What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!
You want to know about the heroes and heroines—the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, and the interesting people! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite white pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?
Marianne and Lily are not typical, but they are believable because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole. Lily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Where did I find these cool books, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.
But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:
The Ice Cube Tray Model
My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people, but if I actually wrote books for them I would make up individual personalities, hopes, dreams, senses of humor, and more. We are writing fiction, after all, not a biography. Let’s use a book I did write as an example: Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente, was inspired by a real-life outlier, Annabelle Kent, author of the memoir, Round the World in Silence. This middle-aged, deaf world traveler gave me the raw material to write a young, deaf aspiring journalist. To suit my own purposes, I gave Della a US congressman for a grandfather—loosely based on a real one, Senator Albert Beveridge—and plopped her in the middle of 1901 Manila, where carpetbaggers like her could make a name for themselves. Elements of Della come from Annabelle’s story, but the real person provides only an incomplete mold, like an ice cube tray. I filled in the tray with other ideas, making my character an original.
The Straitjacket Model
What if you don’t focus on a specific person? In fact, quite the opposite. What if you highlight the social constraints of a chosen era—the rules that pen in the people? Guess what? You have the formula for a clever foil, or even villain, to represent “society” as a whole—without being average. I did this for Archie Blaxton, the hated fiancé in Under the Sugar Sun. I took the horrible things that came out of Americans’ mouths (or memoirs) about the Philippines, and I gave it all to Archie. He became an amalgam of all the worst Americans I could find. (People suck, by the way.) I call this model the straitjacket.
The Open Flame Model
Real history can also provide conflict, too. I needed a scandal for Hotel Oriente, something to put a little pressure on my hero, Moss North. (Moss, by the way, was originally based on the real manager of the real Hotel Oriente, West Smith. Get it? West Smith became Moss North?) By searching American newspapers, I found a real scandal that almost brought down the Oriente, gutted the Manila quartermaster’s office, and sent a handful of men to prison. Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet, prompting them to make pivotal decisions—and sometimes declarations of love! I call this the open flame.
The Millstone Model
For my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ben Potter was traumatized by a real event: the 1901 attack at Balangiga in which 48 American soldiers were killed by angry villagers. Ben’s memories will be shared in flashback form because they shaped Ben into the man he is, for better or worse. (Most of you would say worse, but give him a chance. Or second chance. Well, okay, third.) Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. This is his internal conflict.
The Fridge Magnet Model
Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But it really happened to a real American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. He even had to buy a replacement snake, too! There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.
Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but that’s an invasion of privacy. Shame on you.) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets can tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever rural Filipinos were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right on her first night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.
Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!
By the way, here is the handout of websites that I cover in the workshop’s “how to” portion, along with some Google shortcut tips: Hallock Micro-History Researching Tips. Happy researching!