I've finally completed, edited and submitted my story for the Cranky Ladies Of History anthology. I haven't a clue what I'll do with it if it's rejected, as there's not much of a market for short historical fiction. The History Girls blog has done one, but it's by their own authors, all of them well known historical novelists. I can't even submit it to a possible third volume of Trust Me, if Ford Street Publishing does one, as the characters are all adults and, at 4200 words, it's about twice the length of a Trust Me story.
Still, I had to have a go. How could I not? And looking at the names of the others who are sending stories, pretty much everyone is a speculative fiction writer, so I'm not the only one who hasn't much experience in this area - with two historical fiction stories under my belt, I may even have more experience than some others.
My other two stories were set in the 1960s, though, an era I know fairly well and even remember vaguely from my childhood. And you can go to the State Library and look up newspapers of the time.
But what did I know about the Victorian era? Not a lot. If I'd had time, if I'd been writing a book, I would have bought or borrowed whole books about the era and the culture, as I did with my mediaeval fantasy fiction.
There were newspapers in the Victorian era, of course, but not where I can get at them. And there just wasn't time.
So I settled for researching the story I'd chosen and checking the other stuff as I went. I waded through web sites. I bought an ebook called Wild Women, which had a chapter on the subject I had chosen, the life of Dr James Miranda Barry, a wonderful army doctor who did some amazing things to improve the conditions and sanitation of hospitals and performed the first Caesarean in which mother and baby both survived and would have been remembered for those if "he" hadn't turned out to be a she! It's not that nobody now is interested in her achievements but web sites and books tend to throw all their energies into arguing about whether or not she was a transgender man. Who cares? It was over 150 years ago and we'll never know, unless some letters or a long-buried memoir turn up.
I decided to keep it simple. Like Agnodike of Athens, I decided, she was a girl who wanted to do something only boys were allowed to do and was prepared to pay for it with her female identity, which was not a lot of use to her.
I made myself write the first draft, at least, because if I'd stopped to look everything up, it would never have been finished. Even so, I kept stopping to ask, "Hang on! How would you get new clothes in those days if you weren't rich and couldn't afford to have stuff made and didn't have time anyway? What about travelling to Jamaica from London in 1865? What about travel conditions?" And so on.
I at least was able to ask some of these questions of a couple of historians, Louise Berridge, author of many historical novels, including some about the Crimean War, and Gillian Polack, who specialises in things mediaeval, but knows a lot about other eras as well. Both ladies came up trumps and if my story doesn't make it, it won't be their fault. I asked them about travel from London to Jamaica and Gillian said "Bristol" which had a lot of connection with Jamaica and Louise agreed and also suggested Southampton, from which a mail ship went every fortnight, and even told me which railway station would have been used to go to each port. Gillian added that my hero, Dantzen, Dr Barry's manservant, had better take his own food, which was not supplied at sea in those days.
I decided on Southampton; both ports are about the same distance from London, but Southampton had regular traffic to Jamaica.
By the way, a bit of Internet research told me that second hand clothes would be the way to go if you didn't have time to make your own clothes or money to have them made for you.
And I even found an online scanned Victorian era newspaper about the discovery that Dr Barry was a woman! It was from New Zealand, so the story really got around.
Historical research is never going to give you a definitive answer to anything. For example, there were two explanations of how she died. One was that she died of cholera, the other that she'd caught a chill which ended up killing her. I opted for cholera. Then there was a duel she fought with one Josias Cloete. One version said he'd challenged her because she'd said something ungentlemanly about a lady. The other version said she had challenged him because he'd said she rode like a girl. For the purposes of my story and the character, I decided to go with the latter. She was a truly cranky lady and this wasn't the only time she fought a duel. And the fact that she and Cloete became close friends for life suggested to me that the duel - which wasn't too serious in the end - was about something not too serious in the first place.
But you see what I mean. There are so many versions of history, you just have to choose what makes sense to you. I once wrote an article about the Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. The material said, on the one hand, that they never worked for Barnum and Bailey, and in the other that they did and were cheated. I decided to say they hadn't; they were a shrewd, entrepreneurial pair who would never have let themselves be ripped off, in my opinion - and so I told my editor from the NSW School Magazine when he asked was I sure, because he'd read...
I think Josias Cloete may have descendants to this day, so if one of them is reading this and has a family tradition about something great, many times great, grandad said about that Dr Barry, I DON'T WANT TO KNOW, okay? Not now. Too late!
One web site I found said that the reason she didn't get a knighthood on retirement - something fairly standard - was that she had embarrassed Florence Nightingale in public, haranguing the Lady With The Lamp from horseback for keeping her hospital filthy and so causing unnecessary deaths. That was a scene I simply had to include, though not in huge detail. It gave me the chance to slip in Mary Seacole, a Jamaican/ Scottish nurse who wrote a memoir. Mary had asked to be a member of Florence Nightingale's staff and was refused, though not by Florence herself, so she made her own way to the Crimean War, where she sold drinks and tended the wounded anyway. I wanted to have her at James Barry's funeral, because she was in London at the time, but had no way to slot her in convincingly. She's there, though, in the Crimean War scene.
Now the story is done as best I can. If it's accepted, I'll go back and make sure the historical details are right. If not, it will have to stay on my computer till another opportunity presents itself.