Creating an antagonist can cause problems. It is so easy to make the bad guy a stereotype, and it is sometimes difficult to admit that even bad guys have a redeeming characteristic or two. One of the characters I dislike in Cordelia’s Journey is Cordelia’s stepfather, Hiram Pierce. He is an overbearing, abusive jerk, but, of course, he doesn’t think so. In fact, he is quite proud of himself, particularly in his abilities as a blacksmith. In one scene, I have him relating his achievements to his son Ambrose.
My problem: I had absolutely no knowledge of what an 1855 blacksmith had to brag about other than shoeing horses faster than the next blacksmith.
My solution: Internet research. Through search engines, I found information helpful in making Hiram more than a stereotype.
The first site is America Felling Ax which contains information on the making of the American felling ax. When I learned the importance of creating an ax with good balance, I knew making a better ax than other blacksmiths could be a source of pride and bragging rights for Hiram.
With felling axes as a focus for research, I found another source through Google, an online sample book chapter, American Axes: a survey of their development and makers, which underlined the importance of the blacksmith and the skill it took to make an axe, complete with illustrations of how axes were made.
Further research into items made by 1855 blacksmiths led me to the importance of nails as a source of income. An article, All About Nails, gives a brief history of nail making and tells how buildings were sometimes burned down for the nails that held them together. From another article, Blacksmithing History 2, I learned how the invention of the steam engine and the rise of factories that mass produced axes and nails cut into a blacksmith’s income.
With this knowledge, I am now able to make Hiram Pierce more than a stereotype. Hiram sees how new inventions and factories are threatening his livelihood. The loss of a steady stream of income (nails sold for a dollar each), causes Hiram to move west where he can add land to his wealth. Of course, he continues to be a blacksmith, but he needs sons to help him work the land he has acquired. Each loss of a male child makes him more determined to have sons, even as he realizes the gender of a child or whether it lives or dies is completely out of his hands, as is the rise of factories that threaten his income. Hiram, who is all about control, feels he has lost control of his life.