Monday, September 23, 2013
Research comes from the unlikeliest of places
As evidenced by my various afternoon adventures, I love visiting historic sites. I will drag Josh to living history museums just to pretend I'm living in colonial New England (more on that soon). When my parents called to say they were planning a weekend in upstate New York, and that they hoped to visit some painters' houses and one of the Roosevelt sites, I dropped everything to join them. Nothing says vacation to me like poking around perfectly preserved homes from another era.
But why? Yes, I'm a huge history nerd, but what exactly do I love about it? (As Josh keeps asking me.)
First, I love feeling like I'm stepping into another era. There's no better way than to actually stand in the house where the Vanderbilts entertained, or to look out at the views the servants at The Elms saw. Sure, reading historical fiction transports me to another era, as does obsessively watching Downton Abbey, but there's no replacement for seeing a 1920s refrigerator in person. And that kind of visual only fuels my imagination when I'm reading.
That brings me to the main reason why I love historic houses: each visit is a treasure trove of research. Maybe the information won't be useful for my current projects, but I can always file it away in the back of my mind, or jot down an idea in my notebook, to call up later. Guides are often bursting with strange factoids--our guide at the Vanderbilt Mansion, for example, reminded us that the Vanderbilts could build what they did because they didn't have to pay income tax. (It hadn't been invented yet.) These bits of information can spark a new idea or flesh out a current one.
During that weekend in New York, my parents and I visited the homes and studios of the Hudson River School landscape painters Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. I was finishing a draft of a historical YA novel about a young woman who longs to be a painter, and I was struggling to add enough specific details that would make her world come to life. Turns out that visiting these two homes was exactly what I needed. I got to look at Thomas Cole's paintbox, which he took with him on his regular 12-mile hikes across the mountains. Cole punched studs into his personal trunk to decorate it, and Frederic Church, himself a student of Cole, filled his home with paintings he collected during his world travels. I even learned when paints began to be sold in tubes rather than as powders.
These kinds of details are gold to writers of historical fiction, and they're tough to find in regular research routes. Plus there's no replacement for soaking in the feel of an artist's home; the very atmosphere of a place can inform your work.
If you like to visit historic homes, what do you love about it? Any places to recommend?
Top two photos of Thomas Cole house; bottom three of Frederic Church house.