Thursday, July 4, 2013

Pedaling through History

One of the best things about writing historical fiction is finding facts and pearls of information. It's a little bit like peeling and onion. After one layer comes off, another layer appears. My need to know about bicycles of the past arose during the writing of Rescue in Poverty Gulch when one of the main characters, Miss Sternum, arrived in the scene pedaling down Bennett Avenue. What in the world did bicycles look like in 1896 anyway? Clueless. I imagined the big wheeler bike with the little tiny seat. Probably you'd need to be about six feet tall to get on one to ride and have a parachute for the dismount.

I also thought back to movie scenes like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch or Sundance or one of them. (Robert Redford to be sure...) pedaled in circles to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”.  Now that was a two wheeler that looked familiar!  And, it turns out, that model of bicycle (with the two wheels more or less the same size) has been around since the 1870’s.  

This was good news for me and also Miss Sternum.  Even though she had on her classy bicycle “costume” with two puffy pantaloon-style legs that tapered to fit into her boots, she didn’t have to worry about falling from a great height.  It’s a good thing, or her first meeting with Ruby and her Pa might have resulted in more than broken glasses!

Spoon brake sits on top of front wheel with levers under handlebar.

It wasn't until recently that I needed to peel another layer from the onion. How did a bicycle stop in 1896? The photo to the left came from that research and the curved piece of metal, sitting atop the front tire, did the work. It’s called a spoon brake and worked from the lever near the front handlebars.

What difference does it make to a writer of historical fiction how a bicycle looks or stops? It makes all the difference in the world. What sound does a bicycle like that make when the bike is coming to a stop? Is it a whomp whomp as the break grabs the tire? A scraping sound, grinding, or would you likely hear the tire thumping, skidding, or sliding as it rolled to a stop?

Writers make word choice decisions every day, but with historical fiction, there’s a need to dig deeper. Specific and accurate historical details render the story believable and also help to immerse the reader in time period. This research is not always visible to the reader, but without it, the fictional ride could end up with a flat tire.

For a great article on the history of bicycles, read A Technical History of the Two-Wheeler by Erick Sampson in the Colorado Central Magazine the August 2012 edition.