As a storyteller, I want to absorb history, not rewrite it, so for me research always begins with secondary nonfiction sources. These orient me and provide a context for contemporary letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts — primary sources —which teem with flavor, texture, and “voices.”
After I’ve worked out a timeline and put my characters through their paces, the real grunt work begins.
I leave gaps and hollows throughout a first draft and fill the margins with questions: How does it feel to wear a corset? How did proper Victorian ladies conduct themselves at the seashore? What animals were kept in the Tower menagerie? How did a 19th century doctor characterize the symptoms of palsy?
Even superficial research can lead down unexpected paths — changing the course of the plot — so for me the bones of the story tend to be securely in place before I layer over facts and particulars.
Now I need to dress the characters and figure out how they talk and what their social habits are. I harvest from old etiquette and cookbooks, popular advice columns, fashion plates, political cartoons, social satire, even tabloids (Captivity is mostly set in early Victorian London and antebellum New York, so Punch magazine , The Illustrated Police News, and Godey’s Lady’s Book, were a few favorite sources.
This layering-over stage is about harvesting and keeping tick lists: male and female names, women’s and men’s clothing, trends in architecture and décor, colloquial expressions…
Here were a few notes I took on women’s costume:
· dress of slate-gray silk
· green silk mantelet trimmed with lace
· white bonnet with plaid pink ribbon
· short cloak of pink taffeta
· lace capelet tied with green ribbon
· cross-barred silk
· white silk fringed shawl
· green parasol and white gloves
· maid’s gown of patterned cotton…plain white apron
· morning or home dress of stone-colored mousseline trimmed with cording of crimson silk
· pelerine of crimson-dotted muslin
· apron of brown silk…crimson ribbon at neck
· carriage dress of green silk with narrow flounces of white lace at hem on bodice and sleeves
· white chip bonnet with lace and ribbons
· morning dress suitable for small dinner company later in season
· dress of fine white cambric edge with embroidery; brooch of agate, velvet bands of gold buckles at wrists
· walking dress of rich jasper silk with agate buttons
· mantilla of a scarf form trimmed with silk ribbons…bonnet of white chip
· dress of fawn-colored silk worn with large square shawl of wool
· skirt of green silk worn with chemisette of white organdy
· Spring undersleeves of muslin with rows of lace and ribbon bows
· Winter cloak of brown cloth trimmed with band of fringe
· pink silk bonnet with white ostrich feather
· visiting dress of lapis lazuli-colored poplin, scallops edged with white, buttons of black velvet
· walking dress of black foulard silk spotted with green, body and skirt trimmed with flat loops of green velvet ribbon
· costume for watering place… underskirt of white with blue bands at hem
· organdy robe of rich salmon striped with chocolate brown, edge of skirt in different shades of brown
· dress of the seaside… of buff alpaca
After a while, this simple domestic stuff starts to read like poetry! It’s tempting to pack it all in. But only one or two of these tidbits actually made it into the novel. The trick with clothing, as with all descriptive detail in fiction, is to make it serve more than itself.
So a scene in Captivity where two characters discuss how to care for a top hat characterizes Clara Gill as a child, hinting at how her surrogate uncle Artemus indulges her tom-boy nature. Maggie Fox longs to escape a dull rural life to wear “big Bertha sleeves and be admired” in Rochester drawing rooms. Elisha Kent Kane is fairly obsessed with Maggie’s attire — he wants a proper lady for a consort and sends “a trifle of ermine” for her neck and fine French undersleeves — while Artemus claims that Will Cross’s unsuitable clothes “reveal him.” Small details can say a lot about who holds power in a given scene or situation.
The hard part in the end is keeping it organic, putting all your good research to work without weighting down the story.
Characters aren’t tourists in the time and place they inhabit — even if the modern reader is!