Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Research Before the Writing: Creating a 19th Century College Town

So I have an entire section of the very long chapter I recently wrote for Henry's story in Before the Blood, that takes place in Jensen, home of, if you've read Visage, Jenson College of Liberal Arts, which is older than Munsonville by decades.

Jenson in 1976, done.

 Jenson in 1881, um, I don't know?

As I outlined this section, here's what I needed to know:

1) The scope of the town. The college was prominent in 1976 Jenson, so I decided it should dominate the 1881 version and make the town revolve around it. but... did college towns event exist in the late 19th century? I researched but couldn't find a clear answer to it and went with it, anyway. Jenson could always be the first, I reasoned.

2) Population. Well, that would be the students, professors, and anyone that established a business catering to them. I'd need a few representatives from "His Majesty's Row" (previously created in Visage). Some personalities were already established in Bryony's portion of BTB; this chapter provided an opportunity to see them in their natural habitats. However, I'd also be bringing to life four characters only previously mentioned by name, as well as two brand-new characters, each with his and her own role to play. Their importance (to the story, not the town) dictated the level of their development.

3) Other venues: One church (researched churches in Michigan in the time period and went with Catholic) one hotel, a photography studio, and various shops: butcher, cigar, cheese, hat, tailor. These are appropriate for the population and the types of elements I wished to show in this chapter. That included further development of Henry's character, advancement of the plot, and even a foreshadowing a very different Henry as he is portrayed in Bryony. And while I'm creating these venues, let's not forget architecture of the time. What WAS used in Jenson? Ah, needed to figure that out.

4) Entertainment: So what DID these college town residents do for fun? Important to know, as adolescent Henry is hanging about for a fortnight. (Yes, a fortnight). The entertainment serves multiple purposes, so I must carefully choose. Not only do I want to illustrate the different facets of activity in my pretend college town, I'm introducing Henry to society. After much research, I chose these: poetry reciting contest, philosophy debate, Mass, Bible study, ball, music salon, and three events at Jenson College proper: a play, glee club recital, and an orchestral performance.

5) Hotel: Obviously Henry and his companion have to stay somewhere. They could have stayed on campus, but I'll assume any student housing is full. Henry's doctor lives in Jenson, but he's stayed there once, and I wanted to show something different. So I researched hotels of the time period, along with names, and went with the Wisten Hotel, a flint faced, multicolored brick building at the end of the street, inviting in its simplicity and attractive with its many-paned glass in the tall windows overlooking the busy street.

6) Jenson College: While researching student popular of the time period in Michigan, I learned that Hillsdale College in Michigan embraced progressivism, and abolitionisn. Furthermore, its charter banned all discrimination based on sex, race or religion. That type of mission statement perfectly fit the population and the environment of which Henry needed exposure to move the story forward, so I adopted it for Jenson. I already knew what the college looked like, thanks to Visage:

Tall, gothic, tower-like structures framed the street on both sides of Jenson’s college strip; the main building of the six-story school towered above them all. The complete campus spanned the entire street. Years ago, the townspeople had nicknamed this street His Majesty’s Row because the great castle-like structures once housed the area’s notable merchants, entrepreneurs, attorneys, and physicians. Most of those homes had long since been converted into businesses or apartments for upperclassmen and staff. Whenever the college needed more space, it simply bought another house.

So basically, for 1881, the six-story Gothic.

7) Picky details that aren't so picky: Ball etiquette. Street etiquette. Ball fashion. Walking fashion. Elocution lessons. Class auditing. A few peers (a black male student, a female transvestite, Bible thumpers, a debutante: all decided after researching these elements for the time period in Michigan). The entry poem (Got it...but had to be sure it had been published by 1881 first. It was). Types of meals served at The Wisten. A name for the church (St. Adelbert). Types of meals served in the college's lunch hall. The topic for the philosophy debate (and snippets of the arguments made). New character names. A fluffy salon (lighter fare ,musically and food-wise). Judging points for the poetry recitation contest. Who wins? (Got it) What's the prize? (Don't remember what I chose. Better check that).

Armed with all this information, the writing process becomes challenging. It's easy how overwriting occurs. I mean, having acquired truckloads of research that took hours and hours to amass, why waste it?

Unfortunately, one little detail used in one little line can take pounds of research. It's important not to overwhelm and bore the reader with all the information. The storehouse of knowledge is an author's tool for seamless world building. Don't lose the story in the minutiae.

I spent part of two Saturdays on this, or about twelve hours, until vague ideas took shape.

And now?

College over, chapter completed, and then some. I am now working on creating a company town.

No comments: