What were they thinking? Historical research from a psychological perspective
By Cecilia Dominic
One of the most fascinating things about studying history is discovering how people thought at the time. As a psychologist, I’m interested in psychological context, and as a fiction writer, I love figuring out how certain assumptions and challenges inherent in a certain historical period motivate my characters.
My first steampunk novel Eros Element, which will be released on August 25, is set in the summer of 1870. I wanted to know what it was like to live in that time, especially what people would be thinking and feeling. One of the fun aspects of steampunk is the chance to change history. Changing events adjusts the psychological context and peoples’ emotional experiences, so it’s helpful to know what actually happened and what people thought to establish a baseline. Clues to the thoughts and feelings in different historical periods can be found in primary sources like letters, academic books and articles that interpret those sources, and books for the general public.
Since steam-powered devices and vehicles figure prominently in my story, I decided to start with an overview of the steam engine’s development and how it affected society. For that, I turned to William Rosen’s book The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (Amazon link http://www.amazon.com/Most-Powerful-Idea-World-Invention-ebook/dp/B0036S49WS/). The book is at its heart about patents, but it gives a nice overview of the evolution of the steam engine that allows even non-mechanically minded people like me to understand enough of the basics to write convincingly (I hope) about devices that use it.
One fun part of the book that led to a similar device in Eros Element was Rosen’s mention of the Greek Antikythera mechanism, which was a mysterious clockwork device excavated from a shipwreck in the early twentieth century. This article (http://phys.org/news/2014-11-antikythera-mechanism-clues-ancient-greek.html) about it came out while I was writing the book. Synchronicity!
What about the psychology of the time? Of course society changed with the steam-powered Industrial Revolution, and there were negative consequences, also examined in Rosen’s book. My heroine Iris McTavish is motivated to help those who have been figuratively and literally trampled by the industry. I contrasted her views with hero Edward’s initial thoughts. As you can see, he’s more embedded in the Victorian mindset, which is in some ways similar to our own:
“They look so pitifully thin,” Miss McTavish said and gestured to a woman holding a child by the hand. Even with a short look, Edward saw how gaunt their faces were, how bony their wrists. Then they were gone, replaced by the smoke-stained wall of a factory, possibly the employer of both mother and child, assuming they had work at all.
Edward shifted again, this time from soul-discomfort… He had the same thought everyone did—what could he do about it?—but it was uncomfortable to be faced with the result of his indifference.
“How could harnessing the power of aether help them?” Miss McTavish asked.
Edward looked up to see her dark blue eyes fixed on his face, her gloved hands folded in her lap like a good student. Dear god, her question was serious.
With Iris’s influence, Edward eventually moves from theoretical to practical science.
Iris wants to be an archaeologist because she was close to her late father, himself a famous archaeologist, and because she has the psychic ability of being able to sense the thoughts and feelings of people who have previously handled objects. She encounters resistance from the academic community and even her own servants because part of the context of the time was pressure for women to stay home and raise families. During the Victorian era, the new sciences of archaeology and geology created a paradigm shift because suddenly the Earth was a lot older than people thought. For help understanding the psychological struggle that ensued, I read parts of Victoria Zimmerman’s Excavating Victorians (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Excavating-Victorians-Nineteenth-Zimmerman-Paperback/dp/B011SJ6B9K – and no, I didn’t pay that much for it). Zimmerman talks about how learning about the history of the Earth and rise and fall of early civilizations made the Victorians uncomfortably aware that their own empire wouldn’t be permanent. On a more personal level, this new long sense of time gives Iris the strength to make a difficult decision:
[Iris] gazed across the square at the arched remnants of a civilization long dead and felt the eighteen hundred years that separated her from its builders and the designers of the space below. What was one lifetime of misery in the context of history? How could she deny the good this discovery could bring, a power source that would lift the poor from slavery to coal? She’d lectured Edward on the need to remain practical in his science. Perhaps her mother was right—as a woman, it was her lot to sacrifice herself…
Learning about the psychological effects of the Industrial Revolution and the budding science of archaeology helped me to clarify my characters’ motivations and conflicts. Also, part of the point of writing historical fiction is showing that the way people think hasn’t changed that much over time, but we need the psychological context to have it make sense and draw the parallels. I wish you well on your psychological digging into the past and hope you’ll find surprises that will help your plot along like the Antikythera mechanism did for me.
If love is the ivy, secrets are the poison.
Aether Psychics, Book 1
After enduring heartbreak at the hands of a dishonest woman, Edward Bailey lives according to scientific principles of structure and predictability. Just the thought of stepping outside his strict routine raises his anxiety.
Adding to his discomfort is Iris McTavish, who appears at his school’s faculty meeting in place of her world-famous archeologist father. Worse, the two of them are to pose as Grand Tourists while they search for an element that will help harness the power of aether.
Iris jumps at the opportunity to prove her worth as a scholar—and avoid an unwanted marriage proposal—while hiding the truth of her father’s whereabouts. If her secret gets out, the house of McTavish will fall into ruin.
Quite unexpectedly, Edward and Iris discover a growing attraction as their journey takes them to Paris and Rome, where betrayal, blackmail and outright theft threaten to destroy what could be a revolutionary discovery—and break their hearts.
Warning: Allergen alert! This book was produced in a facility that handles copious amounts of wine, tea and baked goods. May contain one or more of the following: a spirited heroine, a quirky hero, clever banter, interesting facts both made-up and historical, and lots of secrets. It is, however, gluten free.
Cecilia Dominic became a clinical psychologist because she’s fascinated by people and their stories, but she couldn’t stop writing fiction. By day, she helps people cure their insomnia without using medication. By night, she blogs about wine and writes fiction that keeps her readers turning pages past bedtime. Yes, she recognizes the conflict of interest between her two careers, so she writes and blogs under a pen name. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with one husband and two cats, which, she’s been told, is a good number of each. She has been published in short story and novel-length fiction and currently writes urban fantasy, new adult contemporary, and steampunk for Samhain Publishing.
You can find her at www.ceciliadominic.com