Why historical fiction is hard: Part 1
2 April 2022
(First in a series of occasional rants about how confounding this genre can be.)
…wherein our author discovers that even what should be easy is not easy.
Our heroine Kate, an aviatrix, lands in the Barcelona of 1936. (Yes, there’s a war on.) I figured this would be easy — it’s called Barcelona Airport, she lands, she gets on with business. But maybe it was named for somebody, I thought. So I went to check it out.
There was no “Barcelona Airport” in 1936. In fact, there were three of them next to each other, and each had a different name, and two of them had had more than one name in their brief existence. What’s more, the few English-language sources gave hand-waving explanations of how this came about, but never with the clarity I needed to sort it out. All the pictures in the English-language sources were of the modern-day airport (BCN), too.
This was when I switched to searching for Spanish- and Catalan-language sources. Bear in mind that I speak neither Spanish nor Catalan, though I do know several useful phrases, such as “piso mojado.” Luckily, Google Translate does a better job of translating Spanish than it does, say, Korean (don’t ask).
I started turning up Spanish blogs by the aviation equivalents of trainspotters that mentioned one or the other of the airfields in question. Searches on these names dug up more information. The farther I went down this rabbit hole, the more I was able to untangle. But there was no clear narrative to tell me what I most wanted to know: on which of these airfields did Kate land, and what was it called?
Finally, several hours into this web crawl, I hit gold: “Impactos de la ampliación del aeropuerto de Barcelona sobre la re-ordenación del territorio y el sistema de transportes” (“Impacts of the Barcelona airport expansion on the re-ordination of the territory and the transport system”). Section 2 of this 2003 graduate thesis by Diana Hernández Ramos is a historical review of how BCN came about. It includes all the moves and renamings and buyouts and commissions and laws and…
By this time, I’d also harvested several pictures of the various airfields from ~1930. Unfortunately, some were misidentified, and only a few had dates attached to them. This also took some time to untangle.
About SIX HOURS after I wrote the stub, “Kate landed at…” I could finally finish the sentence: “…Los Marinos aerodrome outside Barcelona.” I’ve attached a picture of this place so you can see what it looked like. Yes, that’s a blimp hangar on the right.
Finding the information was ultimately satisfying, but it required a shocking time expenditure for a what should’ve been a very simple bit of info. At this rate, I’ll finish this thing around 2036, in time for the centenary.
Oh, in case you think Kate (who is English) should make a joke about the airfield being a prat? In contemporary British English, “prat” means “idiot” or “fool.” However, that usage didn’t become common until the late 1960s. Before then, “prat” meant “butt,” as in “pratfall” (falling on your backside). That’s another joy of this genre — I have to question damn near every word I try to put in any character’s mouth or thoughts.
That’s all for now. Off I go to look up how much a tram ride cost in 1936 Barcelona…