Thursday, January 15, 2009

Emma's Kit: Pencil, Paper, Penknife

For my post today I thought I’d show you some of the things I’ve had to research for my historical novel, An Outlaw for the Lady which is set in 1875 Wyoming Territory.

When Emma, the heroine, was still a child, her older sister was stolen and they never saw her again. Her father is determined to give his surviving children skills they might need if history repeats itself. So, hidden in the folds of her petticoat, Emma carries a small kit. The kit itself won’t keep her alive, but if she uses it, she might be found faster.

The kit contains a pencil, a small packet of papers and a penknife.It sounds simple but did they actually use pencils back then? Emma’s been carrying this kit around for about ten years so I needed to know if a pencil would have been readily available in 1865. I mean all those old western TV shows had the school children using chalk and a slate. Well, a google search led me to which is a fantastic resource site on pencils.

Did you know that ‘The first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662.’? Obviously, I didn’t. The first wood pencils in America were made in 1812 by necessity when war with England stopped the importation of them from overseas.

So yes, in 1865, pencils were readily available although the wood casing was unpainted until the 1890’s. That's good to know - I wouldn't want Emma to whip out a yellow painted pencil out before they even existed.

Now that Emma was allowed to carry a pencil, I had to think about her sharpening it. I couldn’t have her carrying a sharp knife in her pocket because surely it would have ripped a hole and threatened to fall out after all those years. And although this would add a touch of suspense to my story when she goes to reach for it and it’s not there, that wasn’t my intention.

No, I wanted her to have a small jackknife. My research led me to where it gives this description for a penknife: ‘early 15c., so called because such small knives were used to sharpen quills.’

Okay, so Emma has her penknife to sharpen the lead. But wait – was it really lead? Back to the research.

Numerous references cited the fact that lead went out of fashion once a huge deposit of graphite was found in 1564 in Borrowdale, England. This I did not know. For some reason I’ve also thought it was a lead pencil.

Anyway, my research into Emma’s kit was complete. In my book, Emma carries her small kit containing a pencil, a penknife and a small packet of papers measuring about 2 x 2 inches. With these instruments, she writes brief coded notes to her Pa and leaves them in all sorts of imaginative places for him to find.

Next, Emma enters a small farmhouse and sees a cast iron wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. Or does she? Hmmm...back to my research...

Have you ever thought where something as simple as a pencil came from? Did you know they didn’t contain lead? Should I have gone the suspenseful route and given her a small sharp knife instead of a penknife? Am I being too thorough?


Anonymous said...

LOL, good point. The funny thing is, I have different questions about your research and her kit.
1. After ten years, wouldn't the wood separate from the graphite and need to be reattached or replaced?
2. If the kit is sewn into the same compartments, the graphite would mark her dress pretty badly. How does she disguise the stains?
3. A pen knife, after that many years is a heavy enough weight for the thread of the time, that it would pull and weaken the little pocket until it frayed. Do you reference how often she checks to make sure it's secure and the pen knife isn't in danger of loss?
4. If she uses it with that much frequency (and I'm assuming there is a conflict in the story which will make having that kit critical to her safety), how is the hiding place covered/closed to avoid loss if, say, she gets knocked down?
5. Is it tucked somewhere at her waist or hem? Hemline would make the chances of loss more likely. Waistline might make it visible if the pencil or penknife is too bulky. Plus the consideration that multiple pieces of rough, thick paper, folded, would be bigger in thickness than the pencil itself.

I'm creating problems, aren't I? Sorry. These are what pop into my mind and I KNOW you haven't given us enough info on the story to show how you've compensated. I apologize if it repeats things you've already addressed for yourself.

The story sounds intriguing!

Karen said...

Hi Anita. I think knowledge is valuable especially in writing historicals. It gives you a perspective to write from. You mentioned the history of the pen knife and pencil but not the paper. Did you research the availability of paper too?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Kel, actually, I'm glad you raised those points. When I posted, I knew there were going to be questions but I didn't want to go too deeply if there wasn't any interest.

So, the first thing I didn't mention is that Emma's mother always sews a hidden pocket along a side seam in every petticoat (pc) she's always worn. Emma always had 2 pc's, 1 for slightly better wear. After all these years, it is ingrained in her to take the kit out each night, put it in a like pocket in her nightie and then put it back into her pc the next am. It is always with her.

Would graphite leave a stain? Maybe. Even with 2 pc's, Emma would've worn them for a couple years each I would guess. But even if it did, would it have shown through to her outer dress? Hmm...

AS to the wood separating from the graphite...good question but each time she takes the kit out of her pocket, she'd see the state it was in and replace if necessary.

As to the location, like I said it's along a side seam and she only accesses it while she uses the privy.

I've entered this ms in about 4 contests and out of the dozen or so judges so far, only 1 has mentioned that she doesn't like the fact I have shown Emma needing 'privacy'. According to her, bodily functions should be overlooked in an inspirational book. Excuse me?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Karen, sort of.

I have the Time Life book series, The Old West and I did use the volume on The Chroniclers a lot for my ms.

Accordingly, I didn't find anything to set off an alarm where I might have needed to research paper like I did for the pencil and penknife.

Thanks for your insight, Karen.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Kel, you shouldn't apologize even if you did create a problem for me - which you didn't. LOL

Any writer would be happy to find a 'hole' in her story prior to submission.

I thank you for your questions and observations.

Gwen Stewart said...

Hi Ladies,

Cool blog! Anita, this was great insight into researching historicals. I don't write historicals, but my contemporary will need more research soon. I did some basics, but know I need to fill in details.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Gwen, thanks for stopping in to visit.

I imagine when you wrote your book using a professional ball player as a hero that you needed to do a lot of research. At least I was amazed at the amount of info in it.

What kind of research do you need to do for your current wip?

Janet said...

Wow, informative post, Anita. And well researched! You've thought of every angle - as a good writer should. No part of your story should be at the mercy of inconclusive research.

Outlaw for a Lady sounds very intriguing. I look forward to reading it when it goes to print (and with great research and your determination, that will be very soon).

How do you feel about authors' notes stating that although every effort to substantiate the historical facts was taken, some elements will require the reader to suspend belief?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, I'm real glad to hear you're interested in Outlaw. Thanks for saying it.

You said some elements will require the reader to suspend belief:
I'm not familiar with that term.

I've heard the phrase where an author says 'any errors in this book are mine' and where the author says it's a fictional work and to take it as so. Is that what you meant?

Suse said...

Hi Anita,

I always find your posts interesting and so informative. Your research makes my attempts seem half-hearted. I know that I don't necessarily need to have all the details that you do for my contemporary stories, but I need to do some research just the same. As Gwen Stewart said, its important to fill in the details.

I don't think you can be too thorough for something like the pencil, etc. when it is an important part of your story. People who read and write historicals will know the difference if you make a mistake. You're not only developing a story, you're developing your reputation as a writer.

Also on the question of whether you're being too thorough, there is always a time when you have to stop researching and just get the story written. However, for some things that will affect your story in some way, I think it is very important to have your facts straight. For other things that are not an integral part of your story, that research could maybe be done once you've got your story written and you can verify if, for example, chihuahuas were a common pet during the 1870s.

I also read recently that "Research always belongs to the writer. You are free to rewrite, reslant, and resell your article as many times as you can. In fact, you owe it to yourself to try for as many sales as possible." Writer's Digest Weekly Planner, 2008. I know you're not writing articles, but I think a lot of the research you've come across will hold you in good stead for later stories as well. I believe that any kind of research is not a waste of time, as I believe that any education is never a waste either.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, you make a very good point about the research not being a waste of time regardless. Yes, since I love to write in this time period, I won't have to check into these items again next time.

You mentioned when the research could be done - what I usually do is just get on with my story and as I come upon things that might need to be researched, I just yellow highlight it so it stands out. I always have a document open for notes so I'll add the word or phrase there as well as the page nbr and then I continue with the story. Then, during times when I have time to write but don't feel like it, I'll open up my doc, see what needs researching, and do it.

This system works well for me but I'm sure other writers have their own methods. :-)

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post, Suse.

Missy Tippens said...

Very interesting stuff, Anita Mae!