Thursday, June 11, 2015

Historical Fiction Based on Historical Photographs

As the author of The Iron Horse Chronicles, I find that photographs provide me with a solid source on which to base a scene. I follow a historical timeline in my trilogy about the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and I try not to deviate far from it in order to ensure an accurate depiction of the facts. First, I develop a chronological listing of the significant events that occur; then I weave my plot around each event, placing my fictional characters in juxtaposition with the historical personages who were present at that event.

History books, contemporary newspaper articles, and biographies and autobiographies, provided the bulk of the research material I consulted while developing the timelines for the three books comprising The Iron Horse Chronicles. Photographs contained in these sources, plus photos available in museum collections, have given me the basis for placing Will Braddock and his fictional friends and enemies in realistic situations. I personally walked the ground where many of the inspiring photographs were taken to get a better feel for how to describe the locale.

The above photograph served as the basis for an important scene in Bear Claws, the second book in the trilogy. A confrontational meeting took place at the Fort Sanders Officers’ Club near Laramie, Wyoming, between Doc Durant and General Dodge of the Union Pacific Railroad. General Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate for President, refereed their disagreement, rendering a decision that had  a significant impact on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. All of the people in the photograph have been accurately identified. Grant stands left of center wearing a straw hat. Other well known generals are present, including Sheridan and Sherman. I wove a description of this photo into Chapter 37, from which I quote the following selection. Andrew Jackson Russell, a historical personage, was the official photographer for the Union Pacific. Will Braddock is the protagonist in The Iron Horse Chronicles. Luey (Lieutenant Luigi Moretti) and Will’s uncle (Sean Corcoran) are fictional.

Russell flipped the heavy, black drape over his head, and Will watched the camera bellows move back and forth until the photographer had the focus he desired. Then Russell stepped out from under the cloth hood.

 “All right, folks. We’re ready. I’m going to remove the lens cover and count to three, while I expose the plate to sunlight. After three seconds, I’ll replace the lens cap, and the picture will have been taken. Do not move while the lens cap is off! That’s important.”

 A final shuffling of the group took place. General Grant stood in the center leaning both hands on the picket fence. Dodge remained in the Club’s doorway. Doc Durant slouched against the open gate of the fence, sulking like a three-year-old. To the far left, Will saw Luey twist the ends of his mustache to straighten them, then stick one hand into the front of his uniform coat. Will couldn’t suppress his grin. Luey was imitating the famous pose of Napoleon Bonaparte.

“Here we go,” Russell said. He removed the lens cover and counted. “One. Two. Three!” He replaced the lens cap and slid a wooden holder out of the side of the camera, handing it to Will.

Will ran to the back of the wagon and exchanged the container for the one that he found, just as Russell had told him. He raced back to the photographer, who inserted the new plate into the side of the camera.

“One more shot, please,” Russell said. "Ready now. One. Two. Three!”

Russell stood and held up a hand. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. All finished.” He shook Will’s hand. “Thank you, young man. You were a big help. Everything went fine except I couldn’t get those two gentlemen on the far left into the picture. The lens is just not that wide.”

Will chuckled. So much for Luey’s imitation of Napoleon making it into the history books. Unfortunately, his Uncle Sean would be left out, too.

In addition to describing a historical event in which the protagonist participated, this scene gave me the opportunity to explain to today’s young readers the cumbersome photography of 1868.

Above is the second shot Russell took in front of the Fort Sanders Officers’ Club that day. I used the above scene to introduce Will to the Union Pacific’s photographer. Will encounters Russell on other occasions, including scenes in Golden Spike, the final book of the trilogy. Students of history will undoubtedly recognize the following, famous photograph taken by Russel on May 10, 1869.

1 comment:

  1. That could make for an interesting exercise with students as well – pass out some photographs as writing prompts.