Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Trip Back


When I write historical fiction one of the biggest imaginative hurdles I have to overcome is to truly understand the nature of time as my characters experienced it. If you ever watched one of PBS's reality series where it takes modern volunteers and sticks them in the past as in Colonial House you might get what I mean. I came to this thought, this morning, because of the contemplation of my own day.

Yesterday some technical issues reared their head with the server I maintain. After a mid-length call to my tech guru last night I realized that I had basically graduated from the 'grasshopper' stage and he was setting me an assignment: do it yourself. So upon rising this morning the first thing on my modern multitasking mind was how to fit a lesson in MySQL into my already full schedule. I work four days a week at the 'job' and then three days a week I work from home managing and participating (both the same thing really) in my community web site, hosted on my own server (thus the need for lessons in MySQL management).

This being one of my three days in my home office I needed to cram all my writing in (blog, book, collaborative), continue to clean up after the holiday festivities, get my laundry done, and generally make myself useful around the flat since the other half of the equation works outside the home for all seven days of the week. The phone will ring, Twitter will chirp, instant messages will fly back and forth at Pan Historia, music will be played from a small plastic disc inserted into a tray in a machine capable of tasks that people didn't even imagine they would ever need to do one hundred years ago.

This is when I began to marvel at the quality of the day of one of my ancestors as little as one hundred years ago. Imagine I was that ancestor and my tastes were exactly the same. I would have to do my morning chores, probably at the crack of sparrow's fart because oil or candles or even electricity would have been a finite resource and I needed all the free daylight I could get. My chores would include bathing which would either require cracking ice, hauling water, or heating water on the stove, or all of the above. Personal hygiene alone would take a good chunk of time, perhaps an hour if I was fastidious or it was a long haul to the well? If I was the one doing the laundry (say I was a bachelor) that would take a substantial amount of time. There is the beating, scrubbing on the washboard, and hanging on the line. In the winter I guess my house would be full of my shirts and shorts vying for space by the stove? Dishes, like washing the face, would require much hauling of water and heating of water. I suppose I could peel some spuds while that water heated up.

Are there animals to be fed? How about cooking? I guess I might have one of those big cast iron ranges and it would need to be fed wood or coal - same with the stove to heat the house. That would involve chopping and stacking and fetching from the woodshed or at the very least a visit to the coal shed with the scuttle to be filled. I'm still working on the chores here. I haven't even gone to my day job yet or, even more interesting to me, sat down at my desk to write where I would take paper, costly and thick, from the drawer, get out the quill pen, dip it in the ink, and then laboriously compose my thoughts by written word in longhand.

Now it's time to go to the mill or the general store or wherever it is I work. I might walk or ride depending on the distance and my income level. If I walk it could easily be an hour or so from my home. If I ride I first have to take care of the horse in the morning: feed, water, clean out the stall. Then I have to saddle up and even my ride will take some time. There are no five minute car trips. With the exception of my peeling potatoes while the water heats up there is no 'multi-tasking' in this world. The day begins early and each moment is filled up with tasks from profound to laborious to simple. Only the wealthy had true leisure time because even making the simplest meal was work. It seems to me that time must have both gone slower for the me of a hundred years ago and at the same time have been so filled with labor of the hands that it went by as fast as a winter day turns back to night. Imagine going to visit your relatives for Christmas and taking a month to do it because after traveling for a week or whatever you certainly didn't want to just turn around again?

In 2008 my head is filled with too many little things so that my thoughts are like mayflies - destined to dance around in swirling and confusing storms for a short time and die. A hundred years ago my thoughts would have been like oaks, born of acorn, slowly maturing, and then a great spreading tree of ideas, all branching and of the same wood.

1 comment:

Vincenzo said...

I'm reminded of the importance of daily details in shaping the characters we write in historical fiction, and how we have to try to leave 21st mindsets aside. For example, I may have misunderstood, but in the 19th century, unless you were a man of means & leisure, you might not be taking a bath every day. Same thing with laundry. You would do these things maybe once a week. As a bachelor, you would probably send your laundry out for washing, not do it yourself. I also think that your head then would be filled with just as many thoughts as today, only they would be different concerns and worries.