Almost a year ago, I started this blog with a posting called "The Right Mind". In this posting I promised to expound on the topic of Portable First Person. Here's the promised posting, a bit later than intended, which is typical for me.
Again I contemplate the Dear Newbie, handsomely dressed like a model for "Gentleman's Gazette of Fashion," and his foibles. He has been invited to play by a fellow re-enactor with the infamous words, "HALT! State your name and business." He shyly reaches into a convenient pocket and pulls out a xeroxed slip of paper with a penciled name and hands it to the soldier- re-enactor with barely a word.
Contrast this with an experience of a Dear Friend, likewise a Dude, as he approaches the military guard. As the guard quietly requests, "Halt! State your name and business" my Friend gets a look of confusion upon his face and asks, "Eh? Speak up, Soldier. I lost most of my hearing at Molino del Rey." "Your NAME and BUSINESS, Sir. ...and your PASS." "Oh, yes, right." Dear Friend proceeds to search every pocket of his top-coat, pulling out bits and bobs of all descriptions... grocery list from the Mrs., laundry invoice, pencil stub, wallet... from a different pocket his store account book, scrap of cloth obviously used as a pen wiper, an expired steam-boat ticket, a bit of string. He explores his frock pockets and produces a town pass, waving it triumphantly... then looks closer, "Nope... that was last month." He finally reaches into his satchel, opens his day book, and produces a letter from Chief Surgeon PuffedUp of the Depot Hospital in Local AnyTown contracting his physician services and giving him "pass" within the Town and promises to report to the Provost directly for this month's pass.
Most re-enactors/living historians look to Dear Friend and think, "I SO wanna be like him some day! But how do I learn and remember so much information?" The difference, Dear Newbie, is Portable First Person and it can be broken into two segments. Those two segments of portable first person are common knowledge and material culture. Both are demonstrated in the above scenario and both lead to more meaningful interaction with fellow re-enactors/living historians and more informative experiences for Visitors.
Common knowledge can include all the "little things" a person of the period would know; from how groceries are acquired to where is the bathroom to who is governor of our state. It includes words and phrases that are appropriate in specific kinds of company and etiquette rules, both followed and disregarded. This is the toughest to learn and remember because it is all encompassing. The way to learn this is to read... a lot. As you read literature, periodicals, manuals, and advertisements for workable tid-bits of knowledge, see if there is a physical item that can trigger the knowledge. If one's character is asked frequently how much something costs or how much they paid for something, a store account book can be just the "cheat sheet" that is needed. These are small booklets for customers of a store in which their purchases and payments are recorded. As one goes through modern life, get in the habit of thinking, "how was this experience done in period?" A winter storm might lead to a research tangent on winter clothing, animal care, home repairs, or even weather predictions. School shopping might lead to educational experiences, school supplies, retail experiences, or money systems. When you can relate to the topic, it is more fun to research and more easily remembered.
Material culture can include the physical items that support and enhance your common knowledge and make your interactions seem more "real." Everything from dishes and letters to buildings and vehicles to working tools and trash. At many events, one is portraying a townsperson about business and therefore would have little upon their person except what they carry. A special kind of material culture called "pocket trash" comes into play.
Think about your pocket contents or your purse contents. Rarely do you leave the house without money and identification, at least. How often are your period pockets filled with period money and period identification? Small items like letters are easily reproduced and can be tailored to your impression and situation. They generally serve as identification in period. The basket a woman carries can say so much more than "I need a place to put stuff." The sandwich and book might say "traveler" or the carefully wrapped silver and glass might say "wealthy sport." The knitting project might suggest "patriotic" if paired with the remains of a rosette or an election ballot. But your basket will only talk when the contents can be examined.
Again your modern life will guide your period choices. Look to what you carry with you in your trip to the store or work and explore the period equivalent. Consider that the period way of shopping or business might be handled differently today. In example, a store might have a clerk drop your purchases by your house later rather than your needing to carry an insulated bag all afternoon. You might buy on credit and bring your account book, rather than have sufficient cash for your purchases. You might bring along a tin container to buy oil or an empty basket to buy eggs.
Putting portable first person together with a well-researched background gives fellow re-enactors/living historians conversational gambits to play off of and suggests to Visitors more things they can ask you about than what they readily see. In the example of my Dear Friend, we see the following:
*He asks the soldier to "speak up" in a manner that is friendly to the soldier and not putting a Visitor "on the spot" by having to interrupt and ask. He has drawn Visitor attention to the interaction, and given them the volume control to make it comfortable.
*He mentions losing his hearing at Molino del Rey. He has established that he is a former soldier himself, which war he saw combat in, his age, and tried to open a rapport with the soldier based on common experience... serving in the wartime army.
*Next his various bits of pocket trash as he searches for a proper pass:
Grocery list from his wife (...while you are out can you pick up... )
Laundry Invoice... (yes, they really did have professional laundries back then)
Pencil Stub... pens get messy, but one needs to notate
Wallet... one doesn't leave home without one
Account Book from a store... where and how often he shops, and what he buys
Scrap of Cloth used as a Pen Wipe... he writes alot
Steam-boat ticket... the cities to which he travels can also help establish his probable sympathies
String... another handy item
Expired Pass... we've been under occupation awhile, he's familiar with the procedure, he's passed it once
Satchel... a business-man who needs more than pockets to carry his things
Day Book... he's a physician, does his patient list include townsfolk the soldier has encountered
Letter from Chief Surgeon PuffedUp... this serves as ID when going to get the pass and establishes his position in relation to the soldier.. working for the same army with the trust of army officers the soldier should be able to trust
*He promises to go directly to the Provost for a current pass. This suggests to Visitors other venues that are being interpreted. Enjoying this interaction, they might follow him to the Provost to see what else they will learn about life under occupation.
From his pocket trash, Visitors can see a myriad of things to ask about and how they might be used and Dear Friend has a physical reminder to prompt "list" subjects and "name" subjects, like which patients he has under his care or who is currently the Chief Surgeon.
I strive to be like Dear Friend in my interactions. I get overwhelmed by the amount of "stuff" one needs to know to give a realistic impression. By breaking the subjects down into smaller research tangents, finding trigger and cheat sheet items, and letting my modern life inspire research into my period one I will continue on the journey of quality first person interactions that enhance the experiences and knowledge of myself, my fellow participants, and those who use my history to inspire their own. Fill my pockets with worthwhile stuff, so I don't need nudged to provide enough.