The story in History is important: Why I write historical fiction by M. Louisa Locke

Posted by on Aug 19, 2013 in 19th Century U.S., Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Research | 11 comments

I am a trained professional historian. I received a doctorate in history from the University of California, San Diego, in 1982. I then spent nearly thirty years teaching full time at the college level as a professor of U.S. and U.S women’s history.

The historical profession expects its practitioners to publish manuscripts based on well-documented original research, first as a doctoral thesis, then through articles in scholarly journals, and finally as non-fiction books through university presses. The adage, publish or perish, still holds true for those who wish to teach at four year institutions of higher learning, which had been my goal when working on my PhD.

While working on that doctorate, I dutifully researched and wrote a 376 page dissertation, ‘Like a Machine or an Animal’: Working Women of the Late Nineteenth Century Urban Far West, in San Francisco, Portland, and Los AngelesI then wrote a series of papers for professional panels at history conventions, and in 1989 I published an article in the Journal of Urban History.

Maids-185x280What I should have done at that point in my career is write a full-length non-fiction monograph based on my dissertation. Instead, I wrote the first draft of what was to become my first piece of historical fiction, the historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune.

This was a rather odd choice, and if I hadn’t ended up teaching full-time in a community college (where good teaching not publishing is the priority), it would have ended my professional career. The question is: why did I make that choice?

It isn’t that I don’t care about facts, no self-respecting historian would ever say that. However, I had learned in my graduate school training that doing history was more than getting the facts right, and that you can’t ever completely “know the facts” about the past because many of the facts are missing, and, finally, that it is often how you interpret the facts, and the gaps in them, that informs the narrative you develop about that past.

These lessons were particularly relevant if you were studying, as I was, “history from the bottom up.” This phrase, popular among historians in the mid-1970s, referred to the shift away from studying the political, economic, and social elites in society to uncover the history of African-Americans, immigrants, wage-workers, and women––the ordinary people who were generally invisible in history books.

And here I think is the clue to my attraction to fiction. Ordinary people, like the income-producing women who lived in the far west in the 19th century, were the people I wanted to learn about, and they were the people I wanted to make “come alive” to people in the present. But ordinary people in the past didn’t leave a lot of facts behind.

They were generally illiterate, so they didn’t leave behind diaries, newspaper articles, grocery lists, business letters, etc. When they did leave behind written evidence of their lives, these records were not viewed as important and were destroyed or they were difficult to find. For example, the materials written by women were often catalogued in archives under the names of the male members of their families rather than their own names.

This was one of the reasons I spent two solid years coding and analyzing the entries in the 1880 Federal manuscript census, because this was one of the few places I could find facts about the lives of the working women I wanted to study.

The 1880 census is a hand-written record listing basic information about nearly everyone living in the United States that year. For each person, the city ward number, house number, name, race, age, relation to household head, marital status, number of own children in the home, occupation, number of months unemployed in past year, school attendance in the last year, literacy, birthplace, father’s birthplace, mother’s birthplace, and birth rank among children was duly noted down. I teased out of this material over 40 variables on working women, gathering data on 10% of the working women in San Francisco, 50% of the women in Portland and every working woman in Los Angeles (which was a city of under 12,000 people in 1880.)

Then I went to work using a computer and statistical methods to analyze the facts about these women’s lives, producing a long, data-filled thesis on a group of ordinary, but in my mind, extraordinary Americans. I am proud of that work because it added to our historical understanding of 19th century urban America and the women who worked for wages in that period.

Yet, even as I worked away on this dissertation, I always knew that, even if I was fortunate enough to get my work published as a book for a university press, very few people would ever read it, hence very few people would learn about these women’s lives.

The average print run for University press books is small, probably under 1500 copies in the 1980s. Most academic books are bought by university libraries where they are read by a small number (perhaps in the 100s) of graduate students, who generally skim the material to determine a book’s thesis, develop some critical analysis of the material, and determine if there is anything that can contribute to their own doctoral research.

And this means in 1979, as I sat reading the 1880 manuscript census on micro-film and turning the data into numbers to be punched into cards that would be read by the university’s huge mainframe computer, I was already day-dreaming about how I could turn what I was learning into fictional stories that would be read by more than a hand-full of people.

Uneasy_Spirits185x280As a result, ten years later, when I had a brief six-month hiatus from teaching, I decided to turn my dissertation into a work of fiction rather than a monograph. I wanted to tell stories about the working women of the far west that would make their lives real to readers, stories that would actually be read.

I wanted to tell stories that I knew were true, but that, as a quantitative historian, I would not be able tell. For instance, I wanted to go beyond the fact I had discovered, that two-thirds of the live-in servants in San Francisco in 1880 were the only servants in the household, in order to tell a story that would make a reader actually feel how tiring to be a servant carrying on, by yourself, all the domestic tasks it took to maintain a middle-class household. And that is what I did in my first Victorian San Francisco Mystery, Maids of Misfortune. I also wanted to tell a story about the scores of women who advertised in the San Francisco Chronicle as fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and mediums, as I did in my second book, Uneasy Spirits, even though only a miniscule percentage of working women in that city held that job. I didn’t want to leave out important stories about people’s lives just because I did not have detailed enough evidence or a statistically significant sample.

That dream was deferred when I got that full-time job teaching at San Diego Mesa Community College, but for the rest of my teaching career I continued to value the efficacy of fiction in history, assigning novels in all my classes and using imaginary vignettes about ordinary people  in my lectures to make those people seem real to my students. And, when I retired, I turned to getting my fiction published.

At one point in my  last semester as a full time professor, I calculated that I had taught approximately 10,000 students over my thirty year career, and I felt a good deal of satisfaction that because of my lectures all those students had had a chance to learn about those working women I had collected data on.

bloody-lessons185x280But recently I was reminded of how much further my reach has been as a fiction writer when I added up and found that, since the beginning of 2010, over 300,000 copies of my two Victorian San Francisco mysteries have been sold, borrowed or downloaded for free. Even if only a fraction of those books are actually read, I can’t help but be gratified that my decision to pursue a fictional approach to history has meant that those western working women I had studied are better understood by more people than if I had simply followed the traditional professional trajectory and written that non-fiction monograph.

And so, as I count down the days until Bloody Lessons, the third book in my series, comes out (September 15, 2013), I am once again excited about getting the opportunity to share more stories about western working women, in this case a story about the women who were teachers in the public schools of San Francisco in 1880. And, while the “facts” will be accurate, it will be my fictional stories of their lives that will help them live on.

M. Louisa Locke, August 18, 2013  (Bloody Lessons is currently available to pre-order in print and ebook on Amazon.)

11 Comments

  1. I am one of those many people who read and enjoy your fiction, and appreciate your dedication to the historical accuracy of your story, but would never pick up a history book voluntarily. I am glad you chose to make the history you know more accessible to those of us who were turned off to history in school. Thank you!

    • Dear Jan,

      Thanks. I was very happy teaching at the community college level, and I congratulated myself for finding an institution that rewarded me for teaching, but I never guessed how rewarding getting my fiction out there to people would be. M. Louisa

  2. A very interesting posting. You do not say whether or not you found a publisher in the end, but even if you self-published via Amazon or some such, your figure of 300,000 and rising is truly impressive.

    I confess that your subject matter is not one that would interest me (I have written on the subject of Alexander the Great, and now am working on a book about Caravaggio) but one cannot appeal to everyone. You would probably find your task easier here in England, where our parish and court records go back further and are more accessible, but that only serves to emphasise your achievement.

    I wish you every happiness in your retirement, and I trust you will continue writing, filling in all those lost blank spaces that would have been reality for our great-great-grandmothers; giving them back their voice.

    Brent Smith.

    • Dear Brent,

      When I semi-retired I evaluated the publishing landscape and decided to self-publish, both ebook versions and print on demand paperback. Most of my success in sales has been on Amazon with the Kindle. It is amazing how quickly ebooks have changed the options for authors. Our members range from independently published, to hybrid (traditionally published and independently published) to traditionally published, but all of us have more opportunities today than we had 4-5 years ago to make the decisions that work best for us.

      Thanks for your good wishes.

      M. Louisa

  3. I agree with everything you said. I’m a government appointed historian for Wyoming County, NY. I do the history of the county and its people. It’s the average people who built this country not the rich. I also came across notices for fortune tellers and spiritualism in my little rural community and was able to research the women and all the houses. Your stories were an instant hit for me and I can’t wait to get your new one when it comes out!

  4. Mary Lou, your passion for the work is evident from your storytelling, but thanks for this additional insight. Hope Bloody Lessons continues your success.

  5. “But ordinary people in the past didn’t leave a lot of facts behind.”

    This is precisely the point I make in my novel Fifth Life of the CatWoman – that what students are taught is the history that DID survive, and it’s nowhere near the whole story. I’m sorry I didn’t have you as a history professor – I would have come to this understanding long before I did.

    Congratulations on your new release – I look forward to reading it!

    Kathleen

  6. Great post! I taught world history for many years in a high school setting, and I used historical novels as part of the curriculum. Students were much more engaged when the history had characters they could relate to, and even if the author was an apologist or tended to exaggerate, they picked up the feel of the era and the idea that history can be interesting. (What a concept!)

  7. Excellent research adds an element to fiction that just isn’t there in contemporaries…this is why I love historical fiction so much. In my case, research is even more difficult because my books are about secrets. Deciphering the codes to get at the heart of alchemists and mystics took many years and the study of comparative religions and ancient philosophies. Even so, I had to make many assumptions and then add the fictional dramatic elements.

    I love the many voices of the women in your stories and look forward to the next one.

  8. Great post!

  9. Thanks. This is just the spur I needed today — insightful and inspiring. I’m working on a novel about a young African American (Negro, in 1940-ese) from the backwoods of Maryland during WWII, and I find it validating / encouraging to hear from a professional historian that hf will reach more readers.