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Archive for April, 2019

R: Research Round-Up

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R: Research Round-Up

Researching for historical fiction is such a huge subject that it’s impossible to cover in only one post, as evidenced by the countless hours many of us have spent down the rabbit holes chasing elusive details and facts.

Here are five sites that talk about researching historical fiction. Okay – four sites about historical fiction and one site that discusses researching vintage and antique signature quilts. There’s a wealth of information in these five sites – along with more great links to follow and read.

See you down the rabbit hole!

8 Rules of Writing Historical Fiction Research

  1. Study old pictures.

Evocative historical writing is made up of more than facts and figures. By examining old pictures—either paintings or photographs—you can glean impressions that inspire your imagination and details that populate your descriptions. Many digital archives are now coming online, making this aspect of historical research easier than every before. I relied on the New York Public Library’s Old New York collection, where you can see a photograph of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. I also used the Beck Archives Photograph Collection at the University of Denver, where I saw a photograph that informed my description of heliotherapy (a real treatment for tuberculosis) and inspired my fictional Hospital for Consumptive Hebrews. The photograph below of a dormitory at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum was crucial for the setting of several important scenes in the novel.

Researching Signature Quilts

My first two purchased antique Signature quilts took place in 2000. The Navy-related one was found at a large antique show in Chantilly, VA in January. The New York Album-style quilt was found at the Howard County Maryland Fairgrounds Antique Show late March 2000. I was so excited I quickly transcribed the 42 signatures and started googling. Genealogy-focused websites are also a great place to start.

My first guess for dating this quilt (based on the fabrics in the quilt) was that it may have been made somewhere between 1860 and 1875. One of two things could help me prove this: genealogical research or finding a quilt with a stitched or written date on it that included some of the same fabrics.

Historical fiction: 7 elements of research

One way to examine fiction, either as writer or reader, is to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. Every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements; however, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life within each element.

Research is key. What are readers looking for? Where do you start? Below is an explanation of the seven elements of research in the context of historical fiction followed by a series of tips on researching material for your historical novel.

A Research Primer for Historical Fiction Writers

As all fiction writers understand, the success of any story or novel depends not only on the writer’s ease with technique, with the elements of plot and character and dialogue, but also on the sense of authority one conveys. And mastering the content is just as essential as mastering the craft. So just as writers of contemporary (or more autobiographically inflected) novels and stories need to “know” their characters, settings, and subjects, historical fictionists must “know” whereof they write.

The Copperfield Review

  1. Be as specific as you can when researching.

When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), then it’s time to narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome.

 

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Q: Quilts

Q: Quilts

Quilts had to be what I used for our ‘Q’ day. I know, they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But I’ve always loved old vintage quilts and quilt squares. I’d buy them whenever I could –when I could afford them – which wasn’t often. When I accidentally ran across a set of three unquilted, pieced tops and a set of thirty quilt squares in a yard sale in California – all for the unlikely price of fifteen or twenty dollars – don’t you know I grabbed them right up.

After driving off as fast as I could before the seller changed their mind, I headed home where I discovered that 27 of the 30 quilt squares had names embroidered on them. One square said ‘From Mother, To Doris’ and had the year ‘1934’ embroidered in the bonnet.

From Mother To Doris.jpg

I knew all the names had to be connected in some way, either as family or by community. Finding the names was an elusive hunt at first. It took me several years before I tried again. By then a 1925 Athelstan Iowa census had been put online and seven of the names were on that list.

Another few years of periodic on and off research led me to a lot of the people and descendants of the people that had signed the quilt squares. In 2014 I made a trip to the Taylor County Historical, many were descendants of the women and young girls that stitched the squares eighty years earlier. Museum in Bedford, Iowa and delivered the quilt squares to the museum. Over seventy people came to the Quilt Tea to see the squares in person, many descendants of the women and young girls that stitched the squares eighty years earlier.

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I doubt when the women and girls created these squares in 1934 that they knew the squares would be a source of reigniting a sense of community so many years later. But the story doesn’t stop there. When I returned home to Texas, I was talking to a lady in the bookstore about my journey with the quilt squares. Later, she discovered a signature quilt in an antique shop and she purchased it and hunted until she found some descendants that she could give the quilt to.

Diaries, letters and vintage photographs are wonderful for the history that they give us of the people that walked this earth before we did. But sometimes these historical fragments are left in small cotton and muslin squares.

QS in museum.jpg

Here are a few web sites that have information on signature quilts and their significance.

Signature Friendship Quilts

Friendship Quilts: Precious Remembrance

A History of Antique Friendship and Signature Quilts

 

Athelstan Iowa today:

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Pioneers

Pioneers

When I think of pioneers, I think of wagon trains headed to the west. To the Oregon Trail. To Texas. To Kansas. I don’t think of wagon trains headed to California. To me, born and raised in southern California, California’s largest immigration was in the dust bowl years of the 1930s, a la Grapes of Wrath style. Although, to be honest, I’ve been in so many adobes and early missions that I know that California began far earlier than the post-depression years.

On Facebook a few weeks ago I saw an interesting shot of Cajon Pass. Now I travel Cajon Pass every time I’m back in California visiting family. THIS is the Cajon Pass that I know now. (It’s not usually this bad. This is a post-accident shot, although, Friday afternoon traffic heading up the hill and to Vegas for the weekend gives this shot a close run for its money.)

cajon pass now

But this is the shot I saw of Cajon Pass on Facebook – many years earlier than what I remember of it.

cajon pass then.jpg

Pioneer life. It’s so much more than reading Little House on the Prairie and reading about the Gold Rush days in California.

Here’s a site that gives an interesting brief history about the pioneers that started the Oregon Trail.

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-thousand-pioneers-head-west-on-the-oregon-trail

Here’s a few days account from Diary of George Edwin Bushnell: TRIP ACROSS THE PLAINS IN 1864:

June 13th (Mon.) Passed 5 Indian graves, about 7 ft. from the ground on scaffolds. Near the Junction House, we passed 262 wagons today.

June 14th (Tues.) Came up a storm last night, rained nearly all night, and today the road Is wet and muddy. Passed the 0 Fallen Bluff trading post 55 mi. below the Julesburg upper crossing of the South Platt. Saw 2 Indian villages, and camped near Alkali Springs.

June 15th (Wed,) It rained hard all night last night, and we were all wet this morning, and lay by till 10 o’clock. Met a long train of Mormon wagons. There is 300 on their way to Nebraska City for goods. Camped 2 mi. below Lone Tree crossing 35 mi. below Julesburg.

You can find his diary, along with many other written accounts and recollections at Diaries, Memoirs, Letters and Reports Along The Trails West

Prepare to settle in for a while. Once you start clicking and reading, it may be hard to return to real life.

 

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O: Occupations

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O: Occupations

A chandler, a fletcher, and a puddler walked into a bar…

Oh, you’ve heard that one?

When reading or writing historical fiction, we step back into time and back into worlds before us that abound with occupations unknown to us today. A chimney sweep was a real profession, not some mythical made-up occupation solely for use in Mary Poppins.

According to a list compiled by the Wise County Historical Society, a chandler is a “Dealer or trader; one who makes or sells candles; retailer of groceries”, a Fletcher is “One who made bows and arrows”, and a Puddler is a “Wrought Iron worker.”

Your characters occupation may seem insignificant, a mere minor detail that you use to fill in one line on your list of facts. Yet, this tiny scrap of information plays a vital role in shaping the character that you write about. After all, it was an important enough detail that occupations are listed on ship manifests and on census sheets.

Your character’s occupation can provide many clues as to the activities that make up their day to day life. The daily life of a man that owned the mercantile store in town would be vastly different from one that worked in a coal mine.

When I was researching Athelstan, Iowa and the 1934 quilt squares, for Memories on Muslin, I found a reprinted newspaper article that mentioned the stores in the early town. At one time Athelstan was a bustling little burg. Never as large as Bedford, the county seat 18-miles away, it still had its share of commerce. Besides the ‘gallon’ store on the Missouri side, it listed these businesses:

  • Charles Merrill, drugstore
  • Winston, drugstore
  • Ace Nighswonger, general store
  • Hal Brown, general store
  • Miles Martin (first postmaster), general store
  • J.W. & Pearl Townsend, store
  • Sid Merriman, store
  • Miles Martin (postmaster & general store owner), hotel
  • Ed and Avon Johnson, butchers and sausage makers
  • Flint and Coats, coopers
  • Childres, first physician
  • Schoenmann and Sons, lumber yard

I’d never heard of a cooper and had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and breakers.”

Besides the job of cooper, which no longer exists today, many other occupations don’t exist anymore. Think switchboard operator, milkman, service station attendant, or iceman are just a few common occupations from not all that long ago that vanished with the changing times.

Many occupations may be familiar to us, even though they’re not in existence anymore. A tinker is an Itinerant tin pot and pan seller and repairman, a fish monger is a seller of fish, a bard is a poet or minstrel. Many occupations still have the same name today such as a mason is a bricklayer.

Its fun perusing the London Census 1891 Transcription Blog and reading some of the occupations listed at that time.

  • An ‘ankle beater’ was a young person who helped to drive the cattle to market.
  • A banker (not what you’d think) dug ditches to allow drainage, placing the surplus earth in banks.
  • A battledore maker made the beaters used on clothes and carpets etc. to remove dust
  • A bellowfarmer was a person responsible for the care and maintenance of the church organ.
  • A bellows maker made the bellows used for organs or blacksmiths fires.

Just for fun, here are a few websites that mention other occupations that have disappeared, such as a knocker-upper, rat catcher, bowling alley pinsitter, or a lector, among others.

What are some of the weird jobs that no longer exist?

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-the-weird-jobs-that-no-longer-exist

11 Jobs From 1850 That Are Totally Extinct

http://www.businessinsider.com/11-jobs-from-1850-that-are-totally-extinct-2013-9

35 Important Jobs that No Longer Exist – Part 2

http://www.best10resumewriters.com/35-jobs-no-longer-exist-part-2/

Old Jobs that No Longer Exist

https://journal.media/old-jobs-that-no-longer-exist

10 Common 19th Century Occupations That You’re Not Likely to See Today

https://familyhistorydaily.com/family-history/20-antiquated-occupations-1880-us-census/

Free Dictionary of Old Occupations and Trades

https://www.thoughtco.com/dictionary-of-old-occupations-and-trades-1422235

Old Names of Occupations and Their Meanings

http://wisevahistoricalsoc.org/2010/09/08/old-names-of-occupations-and-their-meanings-dan-burrows-2/

London Census 1891 Transcription Blog

http://www.census1891.com/occupations-a.php

 

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N: Names

N: Names

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Choosing names for the characters in our historical fiction works can be difficult. Maybe not difficult, but we need to choose the names with care. After all, if I’m writing a tale set in 1910, a female is most likely not going to have an Ashley or a Taylor, especially not with a creative spelling such as Ashlee. But on the other hand, there’s only so many Mary’s and Elizabeth’s that can grace our pages.

One thing to keep in mind is the era you’re writing in and what names were popular at the time.

Another is where the story takes place, or if there’s an ethnic background. A story set in Scotland in the 1600’s would have a completely different cast of characters than my 1930 story set in the U.S.

And – as you are probably aware of and I don’t need to point out – watch the starting letters too. A story with a Mary, Margaret and Madeline could become very confusing for the reader. We want them to keep reading. We don’t want them getting distracted by trying to keep all the characters straight and knowing which ‘M’ one this was without thinking about it.

The Academy of Saint Gabriel has an excellent article that discusses choosing a medieval name.

The Academy is a group of around 50 volunteers who research medieval names and armory. Our primary purpose is to assist members of medieval re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism to find historically accurate medieval names and coats of arms. To this end, we maintain the Medieval Names Archive and Medieval Heraldry Archive.

https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/dietmar/hints.html

The History Girls also have an informative blog that discusses names in the medieval period.

https://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2017/04/personal-names-in-historical-fiction.html

Historical fiction author Elizabeth Pye has a video clip on her site from an interview. (Go take a look – it’s short, just under two minutes.) One of the questions was about how she chose the names in her French novel. One additional piece of advice she has at the end is: “Do you like it? Does it seem to fit your character?”

If you’re writing a story set in the US, the Social Security Administration has a great searchable list by decades that begins in the 1880s.

Do you have any favorite methods for choosing your period character names?

 

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Moonshiners

Join us in the 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge as we celebrate historical fiction. These posts will also be shared in the weekly newsletter, Pages of the Past, which debuted April 5th.

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Moonshiners

gma_gpa2.jpgMoonshine has become a romanticized part of our Jones family history. Papa Goss, my great-father, was the moonshiner in the Arkansas Ozarks, in Myrtle, outside of Harrison. Casey Jones, my grandfather, was the ‘runner’, driving down to pick up a trunk load of moonshine and running it back to Chillicothe, Missouri. During these trips down south, Casey met the moonshiner’s daughter, Beatrice Goss.  In 1935 they married, and the rest as they say, is history.

But Grandma, even though she was the moonshiner’s daughter, was not fond of that part of her family history. She also wasn’t fond of Grandpa’s use of the ‘shine’. It was many years, several children, and many, many arguments later – but Grandma’s stubborn streak prevailed and alcohol was no longer part of our family history. By the time I arrived, alcohol never passed Grandpa’s lips and he was an active and faithful deacon of the stone church on Glendora Avenue.

But yet, many of us grandchildren find that we have a soft spot in our hearts for the moonshine part of our family’s past. After all, it is how Grandpa and Grandma met.

If you’re writing a story set during Prohibition, or even in the post-Depression years after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the illicit part of alcohol – moonshine and speakeasies – may be part of your character’s lives. There’s a whole culture around moonshining. Here are a few fun sites that can give you a peek into what times were like for them.

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/11/26/moonshine-and-cow-shoes/

https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/women-bootleggers-during-prohibition-there-were-many/

http://ozarkhistorybuff.com/ozark-moonshine-alive-well-ozarks/

http://harrisondaily.com/news/museum-musings-moonshine-was-still-big-usiness/article_ceccae28-2a55-11e9-b291-1377d2fb1d09.html

https://allthatsinteresting.com/moonshine-stills

moonshiners

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Language and Idioms

Join us in the 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge as we celebrate historical fiction. These posts will also be shared in the weekly newsletter, Pages of the Past, which debuted April 5th.

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Language and Idioms

Was It Even Used Then?

Words and phrase can be something that easily trips up historical fiction authors. Common phrases used today can easily sneak into our period writing. I was caught on this just last week. I brought a snippet from an early 1930’s short story to my writing group. In it, the characters went to one of the just released Shirley Temple movies. One of the members asked, “Would they have called it ‘the movies’? I remember my Grandma always talking about going to the ‘picture shows’.” Yikes! She caught a good one, one that had slipped by me completely.

Granted, some instances are fairly minor and may not raise many issues with readers. But sometimes it can be a glaring problem. I’ve also seen where readers report that an issue was major enough that they shut the book and don’t read any further.

What do you do if you’re unsure? One of my favorite sites is the Online Etymology Dictionary. You can search a word for its earliest known use. For instance, if I type in ‘heebie-jeebies’, I learn:

heebie-jeebies (n.)

1923, said to have been coined by U.S. cartoonist Billy De Beck (1890-1942), creator of “Barney Google.”

So, I can definitely use this in my short story set in 1928. While the word most likely wouldn’t have been used in 1922, if I’m writing a tale set in that year, I can probably still get by with it. It’s going to be close enough to the time period that most readers would still feel as if they’re in the time. However, Mittie Ann, the girl that came to Texas in the 1850’s in a covered wagon definitely wouldn’t have used that phrase.

How Much Period Language to Use

Another part of language that becomes a balancing act is how much period language to use. M.K. Tod, on A Writer of History, speaks of using dialogue in historical fiction. He writes:

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

In ‘7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity’, Susanna Calkins, with a Ph.D. in history, talked about how accurate her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, was going to be. She wrote:

When I was first dreaming about my story, even before I had worked out the plot or characters, I knew one thing for sure: By gum, this novel would be accurate. Every detail, every word, would be accurate. Historians everywhere would use my book in their classes and would revel in my accurate tale.

That idea lasted about two seconds.

Not only would using accurate language make my story unnecessarily pendantic and cumbersome, but many seventeenth-century words and phrases don’t translate readily today. Certainly I could say “The footpad bit the Roger, tipped the cole to Adam Tyler, and then took it to a stauling ken.” But I have a feeling modern readers might not understand that I was saying that a thief has stolen a bag, passed it to a fence, who in turn sold it to a house that receives stolen goods. Unless my editor let me write a companion volume with glossary and explanatory footnotes, this isn’t too feasible.

Just as in life, where sometimes an issue becomes a balancing act, so is it in writing historical fiction. We need to use enough language of the times, to help frame the time period and help the reader feel as if they’re really there in the midst of the tale, without being so accurate that as Susanna Calkins says, it becomes “pendantic and cumbersome.” And, we also want to make sure that the phrases we’re using to help set the tone of the story are accurate and of the period we’re writing.

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