Years ago, I was standing on downtown Seattle’s urban shore of Puget Sound looking across the blue water towards the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. A friend by my side stared at the gorgeous landscape with me. “If you could be anywhere in the world right now where would you like to be?” she asked.
I thought a quick second and said, “Right here, but 200 years ago.” What would this beautiful site have been like without a big metropolis sitting on it, not that it’s a bad metropolis, but still I wondered. Time travel. What was it like when…?
And many other years ago, I was roaming around eastern upstate New York: Saratoga, Cambridge, Mechanicville, and haunting antique-y places while I roved. I became fascinated with those wonderful early 20th century, hand-colored photo postcards that depicted settings in the area’s small towns, the fountains in the parks, the prominent buildings and architecture, the pretty sites. And as I went, I collected a batch of these postcards. Fortunately, because of this postcard craze a hundred years ago, many places in the U.S. and Europe were photo-documented (something we have no lack of today). With my postcards in hand, I then looked for the upstate spots where they were taken and I found many of them. I took a photo of the “today” place, then printed and hand-colored it and matched it with the old postcard in an album. It was all great fun.
Later, the same fascination of “now versus then” overtook me when I was doing the research for The Spirit Room, which is set in Geneva and Rochester, New York, and New York City just before the Civil War. I had lived in New York City, in Tribeca in fact, so I had a good feel for the historic buildings and the presence of the rivers in lower Manhattan. And having spent time upstate, I had a strong connection to the towns and landscape there, but I needed to go much deeper when I was developing my story and characters who would be living, dying, crying, loving, touching, eating, sleeping, and all manner of carrying on life, in 1859 and 1860. So I hung out in both Geneva and Rochester for a couple of spells, visiting libraries, historical societies, historical museums, and the place, just the hills and dales and waterways of the place.
I stood at the edge of the Erie Canal and walked part of the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor, an ambitious public trail project that will ultimately cover 524 miles of New York’s canalways. I had a detailed map of the Seneca Lake area and found places to walk (and trespass) and wander. This is how I found the actual spot, Kashong Point, where Almira Benton drowns before the story begins. It had been the site of a Seneca Indian village in the 1700’s until the village was destroyed in a massacre led by General John Sullivan. Even though there is no trace of that Seneca settlement today (except for a small sign), the place has had many lives and deaths upon it.
The Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York is another New York state heritage treasure. It is literally a 19th century village with 40 restored and meticulously furnished buildings and costumed guides demonstrating the ways of daily life. Many of the rooms I visited there seared images into my mind that became “sets” for numerous scenes in The Spirit Room.
As I continued my “place” research, I took in the smell of decaying foliage and moldy old buildings. I waded into the very cold Seneca Lake and tried to hear beyond the street and air traffic noise to the breezes and the birds. I stood for a long time on Seneca Street in Geneva and picked out the building where my characters would hold their séances and I walked the residential Geneva streets to find the home where they would live and I did the same in the historic Corn Hill neighborhood in Rochester. Newspapers, books, maps, photographs, directories, and journals were all profoundly helpful, but it was going back in time myself, imagining what it was like in another era that fired me up to create the settings my characters would dwell in.
I think going back in time is absolutely the most delightful thing about writing historical fiction. And every author finds her own way to do this. For me, place was truly and profoundly inspirational.