Journeys into the Past

Not too long ago, my husband learned that his great grandfather had travelled the Trans-Siberian railway at the turn of the last century (just before the Tsar was deposed by the Russian Revolution) to observe birds who made the arduous journey from Russia to Australia as they migrated each year. As a writer of historical fiction, I can only imagine what it must have been like to make this journey at such a pivotal time in Russian history. Not only do I wish I had met Tim’s great grandfather, or that someone had recorded his memories (no one did, unfortunately), but that I also somehow had the ability to go back in time and experience a journey such as this first-hand.

Anyone who’s read my books, knows that I think the early 20th century would have been a fascinating era to live through. On the cusp of what we would consider a ‘modern’ way of life, you would have been able to witness the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’ and the dawn of an era that was both transformative as well as tragic (at the time you could never have  imagined the tragedy of two world wars). When I write I try to immerse myself in first hand accounts so I can get the full sensory experience – but those (obviously) cannot compare to actually living through it.

Part of why I love writing historical books is the opportunity to vicariously experience history and I have an exceptionally long list of ‘journeys’ from history I would have loved to have witnessed/been a part of. These include traveling the Trans-Siberian railway in the early 1900s. I would also love to enjoy the luxury of a first-class ocean liner voyage from England to America in the 1910s (though not aboard the Titanic, obviously!). A train journey across India at this time would have also been fascinating.

Even if you don’t write historical fiction I’m sure most of you have dreamed of taking some voyage in the past – something that captured your imagination – something that would have been so unlike the travel we undertake today. So TKZers, if you had the chance to go back in time and make a journey, what kind of journey would that be and why?



22 thoughts on “Journeys into the Past

  1. Historical fiction is my favorite as well. And the great thing about it is that every historical writer has THAT time, and THAT place that they are passionate about and love to write. The result is a wide variety of books to choose from for any given place or era. You bring up an interesting aspect I hadn’t thought about–what it’s like to be an early twentieth century person who has not experienced 2 world wars.

    For me personally, I am most fascinated by Arizona’s history. Among the states, it tends to be one of the most ignored, and historically, sometimes much maligned. I am particularly interested in the difficulties she had in the years leading up to and then including the Civil War, when basically what settlers there were were abandoned when troops were pulled back east for the war.

    Nowadays we take for granted the presence of dry river beds yet easy access to water, the fact that you can’t walk two feet without bumping into someone else as opposed to travelling for days without seeing another soul. Not to mention living at a time when communication of information was much, much slower–no 24/7 news or internet—I find this a particular challenge for plot lines of action-oriented stories. Major news that may have broken easily on the east coast can be considerably delayed getting further west.

    And while modern politics is not appealing, I love reading about the political and economic development of nations. I love to read about the presidents who presided over a nation that was, at the time, experiencing unprecedented growth.

    It’s no wonder it’s easy to get lost in the research, which is really the only downfall of historical fiction writing. 😎 The other struggle is I want to read about other eras and time periods, but I can’t afford to take my focus off the area/time I’m writing about–just not enough hours in the day.

    • It’s way to easy to get lost in the research (at least for me!) and I both love and hate the time it used to take to travel. It’s a challenge to incorporate into novels as it was so much slower, but also fun!

  2. I would love to have gone to the Great Exposition in the Crystal Palace to see all the marvels of the brand new industrial revolution and the displays from 19th century cultures around the world.

  3. I imagine you’d want to skip the Lusitania as well?

    I’m intrigued by early-mid 20th century south Florida, especially Miami between the World Wars~ before A/C, mosquito control, “accurate” hurricane prediction, and during the original heyday of South Beach, rum runners, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad.

    My current WIP is set there in the early ’40’s, so I’m enjoying the research (even more than usual). 🙂

  4. I’ve never been a history buff, but Hubster and I have watched all the Murdoch Mysteries, and it looked like a fascinating time. (Hubster’s ‘goal’ for each show was to find out what modern day invention Murdoch and Crabtree came up with, or see how historical figures were influenced by their discussions.) I think my time-travel preference would be into the future, not so much the past.

    • The future would be a pretty amazing place to visit too:) I’ve only watched one episode of the Murdoch mysteries and it was focused on Tesla if I remember rightly and the whole alternating current debate. Was pretty cool but I couldn’t get into the show for some reason (weird given my love of history). Maybe I need to give it another try!

  5. Great question, Clare!! I Hate to sound like an avenging Keres, but I’d have loved to have been on board the USS Missouri in 1945 during the signing of the treaty ending the war in the Pacific. In general, I’d be way more interested in interfering with (or preventing) historical events than gadding about as a time time traveling tourist, taking in the sights and sounds. This inclination is probably due to a somewhat dark side of my nature that I usually keep well under wraps, for the greater benefit of mankind. 🙂

  6. I was born during World War II, so I remember the days after the war. I remember seeing so many men in those days with bad, bad injuries, the missing limbs, faces scared into hideous patterns of missing eyes or missing lips, or a combination of all those injuries. I remember the canes, the wheelchairs, the jerry-rigged prosthetic limbs–I actually saw some men with wooden legs.

    Even though I was a kid, I was interested in their stories. One man with a hole dug in his wrist made me a simple replica of an aircraft carrier. I knew men who had been left on a South Pacific island by the Navy, the Army, perhaps the Marines, for months after the Japanese surrender. Fortunately, the naval re-supply services kept a steady stream of food, water, and mail (perhaps the three most important things to a grunt), as well as medicines and medical supplies, to the stranded men. They finally ended up writing one of the men’s old school teachers for help. The teacher nearly skinned naval and veterans services officials alive getting those boys home.

    I remember so many Japanese wives in our city. Not Japanese-American wives. Actual war brides who had been brought home by the guys; the brides were uncertain of their status, of proper manners, of being unable to tell me what they were looking for in an American supermarket of the time. (I have no idea why I was such a popular kid to the war brides. They would pass up women and store personnel to get to me to ask where the enchilada sauce was. I had no affinity for understanding their heavily accented, broken English. But I walked store aisles with a number of women who were looking for stuff they couldn’t pronounce.)

    Now it has become my turn to ask simple questions about Japanese society in the days after the war. So, my answer to your question about what journey I would like to take is, that I would have like to walk the streets of Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, as well as other Japanese cities, towns, and the Japanese countryside, to see what it was like in Japan after the war. I suspect I would see many of the exact same things I saw in the stores and streets of Phoenix–wounded, broken men, broken families without places to live. I think I would run across Japanese-American people who had been stranded in Tokyo after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Iva Toguri, more popularly known as Tokyo Rose, though she was not the only Tokyo Rose, apparently, was such a person, an Angeleno trapped in Tokyo and who first took a job typing for the Nippon radio service after the declaration of war. She rooted for the American bombers overhead even as she ran to air raid shelters.)

    My interest has led me to start the research phase of a novel about . . . well, things and people of Japan as seen through the eyes and experiences of Americans before, during and after WWII. What happened, for example, to the Kempetai (the Japanese Gestapo) personnel after the war? I don’t think they could simply go home and resume their lives as farmers, field workers, or artisans after putting people in jail and causing so much suffering. Perhaps they were torturers as well.

    So, there’s my trip. I’m a little bit concerned about what I’ll find. But I’m setting off soon.

    • Jim, I remember seeing a television story about a very elderly couple who, decades after the war’s end, were still performing a ceremony of apology (and a request for forgiveness) for the misguided souls who launched that misbegotten attack on the United States, the one that dragged this unwilling nation into WWII. I remember being awestruck by their devotion to remediation of whatever past sins their countrymen had committed.

      Let us know what you learn on your journey of discovery. I know it will make a fascinating book, and I look forward to reading it!

  7. Speaking of trains, I’m fascinated by the gospel trains, in which a priest, or a minister and his family, slept in a room behind the altar, and the orphan trains which stopped in small towns with children to be indentured or put up for adoption. When–if– I finish my WIP, I’d like to investigate these trains. There must be lots of stories there.

  8. I loved doing my historical legal thriller that take place in early 1900s Los Angeles. There is such rich history there, largely untapped. During my research, steeped in the old newspapers (via microfiche) I actually had a couple of experiences where I felt like I was there, literally, smelling the smells and walking the streets. These moments were maybe thirty seconds long.

    That ever happen to you, Clare?

    • Yes! When I read the diary of a female policewoman from WWI – it was eerie to realize I was only the second person (I think anyway, based on the library records) to have ever got it out to read. Everything from the smell of the paper, to the details in her diary to the newspaper cutting of her and her dog, transported me just for a minute or so into her world.

  9. I love reading historical fiction … but I wouldn’t want to go back to any era without electricity, indoor plumbing, or a modern appreciation of women’s rights.

    That’s why I love fiction. All the fun of being in the past, on a modern ereader.

  10. In truth, I’m with lola–modern dentistry is the bottom line for me.

    In fantasy, I would have liked to been a Viking, sailing off for warmer climes. Maybe settling in Nova Scotia.

    Or maybe taking a liner from New York to France, settling in Paris to write in the 1920s.

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