Sheila R. Lamb
Saloons, Cockfighting, and Covering Your …Research.
Grandpa’s been at it again.
“A young man, of Irish descent, recently committed a piece of roguery near this place…for which he was summarily dealt with…he was lodged in jail.” (The Statesman, 2/2/1871)
The place he was near?
“Two doors north of the Catholic Church, as if to give dignity to the institution, a new liquor saloon has recently been opened…to which…is attached a cockpit, in which several fights have already taken place…” (The Statesman, January 6, 1870)
I can’t verify my Irish immigrant ancestors in Westchester County New York did these things, but I’m willing to bet he had a rooster or two in the cockfighting ring, that he tasted a whiskey or two. Or three. In any case, I will attribute many of these escapades to my great-great grandfather once the manuscript is underway. The joy of fiction!
I spent several hours researching primary source documents. The kind librarians at the local history library were able to do some inter-library loan work.
I scrolled through several years of the Statesman, which later became the Yonkers Statesman on microfilm (does anyone else get nauseous while using that machine?) I’m sorry to say that when I sat down to begin, I looked for a search button. I had to snap my mind back to the fact that microfilm machines do not have keyword search tools. They have a knob to turn the reel. And focus functions. And, nowadays, a print function.
Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M http://www.flickr.com/photos/29072716@N04/3920937438
Within history is a story. Within every day, every life, there is a story. Searching through news nearly 140 years old gave me the opportunity to see what life was like then. What did people do for entertainment? What was the social class structure like? What was life like for Irish Catholics during the various waves of immigration? How did cockfighting become a pastime?
I don’t think a novelist has to be a historian – but a writer does have to do research. A writer should be able to answer the questions in order to create a detailed world in which their characters will live. In the case of historical fiction, that world has to be accurate.