Month: October 2016

Lesson from Live Theatre

Last week I attended a performance of  Hilda’s Yard by Norm Foster.  The hour and a half drive to get there was horrible — traffic, rain, dark, fog — but the play was a delight. I love live performance, whether it’s a play, a symphony or a ball game. Since I can turn on a device and watch or listen to the best in the world in the comfort of my own home while enjoying a snack, I’m puzzled by why I prefer live performance.

I think it has to do with the immediacy of the event. When I sit in a small theatre and the actor speaks from the stage, he’s speaking directly to me. When something bad happens, my response, along with that of the whole audience, is part of the experience. There is no barrier between me and the story.  When I watch television, I know I’m watching a screen. The story may amuse, horrify or annoy me, but it’s just a story and I’m watching from a safe distance. When the story is on stage and I’m in the audience, I’m part of the story.

So, can I use what I’ve learned from going to theatre to add immediacy to my books? Is it possible to engage the reader in the same way the actor engages me?

The answer is no, not exactly. For one thing, a reader has to work a lot harder than an audience member and the words on paper or screen form a barrier. The reader can’t hear or see in the same way. But, the writer can enhance the immediacy of the story by using active voice, strong pacing and deft language. In our age of tweets and images it’s easy to forget the importance of language, but in the play I attended I noticed how the playwright used apt words and phrasing. He wasn’t obvious or “preachy” but the language made the story sing.

Another thing the staged play has going for it is the stage with its scenery and props. No need to labour over “showing” the reader the setting, it’s right there in front of them.

Still, an author of books can convey a scene so vividly the reader “sees” it in her mind’s eye and she can hear and smell and taste and touch too if the author wants her to. Sometimes I’ve read stories that are somehow disembodied and it’s because they’re set on the page and not in a place.  Writers can get so caught up on character and plot that we ignore setting.  Not a good idea. The setting grounds the reader and allows him/her to identify more completely with the protagonist. In a fantasy, the fantasy world must be so smoothly woven into the text that the reader can “feel” herself there.  In a cozy mystery the reader should long for a cup of tea in a dainty china cup.

In an historical we have to “create” the world of the place and time, but we’re also bound by fact.  We can’t have a character sign the Treaty of Versailles in London.  Writers of historical fiction spend their time immersed in the period trying to get all the little details right.  Harder than it seems.  History books are full of battles and acts of Parliament, but not much mention of domestic arrangements.  When our heroine or our hero gets up the in morning what does she do?  How does she dress?  How does she wash?  What’s involved in cooking in a medieval kitchen? How do you store milk without refrigeration?

I’m writing about late nineteenth century Canada. Even narrowing my time period down to twenty years, leaves lots of room for error. A woman living in a city had amenities someone living on a farm did not. If the railroad had reached the heroine’s town, she had access to books and fashions and tools that someone in a more remote community waited months and months to acquire, if ever. As mentioned in earlier posts on this page, fashion didn’t stand still either. Puffed sleeves went in and out of style. Bustles bounced high and low on a woman’s hips. Although dresses were long, hemlines did change, sometimes skirts brushed the floor, other times they rested at the top of the foot. Not an obvious difference to our eye, but a huge difference to how the wearer moved and worked.

Subtle things can give a story that elusive quality of  immediacy. The weather, the layout of a room, the style of dress, manners, patterns of speech. If you’re wondering how to give your story more life, make it more immediate to the reader, try going to live theatre. You may pick up some hints.

Fashion Authenticity

In my continuing quest for authenticity, I’ve been looking at photos from the late nineteenth century in British Columbia.    Here is a sampling.

This is a photo of Mrs. Friend of Atlin. B.C. taken near the turn of the twentieth century. High necked blouses and flared skirts were the order of the day.  Note the detail in the lace of the blouse shown on the right, and the decoration on the skirt on the left.  There is an almost “mannish” appearance to these two women, but the feminine touches are there if you look.

This photo of the Esquimalt Ladies Cricket team is in the B.C. Archives and dated 1890. Can you imagine playing cricket laced up that tight?

This one of women gold seekers in the Yukon in 1898 shows more work-a-day clothes than the cricketers, but those long skirts would be caked with mud and heavy.

Cecelia Spofford had her picture taken in 1890. Notice the puffs at the shoulders.  Of course, these professional photographs would show women in their best attire, not what they wore in the kitchen or the field.  Also, only persons of wealth and standing were likely to have a formal portrait taken.

This one of Windimere Pioneers is dated 1890. I find it useful because Windimere is off the beaten track – not a leader in ladies fashions.  Still, the women are well-dressed and out numbered.  When writing of this era in the interior of British Columbia it is well to remember that men grossly out-numbered women.  If a girl had a yen to marry, she’d not be short of proposals if she headed for the hinterland.

Finally, here is a page from the Eaton’s catalogue of 1897. Since women in even remote situations could order from a catalogue and expect the goods to be delivered, even if it took weeks to reach them, those with enough money could dress like this.  Note that Eaton’s is now selling attire for more active young women like those who rode a bicycle.

Still laced tightly at the waist, but those puffed sleeves would allow for a little more movement than the narrow ones of a few years previously.

Ginger Rogers is famously believed to have said, “I do everything a man does only backwards and in high heels.” Well, in the Canadian west, women did everything men did, only they did it in corsets and long skirts!

The Not-So-Wild West

Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony  were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England.  Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.
      Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner.  Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me.  As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”

Rules for Teachers

On my recent reunion trip, one of the stops of interest was the local museum.  Tacked to the wall, I found these following rules for teacher.  I’ve seen variations of these before and some dismiss them as urban myth, probably because they are not written into the contract.  The teacher didn’t have to agree to them, he/she simply had to follow them!

1872  Rules for Teachers

  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps and clean chimneys. (I think that means lamp chimneys, not the stove.)
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the days session.
  3. Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of each student.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings each week if they go to church regularly.
  5. After 10 hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. (Marriage is unseemly???)
  7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, gets shaved in a barbershop will give reason to inspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

I understand about the pool hall — well known as a den of iniquity — but I’m curious about the barbershop.  Surely a male teacher was expected to be well-groomed.  Was a shave in the barbershop unthrifty and therefore might contravene rule number 7?  Did men gossip at the barbershop?  Maybe it was the fear of barbershop singing!

1915 Rules for Teachers

  1. You will NOT marry during the term of your contract.
  2. You are NOT to keep company with men.
  3. You MUSt be home between the hours of 8pm and 6am unless attending a school function.
  4.  4. You MAY NOT loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
  5.  You MAY NOT travel beyond the city limits without the permission of the Chairman of the Board.
  6.  You MAY NOT ride in a carriage or an automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You MAY NOT smoke cigarettes.
  8. You MAY NOT dress in bright colours.
  9. You may, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, dye your hair.
  10. You MUST wear at least two petticoats.
  11. Your dress MSUT NOT be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankle
  12. To keep the schoolroom clean you MUST      
  • sweep the floor at least twice day.        
  • scrub the floor with hot soapy water at least once a week 
  • clean the blackboard at least once a day 
  • start the fire at 7am so that the room will be warm at 8am

So now the ice cream store is as unsavoury as the barbershop.

I find these two lists interesting in that the first seems aimed primarily at men, while the second clearly has women in its sights.  No doubt the lists reflect the increasing number of women employed as school teachers, but  I wonder if it is also is a result of the presence of women on the school board.  What all male school board would mention women’s petticoats, let alone dictate the number of them?  In the 1890’s Manitoba became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow women to vote in municipal elections and to hold office on the school board.  In 1895 Helen Mary “Marie” Grant was appointed the first female school trustee in Canada.

I confess to a certain romantic attachment to the 1890’s but I’d hate to wear two petticoats in the summer, I’d hate to have a male trustee dictate if I could visit outside the city and I’d certainly hate not going to the ice cream store.  Something to remember with we sigh for “the good old days.”

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