Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mark Twain Slang (1862)

Mark Twain wasn't old in 1863

One of the things I love about writing my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries is the richness of American vocabulary in the early 1860s. Another person who loved the language was Mark Twain. In 1863, the quick-witted, sharp-tongued, pistol-packing newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens was living in a Wild West mining town called Virginia City and had just started using the soon-to-be famous pseudonym "Mark Twain". The budding writer delighted in the latest popular slang words, some of which can be found in his early writings and letters home. Even his new name was slang. "Mark Twain" can mean two things: the depth of a sounding in the Mississippi River or two whiskeys on credit at a saloon. Here is an ABC taster of some of the other marvellous slang of the period.

Absquatulate = to leave abruptly
Bach (or Batch) = to live like a bachelor
Cheese it! = Shut up!
Dunderhead = fool, idiot
Eagle = a gold coin worth $10
Put some Killickinick in your pipe...
Flapdoodle = Nonsense
Gimcracks = A Knicknack
Hurry-Skurry = Rushed
Ironikle = Ironic
Jollification = Party, Celebration
Killickinick = Twain's beloved, yet cheap pipe tobacco
Lucifer = A Match (to light your pipe)
Mulligrubs = Grumpiness, Depression
Nabob = Wealthy and Important Man
"Undress Uniform"
Octaroon = Person w/ one Negro great-grandparent
Poltroon = Utter coward
Quirk = a Taunt, Retort
Rough = a Thug, Ruffian
Spondulicks = Money
Toper = Drunkard
Undress Uniform = Long Johns
Vamoose = to depart hurriedly
Whale = to Beat or Thrash someone
Xeromyrum = Dry Ointment
You bet! = common exclamation
Zephyr = a Gale

The first book in my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries series is The Case of the Deadly Desperados. It is available in hardbackpaperbackKindle and MP3 audio download

P.S. For mor Wild West slang, check out my post on how audiobooks help me write.

Monday, July 23, 2012

7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"

mural in Virginia City Nevada
This famous opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is my key to writing historical fiction. I want my readers to really believe they are in the past and I also want them to learn about history. So whenever I start a new novel, I make use the following items, just as if I were going to a foreign country.

1862 Directory
1. Guide Book
Before I travel to a new country I always read a guide book about the history and customs. I do the same thing with traveling into the past. At the moment I’m reading books about the history of the American Civil War and the Silver Boom in Nevada. One of my best guide books is the 1862 Directory to Nevada Territory, an exact facsimile of the Wild West version of the yellow pages... or should I say 'Google'?

Bret Harte 1836-1902

2. Phrase Book

Just as it’s good to learn a few phrases when traveling to a foreign country, I like to get the speech patterns of the past down. For my Roman Mysteries, I made the language modern but used lots of Latin words. For the Western Mysteries I’m storing up choice phrases from the letters of Mark Twain and the diaries of Alfred Doten. (e.g. Americans in the 1800s didn't use many contractions, but they loved the word ain't.) I also listen to audiobooks to get the speech rhythms right, just as I'd listen to some language podcasts before going to Italy or France. One of my current favourites is Great Classic Westerns read by marvellous narrators like Bronson Pinchot. I also love the stories of Bret Harte.

Dressing the west
3. Clothing
Take the right clothes for climate and culture. Wearing period clothing can really get you into the mindset of your characters and make them seem real and immediate. For my Roman Mysteries, I wore a linen stola and woollen palla, plus leather sandals based on a Roman template. For my new Western Mysteries series, I have bought a buckskin jacket and cowboy boots. At the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, I learned my buckskin was actually pigskin! And one of my best experiences was a demonstration of what western women wore under their skirts during the 1860s. This took place during a Civil War re-enactment weekend in Virginia City at the Tahoe House Hotel. (left)

4. Food and Drink
The 19th century diarist Alf Doten tells me what he ate and drank on the Comstock in the 1860s. When I go to a foreign country, I want to eat what the locals do. Otherwise I may just as well stay home. Same thing when writing about the past. However, I do draw the line at grizzly-bear-cub mince-pies and oysters from tin cans, both dishes which Alf Doten appreciated. And I won't try the Pousse L'Amour drink in Professor Jerry Thomas's book on cocktails published in 1862: How to Mix Drinks, Or: The Bon-Vivant's Companion. If I did, I'd never get anything written!

Anne Dinsdale, weaver
5. Eyewitness - Talk to Someone Who’s Been There
It’s always a good idea to talk to a native of the foreign country if you can. The historical author has a wonderful resource in re-enactment events. Men who dress up as Roman legionaries usually know exactly what each piece of armour is for. Women who wear corsets and hoop skirts can describe how itchy and dusty they get. A Nevada Cowboy Fast draw expert told me why you usually only have five bullets in a six-shooter; it’s safest to leave the first chamber empty. Living history experts are the closest you’ll get to interviewing a person from the past. There are a lot of amateurs and experts eager to share their knowledge with you.

Virginia City rabbit
6. Go there!
Even if your story takes place centuries or millennia ago, it’s always useful to visit the site of the event if possible. You’ll meet people who are experts on the history of their region and who might know things not in books or on the internet. Also, you’ll get an idea of climate: wind, air, light, pressure, humidity, etc. I always like to make a note of what food is in season, what flora is blooming and fauna are migrating. Research is a great excuse to travel. Writing an historical novel gives you lots of fun goals as well as icebreakers for starting conversations with the natives.

7. Souvenirs
Whenever I visit the setting of one of my historical novels, I try to bring back a period artifact. It can be a genuine antique or a convincing replica. There is nothing like handling an object from your time period to bring it alive. If you write for children you can bring some of these artifacts to festivals, libraries and schools and let the kids handle them. My three favourites are my replica sponge-on-a-stick (ancient Roman toilet paper), my as of Domitian (an antique coin) and my brass spittoon from the 1890’s. (left)

These seven factors all contribute to making your setting real and your research fun. Employ them when you write and your book will become a time machine to transport your readers to another place and time.

The first book in my Western Mysteries series is The Case of the Deadly Desperados.

It is available in hardback and audio version

And you can find out about all my books on my website

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

5 Colorful (Modern) Characters from Nevada

by Caroline Lawrence

Every author of historical fiction needs some mentors, advisors and allies. Elsewhere, I have been thinking about colorful characters of the Wild West but today I would like to introduce you five colorful characters of the Modern "Mild West" who have made my Western Mysteries a joy to research.

Above: Me and my sister Jennifer the driver (AKA 'Hawkeye') in 2008 about to go on a road trip to scout out a good location for a series of children’s historical novels set in California or Nevada. 

No. 1 - StinkE AKA StinkE
StinkE and me in 2008
In November of 2008, when I first arrived in Virginia City on a location scouting expedition with my younger sister Jennifer (AKA ‘Hawkeye’), the first person we saw was this guy. ‘Stop the car!’ I cried. Jennifer stopped the car and I got out and ran over to him. (I should explain that even in Nevada people do not usually dress like this. Especially on a week day.) ‘You look great!’ I gushed. ‘Who are you?’ ‘My name is StinkE with an E,’ he replied in an authentic drawl. Later on I discovered that he always dressed like this. Unless he undresses that is. I have since seen him in just his long-johns, thankfully with the back flap firmly in place. StinkE and Mrs. StinkE (yes, there is a Mrs StinkE!) are stars of Virginia City’s annual ‘outhouse’ race. He is usually the favorite. He has had lots of practice. I saw StinkE again in May 2012 and he introduced me to his donkey (see bottom of this post). ‘They never told me his mother was pregnant when they gave her to me,’ complained StinkE, ‘but on the fourth of July she gave birth to this one. So I named him Independence.’ When I gave StinkE a complimentary copy of my book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, he shook my hand. I can now verify the fact that he has real, bona fide ingrained dirt!
(above: StinkE with a E and Caroline in November 2008)

No. 2 - McAvoy Layne AKA Mark Twain AKA 'Lazarus'
McAvoy Layne in Genoa, Nevada
Why was I considering Virginia City as the setting for a series of historical western books for kids? Several reasons, but the deciding factor was that Sam Clemens lived here before he became Mark Twain. Two years ago I was back in Virginia City with my sister Hawkeye. This time my husband Richard (AKA ‘Goes the Wrong Way’) was along for the ride. On our way home to California, we happened across the Genoa Cowboy Festival. As we drove through the oldest town in Nevada, all done up cowboy style, I saw this guy walking along the road. ‘Stop the car!’ I cried. (I shout that a lot.) Jennifer AKA ‘Hawkeye’ stopped the car and I leapt out and accosted Mr. ‘Mark Twain’. He graciously allowed me to get a snap of us together. I have since got to know McAvoy Layne. He is a clever, generous scholar and one of the best Mark Twain impersonators around. He is unofficial leader of a group of Nevada Historians who call themselves the ‘Never Sweats’. Here is how he signed off a recent email:
Your Eminent Beer Archon and Keeper of the Kalendar, e. Pluribus Lazarus, member in good standing of Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment, Boss Poet of the Comstock, Capt. of the Clemens Cove
Volleyball, Drinking & Fighting Club, Emperor of the Hogwash Guild, Chief Liar by Seniority, and Friend of the Maid of Orleans

No. 3 - Guy Rocha AKA 'Rex Veritas'
Guy Rocha in Carson City
In Carson City, Guy Rocha is a celebrity. He once gave me an impromptu tour and everywhere we went people called out ‘Yo! Guy! How's it going?’ Recently bestowed with the hugely impressive title Distinguished Nevadan, he is a retired Nevada State Archivist, wrestling coach and 'Never Sweat'. I first met Guy on the internet via his Mythbusting series. Some people would call him a party-pooper. I call him a genius. Here is an excerpt from a Twainish tribute that McAvoy Layne (colorful character No. 2) composed for him:
He is the High Priest of Punsters, who can make lesser punsters go back down the hole they came out of to lick their wounds.
Persuasive? Rex can persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him, and he will tell you a truth for a dollar, when he could get a dollar and a half for telling you a lie. Humor? Slip a little whiskey in his Red Bull, and Rex can make a cast iron dog laugh. Confidence? Rex Veritas carries with him the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces. We all know Rex is the best historian in the Silver State, where facts are not essential, and whenever Rex uses a big word its meaning is usually a secret between himself and his maker. His face deserves to be framed in sagebrush, we firmly agree, and hung on the wall in the Rotunda in Washington, next to Mark Twain...
I couldn’t have put it better. In fact, I couldn't have put it anywhere near that genius. 
(above: Guy Rocha shows me a marker for historic Chinatown)

No. 4 - Carolyn Eichin AKA Proprietress of the B St House B&B
article by Carolyn Eichin
Every hero has a mentor, the wise person who sends them on the quest, gives them advice and often an object of great significance called a ‘talisman’. My mentor is Carolyn Eichin, proprietress of the B Street House B&B in Virginia City. Back in November of 2008, when my sister and I phoned to ask if they had a room, she said they were planning to go back to their winter quarters the day after but that they would delay their return to stay open one more day. This turned out to be not just a kindness, but serendipity in the highest. Not only is Carolyn a Nevada historian, but she is probably the best cook west of the Rockies. Her four-course breakfasts are legendary and will keep you going till suppertime. She has also become one of my most faithful proofreaders. Best of all, she gave me a 'talisman': the Diaries of Alf Doten. Like Mark Twain he was a failed prospector who became a journalist. Doten wrote about every aspect of daily life, from things as mundane as the cost of meals and laundry to exciting accounts of shoot-outs, mine disasters and suicides. 
(above: Pauline Markham from an article by Carolyn Eichin) 

No. 5 - Bob Stewart AKA The 'Unreliable'
Illustration by Kelly Davis
Another ‘Never Sweat’ is Bob Stewart, ex-newspaper-reporter, political aide and bureau of land management sage. Now a resident of Carson City, I first came across him when Carolyn Eichin (colorful character No. 4) told me about a lecture he was giving at the hotel in Silver City. Although his 'Never Sweat' nickname is the 'Unreliable' he is in fact hugely reliable. He is another one of my valued proofreaders. With a journalist’s attention to detail and accuracy, he is a font of information for Carson City and its environs. Although Bob is an expert in many areas, his current obsession is proving that a small unnamed cove on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe is the place where Mark Twain once camped for a few days until he famously started a forest fire. The only problem is a California author also claims to have found the site and his cove is on the California side of Tahoe. So the two are feuding. Yes! Twain scholars clash over the site of a campsite! David Antonucci is Bob Stewart’s arch-nemesis! On Thursday, June 21 2012, they had a duello in South Lake Tahoe. Not pistols at dawn, but powerpoint at dusk. The debate took place on the grounds of the Gatekeeper's House Museum in Tahoe City.
(above: Bob Stewart on the left and David Antonucci on the right)

It has been a profound pleasure to have made such colorful friends over the course of researching my western mystery series. I guess it is just as well that, unlike them, I am sensible and sober. 
StinkE, StinkE's dog, StinkE's donkey and Caroline Lawrence

Caroline Lawrence's first Virginia City mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is out now. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Murder in Carson City (1862)

Andrew Jackson Marsh
The period during which my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries are set was a particularly rich one in Nevada history. Between Tuesday November 11th and Sunday December 21st 1862 over thirty legislators were hammering out new laws for Nevada Territory. There were at least three clever reporters in the provisional capital, Carson City. These included the 26-year-old Sam Clemens – soon-to-be-but-not-yet Mark Twain – who was on his first assignment from the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Thanks to the abundance of journalists, not only were the lawmaking sessions well-covered, but we also have an unusually complete record of background events during those forty days. These include weather, dances, weddings, bar-room brawls, bonfires and even murders, of which there were no fewer than five. This is the account of just one of the murders. It is taken directly from the Sacramento Daily Union and was probably written by that newspaper's drily witty correspondent in Carson City, Andrew Jackson Marsh.  

Carson City,  N. T. , Monday, Nov. 24, 1862

my husband Richard, not Con Mason
The good people of Carson are enjoying the sensation of a first class murder, which came off here about one o'clock this morning. A full grown, cold-blooded murder, with thrilling accompaniments, had not happened right here in Carson for upward of a fortnight previously. Consequently this affair has all the charm of novelty! The victim was a young man known by the name of Con. Mason, and is reported to have borne one or two aliases, and to have come to this coast overland from the Pike's Peak region. The murderer is — nobody knows who for a certainty, and probably the law never will ascertain. Several parties have been arrested, and the wildest and most contradictory reports are circulated, as if to mislead.

These facts I do know, however: That about one o'clock this morning a pistol shot was fired in the street; that a few minutes later a man came into the Ormsby House and stated that he had just stumbled over a dead man; that in company with several men and a lantern I went to the spot, three or four squares west of the Ormsby House, and there found a well-dressed, youngish looking man lying stiff and stark on his back, his hat on his breast, his chestnut hair dabbling in a large pool of blood, and his glazed eyes staring upward at the stars of heaven. He was lying in front of a small wooden house with "to let" on the door, and a porch which may have afforded concealment to the lurking assassin. The man appeared to have been shot dead in his tracks, without a word of warning, and to have fallen just as he was found. There was a round hole under his left ear, and a corresponding hole nearly opposite under the right ear, which probably marked the passage of the leaden messenger of death into and out of his head.

You can read the full account HERE; it includes a French love interest, a couple of suspects and a possible motive for the murder.