Adamo, and pays a high cost for that. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, puts Will into the middle of the first recorded mob war in Detroit history—a bloody campaign of shotgun murders on the streets of Little Italy, fought between the Adamo and Gianolla gangs.
People often think of this time period as a golden age, with family values and proper manners and all that good stuff, but the reality was pretty ugly—unless you were one of the few “Haves.”
Vito Adamo wanted to be one of them. He came over from Sicily in the early 1900’s and moved to Ford City, downriver of Detroit (now part of Wyandotte). He and his brother Salvatore opened a grocery in Ford City and branched out into Black Hand work—the protection racket—as well as importation of various items from untaxed liquor to illegal aliens. Adamo was known as the “White Hand.” Once the Black Hand had gone in to collect protection money from a business owner, the White Hand would visit and demand money to protect the business from the Black Hand.
In both cases, they were Adamo’s men. (He was a creative entrepreneur. Don’t we respect that in this country?)
The Gianolla brothers, Tony, Sam, and Gaetano, owned a grocery store across the street from the Adamo brothers’ store, but competed with them in more ways than groceries. They wanted what the Adamo brothers had. To gain the upper hand in the beer business, the Gianollas lowered their prices. The Adamos retaliated by matching the price and throwing in ice.
This was followed by the murder of two Gianolla associates, William Catalono and John Jervaso. Vito Adamo and another man were accused of the killings, and eventually they turned themselves in to face trial. It’s unclear why they did that, but I’d guess it was one of two things: either the Gianollas were getting too close and Adamo thought he’d be safer in jail, or he had arranged things so that he was certain of being acquitted. Since they were acquitted, I’m leaning toward the second idea.
When Adamo was released from custody, all hell broke loose. In 1913, over a period of about ten months, nine men were killed in a three block by five block section of Detroit’s Little Italy, and numerous others in the same area were shot or stabbed but lived. The weapon of choice was the shotgun.
The Detroit newspapers made this a front page story all year, and city residents were horrified enough that the police department put together a gang squad to make the city safe again. (How’d that work out?)
By the end of 1913 the gang war was over, and the victors went on to rule Detroit crime until nearly the end of the decade. I’d tell you who it was, but that would compromise Motor City Shakedown for you. You can find out in the book. If you don’t want to wait, it’s easy enough to find out on your own.
Drug Abuse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
The things I find most fascinating about researching turn-of-the-century America are the parallels between life then and life now. Drug abuse is an interesting comparison. You may be shocked to discover that a higher percentage of Americans were drug addicts in 1900 than in 2010. As much as 5% of the adult population of the U.S. was addicted to drugs (versus about 5% of the adult population using illegal drugs today, which includes the use of non-addictive drugs.)
Why? One reason is the use of morphine. Going back for decades, it was the standard painkiller for virtually all medical procedures. In fact, by the 1880’s morphine addiction was known as the “soldier’s disease,” because of its prevalent use by Union doctors in the Civil War. (Since the South didn’t have the money to purchase morphine, Confederate veterans didn’t have the problem.)
Secondly, drugs were legal. All of them. You could go into a pharmacy and order up yourself some heroin, morphine, cocaine, etc., and so long as you didn’t look like an addict, they would sell it to you over the counter.
So who was your typical drug addict? Today we think of young males, right? In 1900 the typical drug addicts were older women, often living in rural areas. Why? Patent medicines. The companies producing these medicines were not required to disclose their contents until 1906, which is when the tide began to turn in the battle against addiction.
The names of a few of the many patent medicines containing opium (as much as 50% of the mix!) were:
Mother’s Helper – A few slugs of that stuff would no doubt calm both mother and child. And that’s why people got hooked. Most addiction in those days was accidental. The users didn’t even know they were taking opium—or morphine—or heroin—or cocaine—or some combination of them. What they did know was that when they took the medicine they felt better. (Probably a lot better.)
Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living - Part 3CommerceIn 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. Part of the brochure covered industry. Did you know that in 1915, Detroit was #1 in the United States in the production of:
Other interesting business facts of Detroit in 1914: (Interesting to me anyway)
- Automobiles (okay, you knew that one)
- Automotive accessories
- Adding machines
- Pharmaceutical supplies
- Aluminum castings
- Pins! (Take that, other cities with pin production!)
Okay, enough with the stats—suffice it to say that Detroit was a city on the move!
- Thirty different manufacturers in the city had annual production of over $1,000,000
- Forty different businesses in Detroit employed more than 1,000 people, eight of them had more than 3,000 employees, and two had more than 15,000 employees
- 85,376,705 tons of freight with a value of $927,191,061 was shipped on the Detroit River—more than that of New York, London, and Hong Kong combined
- $28,000,000 was spent on new building construction
- Industrial employees in Detroit increased from 46,372 in 1900 to 156,687 in 1914
“Detroit—Where Life’s Worth Living” (Part 2) The People of Detroit In 1915, the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau put out a lovely brochure touting the many highlights of the city. At the time, Detroit was the seventh-largest city in the country. The population was estimated at 645,000, up from 465,000 in 1910. (A 39% increase in 5 years!) As a point of comparison, the 2010 census puts Detroit at 713,000 today--a 25% decrease from 2000 and the lowest number of any official census since 1910. In 1915 Detroit:
1915 Detroit was a happening place, and a city where a man (and only a man, well, only a white man) with moxie and talent could go from rags to riches. Immigrants from other parts of the U.S. and all around the world made up the vast majority of the population. The southern migration had begun with Ford’s “Five-dollar day” in 1914. (Up to this point, most unskilled laborers made a little over a dollar a day.) The five-dollar day sparked the growth of the middle-class, creating for the first time a large group of people who could afford to buy cars and eventually move out of the city centers where they worked. In that way, Ford first was responsible for a large part of Detroit’s growth and then for the decline of the city as those who could afford to leave did.
- There were more parks per capita than any other major city in the U.S.
- Per capita debt was the lowest of the 22 leading U.S. cities.
- The cost of living was the lowest of the 28-largest U.S. cities.
- 41% of the homes in the city were owned by their residents. (An extraordinarily high number for the day)
- Over 100,000 people were employed in the automobile industry.
- There were 447 miles of paved roads.
- About 5,000,000 tourists per year came to town, many of them “auto tourists.”
- The steamers on the Detroit River carried more than 11,000,000 passengers per year. You could ride one all day, listening to the orchestra, for ten cents.
- Navin Field, home of the Tigers, had a seating capacity of 25,000 and was the only centrally-located park in the big leagues.
- There were 110 public schools in the city with an annual budget of $1,600,000.
- There were more than 150 “moving picture houses” and 32 theatres for vaudeville, burlesque, and traditional theatre.
"Detroit--Where Life is Worth Living"
I've been perusing the Detroit Convention and Tourists' Bureau's 1915 brochure. They used the above slogan for the city, which was taken from this poem:
by Edgar A. Guest, Poet Laureate of Detroit
In Detroit, life's worth living.
In Detroit, we are giving,
In Detroit, it is true,
That our skies are always blue,
There's a smile for me and you,
Blithe and gay.
In Detroit, life is cheerful,
All the while,
For our people soothe the tearful,
With a smile,
We've a helping hand to lend,
To a stranger, foe or friend,
And our resting time we spend,
On Belle Isle.
In Detroit, we have pleasures
By the score;
And the rarest of our treasures,
Yes, and more,
Is our river, Oh! so bright,
Cool and restful, day and night,
Source of infinite delight,
O'er and o'er.
In Detroit, life's worth living,
Folks are gentle and forgiving,
If you stray,
In Detroit may I be,
When God's angel beckons me,
O'er the silent unknown sea,
I've spent a lot of the last three years trying to imagine Detroit as it was in 1910-1913. Walking the streets, studying photos, reading about the culture, entertainment, everyday life, and commerce, I thought I could just about see it. Now I wonder.
I can see the buildings and parks, the river steamers and mansions, but I don't think I can feel what the city was like back then. I don't know that any city in the twenty-first century could have the power and vibrancy of Detroit a hundred years ago. Now, I don't think people have changed much, and the have-nots always outnumbered the haves by a gigantic margin, but I think even they had a hope that is not evident in the city today, except in a few individuals who believe Detroit can rise again. My hat is off to those folks (who include my daughter Nicole).
In future posts I'll share some of the interesting info in the 1915 brochure, which is what I had intended to do with this post until I read "In Detroit." Will anyone--ever again--look at Detroit as Eddie Guest did once upon a time?
Killed in the press
The Detroit Electric Machining Room circa 1910
I had no idea how often something like the scene at the beginning of The Detroit Electric Scheme happened in real life. (Not the murder part, just the press "accident" part).
Two men at one talk this winter told me about their experiences, one at a Chrysler plant, the other at a Buick plant. One of the men had to clean out the press after a repairman had been working on the press from the inside and it stamped him. He was completely pulverized. Nothing left but liquids. The other knew a machine operator who had been leaning inside the press and put his hands up on the side of it to lever himself out. His head was still inside when one of his hands hit the switch.
Last night at the Cromaine Public Library, one of the men in attendance said he used to work at Fisher Body, and he told me about the evolution of these press accidents and the attempted solutions by management. He had to clean up after one man was crushed in a press and paid close attention to it from then on.
Initially there was one man at the control (single switch) while four other men would put the metal in the press, align it, and remove it when it had been stamped. When the man at the switch got distracted or hit the button accidentally , any of the four could lose a hand, arm, or head, depending on what they had in the machine at the time.
They went to a two switch system, so the button couldn't be pushed accidentally, but they still had the problem with the distracted operator. Also, machine operators for whom pushing two buttons was too much effort would push in one button and wedge it in place with a toothpick, so he'd just have to push one button to start the press. Additionally, men were losing legs because they would put their leg up to stretch at just the wrong time.
Next came all four men having to stand on certain spots or all hold onto a bar outside the press in order for it to work.
In the meantime, hundreds (thousands?) of men were maimed or killed by these machines. Think of the outcry today if something like that was happening (in this country. I'm sure there are similar problems in sweatshops around the world, but we don't hear about those.)
Life was cheap in the U.S. in those days, particularly when the men were easily replaceable and there wouldn't be publicity problems for the company. It was just the cost of doing business. Of course, the families of those men wouldn't feel the same way.
Batteries & Cost
In 1911 you could order a Detroit Electric with Thomas Edison's new nickel-steel batteries. Edison had been promising his new batteries for a decade and unsuccessfully tried to manufacture them numerous times before, but by 1910 he finally had them ready to go. For electric car manufacturers, this was the moment they'd been waiting for. The average mileage on a charge would go from 50 to 100! With the roads being what they were at the time, 100 miles would take you just about anywhere you wanted to go.
In fact, Detroit Electric ran a mileage test in the fall of 1910 with Edison batteries and set a mileage record of 211.3 miles on a single charge. (Chronicled in The Detroit Electric Scheme.) And then Baker Electric one-upped them in December with over 243 miles!
A 1911 Detroit Electric cost between $2,000 and $3,500, depending on the model. The Edison battery added $600 to the cost. Ouch. As a contrast, a Model T roadster cost $600 for the whole car! Of course, it was nothing - at all - like a Detroit Electric. Still, the average cost of a new car in 1911 was $1,130.
Unfortunately, batteries, whether nickel-steel or lead-acid, didn't get significantly cheaper. Gasoline automobile prices kept diving, driven by intense competition and improvements in manufacturing efficiency. The electric car companies never gained that advantage, and their prices stayed very static.
The price gap kept growing, and the self-starter for the gas cars eliminated the greatest advantage the electrics held--easy starting. By the time "The Great War" began, electrics were on the ropes. By 1920 they were all but gone. (Although, believe it or not, Detroit Electric was in business into the 1940's!)
Who killed the Electric Car?
Electric cars were more popular at the turn of the 20th Century than gasoline cars, but by 1920 they had almost entirely disappeared. Was this due to a conspiracy between Henry Ford and Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller?
I wish. Sexy conspiracy theories are always more exciting than the truth. I find it interesting that most of the issues that dogged electrics a hundred years ago are the same problems they have today. Hoping that someone else finds it interesting as well, I will post a series of entries on the reason the electric car died. First . . .
The American Man and the Art of Touring
The automobile opened up this country for exploration. Previously, if a person wanted to travel they would either hook up the horse and wagon or take a train. They could direct the horses wherever they wanted and weren't limited by a schedule, but horses couldn't cover a lot of ground in a day. A train traveled faster and further, but they were limited by the tracks and the train's schedule.
With an automobile a traveler could cover a lot of ground and go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. And the automobile was so doggone manly. With his scarf trailing behind him in the breeze, his goggles fixed firmly in place, and the woman he was courting on the seat next to him, a man could travel the countryside. If he was lucky, he could stop in a secluded area for a picnic and perhaps a bit of romance.
Cars were an accessory to a "manly man." The cooler the car, the cooler the man (or so the men thought. Sound familiar?) Cars were also expensive. Few people could afford one until the 1920's. In the early part of the 20th century, owning a car signaled to all that you were wealthy.
Touring became the rage, the pastime for the rich. It was the primary reason most men bought cars. This was a problem for the electric.
Steam-powered automobiles ran on water, so the boiler could be filled practically anywhere. Gasoline-powered cars could be driven anywhere gas could be delivered, which, as the internal combustion engine grew in popularity for things like tractors, was virtually anywhere.
Charging an electric required electricity--something not readily available in the country. Well into the 20th century, most rural areas didn't have electrical service. Those that did most often didn't have a facility designed to charge an electric car. If a man took his electric out for a tour, he might not get back. In the early 1900's electrics got an average of about fifty miles on a charge. Who wanted to take the chance of getting stranded?
So if electrics were the third choice for touring, who bought them? Mostly city folk, who drove only in the city. There were a few dandies who didn't mind being seen behind the wheel of an electric car, but they were purchased most often to be driven by women. And the vast majority of women didn't--and wouldn't--drive. The second most common customers were city doctors--house calls, you know. Starting quickly and easily was important in a life or death situation. Electric delivery trucks were also a fairly common purchase during this time, for things like coal, ice, and milk--products that were delivered within a relatively small geographic area.
The purchase of purely electric cars was limited to a tiny part of the population: people who could afford to buy a car just for city driving. (And remember, this was before the rise of the middle class.) Given that few men bought cars to drive around a city, this was strike one against the electric.
Next time--Battery Technology and Cost