A Writer of History: 6 Steps for Using Artifacts in Historical Fiction
By M.K. Tod
September 12, 2023
Author Lucy E.M. Black‘s soon-to-be-published novel is called The Brickworks. Why, you ask? Read on for some background Lucy shared on the story of Alistair and Brodie, two ambitious Scottish immigrants to North America at the turn of the century.
I love old things — domestic tools, medical devices, furniture, jewellery and books. I appreciate that they represent bygone times and the lives of people who once used and relied upon them. I have several small collections of vintage items that I have accumulated over the years. They serve a decorative purpose to some extent and are on display around the house. But more than that, they evoke for me worlds that I have not known and people whom I have not met. Simply holding some of these objects and closing my eyes allows me to imagine my characters and their day-to-day lives. And, importantly, they help to facilitate the development of verisimilitude when I am writing historical fiction.
My newest novel, The Brickworks, began with a shard of straw-studded brick. My husband and I were out for a drive and I saw what I thought was an old woolen mill in the distance. We parked our car and walked towards it. The signage indicated that it was the abandoned site of the Cheltenham Brickworks. The remaining buildings looked desolate and full of story. I immediately began to wonder about its history and the people who had worked there. My husband picked up a small shard of burnt brick which he passed to me and I saw that it was studded with straw. When we returned home, I put the piece of brick on my writing desk as a reminder of a pleasant afternoon. But that piece of brick seemed to speak to me and I continued to be intrigued by it.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about bricks or brickmaking. What I did know was that there had been a number of large fires at the end of the nineteenth-century which had devastated Toronto, and smaller communities like Port Perry, Uxbridge, and others. And I knew that bricks had become important to the rebuilding efforts.
I started doing some very casual research into Ontario brickmaking and learned a little about Don Valley Brickworks (now Evergreen), Leslieville’s operation, as well as other smaller operations including Beaverton. Local histories always fascinate me and it was fun for me to learn more about the communities that evolved as small brickworks became established to meet their needs. I was suddenly hooked and knew there was an important story to be told. Then I discovered the Claybank Brick National Historic site in Saskatchewan, and flew there to do some first-hand research. I learned more about the technology and science involved in brickmaking. I also read books and articles which helped me to understand the human element in such manufacturing endeavours.
While a shard of brick may not seem very prosaic, it set off a research adventure and the writing of a manuscript that speaks to the late Victorian/early Edwardian age when an emphasis on science and technology were endemic and a sense of infinite possibility was pervasive. I believe that artifacts from any period can go a long way in sparking the research and creativity needed for the writing of historical fiction.
For those who wish to attempt using an artifact in this way, here are some small steps that may help you to begin:
Step #1 Select an object that resonates with you in an emotional way. Touch it, rub your hands over it, smell it, feel its heft, hold it up to the light and study every minute detail.
Step #2 Jot down everything you can find out about the object — where it was made, where it was purchased, how much it cost at the time, what it is made from, what it was used for, how old it is and who owned it.
Step #3 Now comes the fun part! Close your eyes and try to visualize the person who owned this item. Think about their culture/religion, age, class, and education. Keep your eyes closed and try to visualize their appearance. What do their hands look like? Their hair? Their clothing? Do they have any distinctive speech patterns? Do they have any particular mannerisms or idiosyncrasies? Scribble these things down in point form.
Step #4 Name your character and write a paragraph-long description that details all of the pieces of information you have created for them.
Step #5 Write a single paragraph explaining how your character and the artifact you have chosen come together. If it’s a tool, how did they use it and/or what are they making with it? If it’s a household item, what did the house look like and how was it used there? If it’s jewellery, how was it worn, on what occasions, and what did the rest of the outfit look like?
Step #6 Now you’re ready to begin writing your story!
I hope you have as much enjoyment as I have had exploring artifacts with a view to using them in your writing.
Many thanks, Lucy. I remember picking up a piece of shrapnel on the site of a WWI battle field and having that eerie feeling of memory and significance.
The Brickworks by Lucy E.M. Black
When the Tay Bridge collapsed in 1879 it killed everyone on the train that was crossing, leaving the son of the driver, young Brodie Smith, traumatized and reduced to poverty as a result of his father’s death. Leaving home determined to make his way in the world, Brodie finds safe haven with his kindly uncle in Edinburgh and studies engineering, intent on demonstrating that the bridge disaster was not his father’s fault. In search of adventure and further opportunities, Brodie then travels to Buffalo where he befriends Alistair, another young Scot filled with dreams and ambitions. Together the men bring industrialization to a small rural community where they establish a brickworks, changing the lives of all those they encounter with a sense of possibility and the reality of attendant loss. Told in beautifully crafted prose, it is Black’s incomparable voice—her uncanny humour and an astonishing ear for dialogue—that renders The Brickworks both remarkable and unforgettable.