Today, I’m delighted to welcome Tammy Pasterick to the blog with a post about her new book, Veil of Smoke and Ash.
Researching Pittsburgh’s Golden Age of Steel
Writing a novel is never easy, but historical fiction presents its own set of challenges. While all authors strive to make their books entertaining and thought-provoking, historical novelists must also focus on accuracy. The worlds they create should be well-researched and detailed, and the characters should sound like people who actually live during medieval times, colonial times, or in 1910s Pittsburgh, as is the case in my novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash. Transporting readers to the past is a daunting process, and I relied on a wide variety of resources to bring Pittsburgh’s golden age of steel to life.
My book started out as a genealogy project, so my research began on Ancestry.com. In the spring of 2012, I couldn’t find my mom’s recipe for stuffed cabbages—a favorite dish in my Slovak family—so I turned to Google for some alternatives. I ended up on several Slovak and Hungarian cultural websites as well as a few genealogy sites. I then joined Ancestry.com on a whim and began a months-long search for information about my great-grandparents, who immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century.
I found so many fascinating documents on Ancestry.com and quickly became addicted to the site. I located the ship manifesto for my Slovak great-grandparents who traveled to Ellis Island from Austria-Hungary in 1905 as well as a World War II draft registration card for my Lithuanian great-grandfather who was in his early fifties at the time he signed it. I was in awe of his bravery, as his advanced age exempted him from the draft. These discoveries led to a fascinating conversation with my ninety-year-old grandmother, who rarely spoke of her childhood. I asked her several questions about her family and her in-laws, and she responded in the most unexpected way. She presented me with a scrapbook and a shoebox of old family photos.
I’m not sure why Grandma Pearl had never shown me these treasures until the final months of her life, but I am grateful nonetheless. She opened up to me that day about her childhood and showed me pictures of her Lithuanian parents as well as her Slovak in-laws. She explained that they immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. She shared as many details as she could about their immigrant experience, but I wanted to know more. My curiosity inspired me to turn my genealogy project into a novel.
While the characters in my novel are fictional, the world they live in is not. My conversation with Grandma Pearl sparked my imagination and gave me a starting point, but I still had much to learn. I read several books about Pennsylvania’s steel and coal mining industries in the early twentieth century such as The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907 by S.J. Kleinberg and Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. I also read The Steel Workers by John A. Fitch, which was part of The Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study conducted from 1907-1908, which chronicled the living conditions of immigrant families. These books provided insight into the daily routines of immigrants as well as the risks they faced in the mills and mines.
In order to better understand the hazardous work steelworkers and coal miners performed in the 1910s and 1920s, I watched silent films on YouTube. Still curious, I visited the Tour-Ed Mine and Museum in Tarentum, Pennsylvania with my father, who shared memories of his thirty years of coal mining with me. I’ll never forget what it was like to stumble through cool, dark tunnels 160 feet below ground and feel the jagged walls of exposed coal beneath my fingertips.
Lisa A. Alzo’s books, Slovak Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh’s Immigrants, contain so many incredible photographs and gave me a deeper understanding of Slovak culture and customs. They even helped me pick out authentic names for my Slovak and Polish characters. The Social Security Administration’s website was also a great source for character names, as it tracks the popularity of baby names as far back as the 1880s.
As for the mental illness and mysterious medical condition featured in my book, I obtained most of my facts from various medical websites suggested by Google. I relied on information from webmd.com, mayoclinic.org, psychiatry.org, and several other sites focusing on women’s health. The Internet and Google make writing historical fiction so much easier than I imagine it was just a few decades ago. The answers to my questions are usually only a few keystrokes away, and the only challenge is determining the reliability of sources. Google is also particularly useful for tracking word usage over time. I learned very quickly that it would not be appropriate for my young character, Sofie, to go to the “movies” with her “boyfriend.” She would instead see a film at the “nickelodeon” with her “sweetheart.”
Historical fiction is definitely challenging to write, but I enjoy the research just as much as the writing. I never know where an Internet rabbit hole will lead and whether it will spark an unexpected plot twist. My modest genealogy project was not supposed to take on a life of its own and become a novel, but I am happy that it did. My deep dive into Pittsburgh’s golden age of steel revealed many fascinating facts about my family’s history, but it also taught me about the labor movement, social inequality, anti-immigration sentiment, and mental illness at the turn of the twentieth century. I am a much smarter and more empathetic person as a result of writing this novel, and I can’t wait to find out what the next one will teach me.
Thank you so much for sharing such a fascinating insight into your new book. Good luck with it.
Here’s the blurb
It’s Pittsburgh, 1910—the golden age of steel in the land of opportunity. Eastern European immigrants Janos and Karina Kovac should be prospering, but their American dream is fading faster than the colors on the sun-drenched flag of their adopted country. Janos is exhausted from a decade of twelve-hour shifts, seven days per week, at the local mill. Karina, meanwhile, thinks she has found an escape from their run-down ethnic neighborhood in the modern home of a mill manager—until she discovers she is expected to perform the duties of both housekeeper and mistress. Though she resents her employer’s advances, they are more tolerable than being groped by drunks at the town’s boarding house.
When Janos witnesses a gruesome accident at his furnace on the same day Karina learns she will lose her job, the Kovac family begins to unravel. Janos learns there are people at the mill who pose a greater risk to his life than the work itself, while Karina—panicked by the thought of returning to work at the boarding house—becomes unhinged and wreaks a path of destruction so wide that her children are swept up in the storm. In the aftermath, Janos must rebuild his shattered family—with the help of an unlikely ally.
Impeccably researched and deeply human, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash delivers a timeless message about mental illness while paying tribute to the sacrifices America’s immigrant ancestors made.
Meet the author
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. She began her career as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a paralegal and German teacher. She holds degrees in labor and industrial relations from Penn State University and German language and literature from the University of Delaware. She currently lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with her husband, two children, and chocolate Labrador retriever.
Connect with Tammy