In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author M. Louisa Locke discusses using fact as touchstones when writing fiction.
“The feast of All Saints, which was ushered in Friday evening by the old-fashioned games of ‘All Hallows’ E’en, was yesterday celebrated in the Catholic and Episcopal Churches.” San Francisco Chronicle, 1879
“It’s barmbrack cake. Beatrice has baked a ring in it, and tradition has it that the girl who gets the slice with the ring will marry within the year.” Annie Fuller, Uneasy Spirits.
The first quote above is from a real person, who was reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle about real events. The second quote is by Annie Fuller, a fictional person and my protagonist, from my newly published historical mystery, Uneasy Spirits, which is set in 1879 San Francisco. As we approach Halloween, 2011, I thought it would be fitting to discuss how I used factual data from the past to provide historical context for a work of fiction.
As I was plotting Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, I knew that I wanted the story to start only a few months after the first book ended, which was the last week of August, 1879. I also knew the basic plot was going to revolve around Annie Fuller trying to expose the shenanigans of a trance medium who claimed to commune with the spirits of the dead. So, placing the action of Uneasy Spirits around October 31 and the celebration of Halloween seemed a fairly obvious choice.
I got a calendar for October 1879 (one of the wonders of the internet is being able to find this sort of thing so easily), made a list of the main scenes I had outlined for the book, and then decided to make Halloween (which was a Friday that year) the day when several of the semi-climatic scenes in the story occurred. I then literally counted back from October 31, and determined that the opening scenes of the book should happen about 3 weeks from this date. In the final version of the book, the first chapter opens on October 11.
But then I was faced with a real problem. Despite being a professional historian and having written a dissertation that focused primarily on women who worked in San Francisco in 1880, I had no clue how people in 1879 San Francisco would have celebrated Halloween. Did they trick or treat? Wear costumes? Have Jack o Lanterns? I had some vague idea that young boys in small towns went around tipping over outhouses on this night in “earlier days,” but beyond that, I didn’t even know if anyone would actually celebrate this night at all, much less how, in a larger city like San Francisco.
A little research was in order. The first clue came with the mention in the San Francisco Chronicle of “old-fashioned games of All Hallows’ E’en.” I now knew to look for what someone in 1879 would consider “old fashioned games,” which led me to several internet sites that reported on Halloween, including an article in Harpers Magazine for 1886. In addition there were a good number of contemporary articles detailing the history of this holiday.
All these articles agreed that, while Halloween’s roots can be traced back to a number of ancient cultures and religious beliefs, in the 19th century it was the Celtic peoples, particularly the Irish, who had the strongest influence on the development of Halloween as a night of celebration. It was the Irish who seemed responsible for turning October 31 into a night of fun and games, and Irish immigrants brought their traditions with them to America, profoundly influencing how this country celebrated this holiday.
I couldn’t have been more pleased with this information because the Irish were an enormously important ethnic group in San Francisco in 1879. They not only made up a substantial percentage of the working class of the city, they also were represented among some of the economic and political leaders of San Francisco (men like James Flood and William O’Brian, the Silver Kings, and Frank McCoppin, a former mayor.)
Not coincidentally, two of the most important people in Annie Fuller’s life are her cook, Beatrice O’Rourke, and her maid-of-all-work, Kathleen Hennessey, both Irish. Once I knew about the prominence of parties as the way to celebrate Halloween in the late 19th century, it was easy to decide that Annie Fuller would host a party at the boarding house she owned, with Beatrice and Kathleen inviting their friends and family. A perfect setting for one of the main climatic scenes of the book.
And what fun that party was to write. There were indeed jack-o’lanterns at that time (in Ireland the tradition was to use turnips!), and I was able to work a pumpkin into the plot in what I thought was an unusual way. In addition, there were games like “snap the apple,” dancing, and special foods, like the barmbrack cake, which was one of several elements of Halloween activities that revolved around trying to foretell the romantic futures of participants.
I now had a way to provide a new and different setting in which my characters could interact. The detail I had gleaned from my research would make my portrayal of the past more authentic. And finally I was able to leaven what could have been a series of very “heavy” scenes with a light, humorous scene, which is one of my goals as a writer. And I learned something, which was much fun for me as I hope it is for the reader.
Oh, and click here to find a recipe for that barmbrack cake, in case you want to make it for Halloween!
Lynne Olver, Halloween and Day of the Dead Food Traditions, 2005 http://www.foodtimeline.org/halloween.html
Bridget Haggerty, An Irish Halloween Part 1 and 2
William Sharp, “Halloween: A Threefold Chronicle,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol 73, 1886