Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. There’s something that happens quite often to fiction writers, especially writers of historical fiction—they come across a real incident that seems to fit into their story and decide to include a fictionalized version in a novel. Nine times out of ten (or so it seems) that is the one scene that will be singled out as “unrealistic,” if not by an editor, then by a reviewer or by readers.
I had this happen with my second published novel, a story for middle-grade readers called Julia’s Mending. My grandfather’s memoirs were a primary source for details in this tale set in Sullivan County, New York in 1887. No one doubted the part about Julia falling through the hay hole in her cousins’ barn and breaking her leg, or what was done to set the leg—something that really did happen to my grandfather—but when I had Julia’s cousin Simon ride for the doctor, and had something else in my grandfather’s past happen to him, nobody would believe it. According to Grampa, when his horse stopped short, he was flipped forward over its head, did a complete turn, and landed, unhurt, on his feet.
Similarly, using accurate language in historical novels rarely strikes modern readers as authentic. One of my favorite examples of both problems is a true story that appeared in the New York Times in January of 1888. I used a very small portion of this tale in my Deadlier than the Pen, but here, for your reading enjoyment, in its entirety, is the newspaper account of “A Circus on Broadway, in which the camel was performer and ringmaster.”
A camel, an elephant, and a donkey figure conspicuously in the Kirafly Brothers new spectacular piece at the Academy of Music and are stabled at Prince and Webster Street. Nightly, after the performance, the animals are taken in charge by keepers and driven to the stable. Last evening the camel led the procession, which went through Fourteenth Street to Broadway and turned down toward Prince Street. At Twelfth Street the camel got a double hump in his back, and, whisking his tail in fright, suddenly broke away and started on a wild rampage along the thoroughfare. The keeper started in pursuit but was distanced from the breakaway. The camel took a zigzag course instead of the straight road and monopolized Broadway with amazing rapidity.
A camel running wild was a frightful novelty, even in the streets of New York, and especially on the main thoroughfare. Horses and human beings were affected alike, and everything animated at once manifested a desire to give the strange apparition unlimited space. Portly gentlemen and stout ladies strolling along the sidewalk displayed the agility of acrobats to escape imaginary danger. Their sudden recovery as soon as the queer object had passed was equally surprising to spectators. The rabble scented fun and joined in the chase to the accompaniment of an ear-splitting chorus of yells. The noise and the lights confused the runaway beast until his fury could find vent only in roars and kicks of the most eloquent and vicious description. Horses readred and plunged at the sight and noise, and car drivers were put on their mettle to control the scared animals. An express wagon standing in front of the St. Denis Hotel had just been left by the driver, who had a trunk to deliver. He was startled by the racket up the street, and, dropping the trunk like a hot potato, sprang for his horse’s head. He was none too quick, for the team threatened to make a rapid transit trip through the hotel café. The driver finally succeeded in subduing the temper of the horses by turning their heads in a direction opposite the cavorting camel.
Opposite the St. Denis is Grace Church, and the maddened runaway made a bolt for it like one possessed of the seven imps. A fat lady on the sidewalk screamed and tried to run, but one foot slipped on an icy cake and down she fell plump in the camel’s path. It was a critical moment, and just as everybody expected an awful collision the camel apparently clapped one eye on the prostrate form before him and sprang over it like a hurdle racer. He fetched up against the iron fence of the church with such violence as to take some of the hair off his breast, and the concussion knocked him down in a way that must have made him think of John Lawrence Sullivan. A knock-down blow, however, was not enough to lay low Mr. Camel, and just after the fat lady had scrambled to her feet and galloped panting away, the hunchback terror had started in for another stretch down the street. He seemed to know the stable was somewhere in that direction and he was bent on getting there at a pneumatic clip.
About this time the elephant, in charge of a colored man, shifted his trunk and his keeper and began to make play for a little circus on his own account. His break was not wholly successful and the promise of increased interest did not pan out, owing to the promptness with which the colored keeper got in his work as master.
Meanwhile the camel continued down Broadway without being molested, and was approaching the Sinclair House for the entertainment of the guests safely planted behind the windows when a private carriage containing a gentleman, his wife, and baby wheeled into view going up Broadway. The driver had a chill and the horses an attack of St. Vitus dance, when their eyes caught the humped vision. Between the driver and horses it was nip and tuck whether the carriage would remain upright, or capsize, or have a wheel wrenched off by the centre-bearing street rail on Mayor Hewitt. The camel made a bee line for the carriage, apparently with an idea that he could bunt it out of existence. His bowed head was in close proximity to one of the glass doors, and the horses were in the air when two men suddenly sprang to the rescue. They seized the camel by the nostrils, one on each side, kicked him in the forelegs, and in a jiffy the beast was thrown, and they were holding him firmly.
In a little while a crowd that blocked the street collected and did not disperse until the camel’s keeper arrived and took him away. The men who effected the capture gave their names as George Hicks, athlete and wrestler, and Richard Brown, horse trainer. Both said they had handled camels before.
What do you think? If you read that scene in a novel, would you believe it?
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com