When I was researching my novel, I found it helpful to have artifacts that made me feel connected to the world my characters inhabited. Orton and Sadler’s Business Calculator and Accountants Assistant is one such artifact in my collection. It was published in Baltimore in 1877. One of the authors, W.H. Sadler, was the president of Bryant and Stratton Business College there. The title page proclaims it “A Cyclopaedia of the most concise and practical methods of business calculations, including many valuable labor-saving tables, together with improved interest tables, decimal system: showing the interest on from $10 to $10,000–rate, ten per cent. per annum.” In 1888, the price of the book was $1. I purchased it for $10 more than a hundred years later.
Two of my characters are bankers in the 1880s-1890s, so this book seemed like something they could have used. It’s a handy little compendium of everything from shortcuts for arithmetic computation to determining the weight of live cattle. Need to “Ascertain the cost of one quire of paper” in cents per pound? Page 264 has a handy table. How many cubic feet of stone constitute a perch? 24.75, of course. This was the interwebs in your pocket.
I thought I would have one of my characters refer to the book or use one of the tables, but I never found any natural way to work it in. I keep the book on my shelf, though. It’s one way I can touch the nineteenth century.
This idea might not be so strange. Jack Finney‘s characters used clothing and other artifacts to facilitate time travel through self-hypnosis in his book Time and Again and its sequel From Time to Time. I’m not a big science fiction fan, but that’s one of my favorite books. Perhaps there’s a bit of Finney seeping through my subconscious, giving me the idea of time travel through objects.
How about you other writers out there–do you collect objects to connect in a tangible way to your characters’ lives as you research?
I wanted the 19th century character in my novel to come into possession of a peddler’s pack with some money sewn into the bottom. I figured about $50 or so would be the right amount, so I put that into the story. Then I started to wonder how many coins that would be and what size they’d be.
On Ebay I found somebody selling an 1856 dollar gold coin–three years before my character encounters the pack. So far so good–until the coin arrived in the mail. As you can see by comparison with the penny in the photograph above, the coin is tiny and weighs next to nothing. It would take a lot of those coins to be noticeable in a canvas pack. I had to start rethinking the amount of money and how big the stack of coins would be.
Since a five dollar gold coin is a bit bigger, I decided to have ten of those sewn into the pack. I don’t have ten coins and a peddler’s pack to test, so I hope it’s at least plausible.
Opium plays an important part in the plot of my unpublished novel A Useful Life. Before I started writing, I researched the history of opium, its effects on the human body, and the behavior of addicts.
I was on a self-imposed writing retreat at a cabin in West Virginia when I wrote one of the scenes in which a character is experiencing hallucinations. It was summertime and extremely hot, so I was sitting outside on the bank of the river. At some point, I just couldn’t concentrate, so I went into town to browse the art galleries and antique stores.
Some of the booths in the antique stores were selling empty glass bottles and vials of various sorts, so I thought it might be interesting to search for something related to opium. When I saw the vial pictured above, I was elated. Embossed along the side are the words, “Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium.” I had no idea if it was authentic, but it wasn’t too expensive, so I purchased it.
When I got home, I found on the internet that it was a popular brand of patent medicine available in the United States from about the 1840s until the 1900s. It was a product that could have been used by my character.
I’ve had the vial now for several years and keep it on the shelf in my writing studio. The thought of an upstanding citizen of a community being an opium addict was one of the ideas that sparked my imagination in the first place and made me want to write my novel. Why do some people succumb to addiction and how does it divert their life paths? What does it do to those around them? Is it possible to intervene? These are questions I wanted to explore. Of course, the novel asks many other questions as well, but the opium vial is a reminder to me of the genesis of this story.
Here are a couple of other photos of a different vial with the wrapper intact. Thanks to Lynda Dalpe for sending these to me.