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Memories and Recollections

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Today, introduces the letter M.

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Memories and Recollections

The excerpt below doesn’t deal specifically with writing historical fiction. It’s from a workbook I created for a class I was teaching on writing your family stories. However, since we often refer to people’s memories of a time past when we’re researching for writing historical fiction, I thought the topic would apply to our roles as historical fiction authors.


Whether we are writing memoir, historic documentation of a family history, or creating a fictional tale based on true beginnings, we rely heavily on memory – which has been proven to be imperfect.

Our own memories, even though we think we have perfect recall, may err drastically from the truth of what actually happened. The family members that we interview may be spot on in the memories they think of to tell you. Or, those moments may have been distorted by the passage of time and the many experiences that have occurred since.

A lot may vary just because of our own individual perceptions of an event. I was talking to a co-worker about this subject one day. There were three of us in the room discussing some now-forgotten work drama and how another employee’s version of what happened differed so drastically from theirs.

I commented that even if someone came in immediately after our conversation and recorded details about what happened – they’d get three different stories. There may be much in common, but we all pay attention to different details. One will recall the conversation with more accuracy. Another may not remember much at all because their mind was far away, dwelling on one of their own problems and they weren’t paying attention. Another may remember the clothing that was worn, or the perfume that filled the room, while with someone else the clothing or its color may not have even registered.

Next, add ten, twenty, or sixty years to the timeline. How accurate is that memory going to be?

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach tells a story that his sister likes to frequently re-tell. It involves a younger brother, sucking on a blue toy bolt until it stuck to his lip. The sister finally wrestled it off and when it came loose the younger brother’s lip swelled to tremendous proportions and everyone freaked.

Except…the author claims that his sister wasn’t there. He was. The bolt was yellow, not blue. And he and his mother both laughed about it. He writes,

“Memory is faulty. That’s one of the tenets of memory. And the reader comes to memoir understanding that memory is faulty, that the writer is going to challenge the limits of memory, which is quite different from lying.”

He also writes,

“Even facts distort: What’s remembered, recorded, is never the event itself, no matter how precise the measurement…”

Just be aware that our individual perceptions and the passage of time may alter what we try to convey as historical fact. Sometimes a bit of a disclaimer worked into the narrative may help smooth over some of the possible differences in account.

  • As far as I recollect…
  • The conversation went something like…
  • My ex – let’s call him Doofus James…
  • The story of how he got his first job bootlegging may be lost, but one can assume…
  • Though the details have been lost through the years, it most likely…

All in all, since we’re most likely not out looking for journalistic awards for this work, the important thing to know is that recording our family’s legacy is what’s important. As Carol Lachappelle, in Finding Your Voice Telling Your Stories, shares: The poet Anne Sexton wrote, “It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”

Librarians on Horseback

Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter L.

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Join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/184527085517941/


Librarians on Horseback

Most people think of librarians as sedately settled behind their counters assisting patrons, in the stacks shelving books, or in the back office ordering new selections. While we picture them busy working away amidst the silent reams of paper surrounding them, we don’t often think of them outside of the four enclosing walls they work in.

This isn’t always the case. While bookmobiles have been part of a library’s history over the years, with a few still operating, from 1935-1943 the WPA funded a project for the residents of rural Kentucky, where many librarians delivered their printed products on horseback.

Wikipedia reports:

The first Pack Horse Library was created in Paintsville in 1913 and started by May F. Stafford. It was supported by a local coal baron, John C.C. Mayo, but when Mayo died in 1914, the program ended because of lack of funding. Elizabeth Fullerton, who worked with the women’s and professional projects at the WPA, decided to reuse Stafford’s idea. In 1934, A Presbyterian minister who ran a community center in Leslie County offered his library to the WPA if they would fund people to carry the books to people who could not easily access library materials. That started the first pack horse library, which was administered by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) until the WPA took it over in 1935. By 1936, there were eight pack horse libraries in operation.

Trails could be difficult and dangerous, except where the WPA had completed its farm-to-market road program.

The Pack Horse Library Project was headed by Ellen Woodward at a federal level. The project ran between 1935 and 1943. “Book women” were hired by the WPA and worked for around $28 a month delivering books in the Appalachians via horseback or on mules. They delivered both to individual homes and to schoolhouses. The WPA paid for the salaries of the supervisors and book carriers; all books were donated to the program.

There were around 30 different pack horse libraries who served around 100,000 different people in the mountain areas. The libraries also served around 155 schools in these counties by 1937.

I thought the whole subject of packhorse librarians was fascinating. I saw one historical fiction book on the subject, The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. I had it on my wish list, and luckily (for me) a friend bought it and shared her copy with me. Being in my favorite time period, the 1930s, of course I enjoyed the book.

While researching to write this post, I discovered another fictional tale based on the same subject, The Giver of Stars. I also saw that there was some dispute about the second book borrowing many of the concepts and plot points from the first. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read The Giver of Stars yet.) Both books were published in 2019, The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek in May, and The Giver of Stars in October.

A post that goes into detail about the similarities is here. I have to admit, there are a few instances cited that seem specific and the odds of them being coincidences seem slim. But yet, others, don’t seem to be copying at all. For instance, both ladies receive a quilt for a wedding present. In 1930s Kentucky? What couple didn’t receive a quilt for a wedding present? Another example is that patrons in both books ask the librarian for issues of Woman’s Home Companion. One of the most popular publications in that time, and a hand reference for women? That point doesn’t convince me either.

But looking closer at some of the claims, the while timeline issue, as a writer, doesn’t concern me. Yes, Richardson, author of The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, began her research and writing earlier (researching in 2015 and first manuscript to her agent July 2017).

By then, Moyes, author of The Giver of Stars, was already researching and writing. She reports that she saw a 2017 Smithsonian article about the packhorse librarians that prompted her to write her book. By July/August 2017 she was already writing and by the time the November 2017 book description was published, Moyes already had done research trips and made a Facebook post about her newest work.

So, what does all of this have to do with us as historical fiction authors? Naturally, it can nudge us to be careful with our work, so we don’t end up in the same dispute. But for myself, I think the most important part is to document, document, document! Keep records of your research. Keep records of your trips. Make public Facebook posts that can document that you’ve been working on this, even as another book on the same topic is being released.

There are no new topics. There are no new main plots. Now, the twists and turns and they way we deliver the stories – yes, those are ours.

Despite the dispute between the two authors, and yes, I still want to read the second book, and despite my cautions to be careful to document my research in the future, the subject of packhorse librarians is still fascinating.

You can read more about them, and see some fabulous vintage photographs on these two sites:

The Fierce Female Librarians Who Delivered Books On Horseback During The Great Depression


Horseback librarians during the Great Depression


Intelligence – as in Spies

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter I.

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Join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/184527085517941/


Intelligence – as in Spies

Not everything is as it seems. I’m thinking of the spy-world here, but I need an ‘I’ topic for the A to Z Blog Challenge, so I’m going with Intelligence.

Not being a huge reader in the genres that feature elaborate spy or espionage plots, when I think of ‘spy’ my mind goes immediately to one of my favorite shows growing up – Get Smart. I picture good ole Maxwell Smart pulling off his shoe and turning it over to answer a phone call.

Wikipedia reports on some of the many spy devices used in this series:

In Get Smart, telephones are concealed in over 50 objects, including a necktie, comb, watch, and a clock. A recurring gag is Max’s shoe phone (an idea from Brooks). To use or answer it, he has to take off his shoe. Several variations on the shoe phone were used. In “I Shot 86 Today” (season four), his shoe phone is disguised as a golf shoe, complete with cleats, developed by the attractive armorer Dr. Simon. Smart’s shoes sometimes contain other devices housed in the heels: an explosive pellet, a smoke bomb, compressed air capsules that propelled the wearer off the ground, and a suicide pill (which Max believes is for the enemy).

Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) had her concealed telephones, as well. She had one in her makeup compact, and also one in her fingernail. To use this last device, she would pretend to bite her nail nervously, while actually talking on her “nail phone”.

Other gadgets they report (bringing back many memories) are:

Gag phones also appear in other guises. In the episode “Too Many Chiefs” (season one), Max tells Tanya, the KAOS informer whom he is protecting, that if anyone breaks in, to pick up the house phone, dial 1-1-7, and press the trigger on the handset, which converts it to a gun. The phone-gun is only used that once, but Max once carried a gun-phone, a revolver with a rotary dial built into the cylinder. In the episode “Satan Place”, Max simultaneously holds conversations on seven different phones: the shoe, his tie, his belt, his wallet, a garter, a handkerchief, and a pair of eyeglasses. Other unusual locations include a garden hose, a car cigarette lighter (hidden in the car phone), a bottle of perfume (Max complains of smelling like a woman), the steering wheel of his car, a painting of Agent 99, the headboard of his bed, a cheese sandwich, lab test tubes (Max grabs the wrong one and splashes himself), a Bunsen burner (Max puts out the flame anytime he pronounces a “p”), a plant in a planter beside the real working phone (operated by the dial of the working phone), and inside another full-sized working phone.

While these are all humorous incidents, they’re not that far off-base. Although I don’t read many contemporary novels with spy activity myself, I have been reading some World War II novels from the authors featured at Pages of the Past, and I’ve come to realize how imperative some of these undercover operations were to the success of the Allies during this war.

When I ran across mention of Phyliss Latour Doyle, a young woman who became a British spy and parachuted behind enemy lines in Normandy. She relayed messages about enemy movements and used the guise of knitting to hide her covert operations.

Although not used in the past, there’s a term for people who hide secret data within ordinary pieces of everyday life – steganographers. The phrase is of more modern origin, but the concept is not. The practice of spies using written codes in routine correspondence and female spies transmitting coded data inside the skeins of yarn in their knitting baskets dates back to the American Revolution.

Linda Harris, on her blog Strong Women in History, tells more about Phyllis Latour Doyle, and other women heroes who used gadgets and tactics to relay information.

But, back to Phyllis Latour Doyle. She was a British spy who parachuted into Normandy in 1944 prior to the D-Day invasion. Pretending to be a poor French girl selling soap, she bicycled throughout the area, chatting with the German soldiers. Then she returned to her quarters, knitting Morse code messages into her yarn. The yarn was put into her knitting basket and delivered through Resistance channels back to the British to help pave the way for D-Day.

How does one knit in code?

There are only two basic stitches in knitting: a purl stitch and a knit stitch. The purl makes a stitch looking like a horizontal line or small bump. The knit stitch is smooth and looks like a low V.

By using a single purl stitch and then three in an alternating row together, one can transmit in Morse code of a dot and then a dash. Other knitters tied small knots into the yarn with each knot’s placement denoting a unique code.

You can read more about this topic here:



For several excellent books about real-life female spies for adult readers, we recommend “Code Name: Lise” (https://www.amightygirl.com/code-name-lise), “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War” (https://www.amightygirl.com/madame-fourcade-s-secret-war), and “A Woman of No Importance” (https://www.amightygirl.com/a-woman-of-no-importance)


Getting the Details Right

Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter G.

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Getting the Details Right

One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction is getting the details right. Not simply ‘right’ as in accurate, but right as in the amount of detail that you include in your manuscript also.

This is always the challenge. It’s like walking a balance beam between two points. We need to include enough details to bring a sense of the setting and the time into the story. We need enough to make the reader feel that they’re seeing the story unfold before their eyes. We need to make the story authentic and believable.

But we also don’t need to include so much detail that it’s as if we’re writing a non-fictional narrative about the time, including every piece of information that we’ve learned in our marvelous foray into the researching rabbit hole.

Juggling between these two is the where the art of historical fiction lies.

I can’t claim to be an expert on this. I’m learning more. Day by day. Week by week. Year by year. But I am far from the ultimate source of knowledge. Probably twenty years from now I’ll still be in a learning curve.

To explain better, here are some words from Elizabeth Crook that sums up the predicament perfectly. They’re from her article, Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction.

Rule #2: Dump the Ballast.
In order to write authentic historical fiction you must know a period of time well enough to disappear daily through a wormhole to the past and arrive at the location of your story. There you must understand the customs and use the manners perfectly enough to be accepted by people walking the streets (if there are streets) and to dress yourself, and make a living. This said, the major trick of writing good historical fiction is not in compiling research or knowing the details, but in knowing the details to leave out. Try to avoid overwriting. Keep perspective on what will interest the reader. Historical fiction writers tend to be overly conscientious and excited by minutia: if you succumb to excess, and put in too much detail, then go back later and take some of it out. Think of your novel as a boat that is about to sink from having too much weight on board: some of the loved items will have to go. Toss them over with impunity! Throw them out! If a rare, surprising statistic, or a moving anecdote, or an obscure reference you saw to an interesting thing that happened in the county adjacent to the one where your story takes place, does not advance your plot or provide your reader with important information about your characters, then it is irrelevant to your story and must go overboard.

Keep in mind that the care, and time, it took to assemble all that you have just thrown out has not been wasted. It was necessary to gather these facts and assess their worth in order to know which ones to save.

One step at a time. One rule at a time. One lesson at a time. Coupled with practice, practice, practice – write, write, write. And we get better with each paragraph, with each page. Our stories become more polished. The details we include become so seamlessly interwoven into our tales and our readers beg us for more. Then…we’ll know we’ve gotten the details right.

Edwardian Era

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Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.

If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.

Today, introduces the letter E.

Edwardian Era

As historical fiction authors, many of us are drawn to certain eras or decades to set our tales in. And some hop about in time, effortlessly moving from one period to another without a hitch. In looking at different time periods, and as today is an ‘E’ day, we’re taking a peek at the Edwardian Era.

While a shorter time period, and not as well known as the Victorian Era, the changes that took place in this time are necessary to know if you’re going to set a story here. The Victorian period covered a longer span of time – from 1837 to 1901, the years Queen Victoria was on the throne. The Edwardian Era, the time her son King Edward VII reigned, was from 1901 to 1910, sometimes extending to the start of The Great War (WWI).

So, what was different between these two eras? Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian Era as “a leisurely time when women wore picture hands and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.”

During this time, women still wore very tight corsets, or bodices, and dressed in long skirts. However, this was the last time when women wore corsets in everyday life. When more afternoon tea parties began being held, especially in the upper classes, corsets fell out of fashion and flowing feminine gowns decorated with lace, tulle and feather boas became the rage. Long kid gloves, flat pancake hats- bigger in size and decorated with feathers and plumes- and lace embellished parasols were more popular than the heavier, ankle-length, dark velvet gowns of the Victorian Era.


A cartoon in Punch (1911) compares changes in fashion between 1901 and 1911. “The dowdy voluminous clothes of the earlier date, making the grandmother an old lady and the mother seem plain, had been replaced by much simpler looser wear producing a sense of release for all three females. (From Wikipedia)

Women’s suffrage societies and marches saw a proliferation during these years. The campaigning became more noticeable and large parades were common, despite women often being arrested at these events. The visibility of the cause seemed to energize the movement, which is a whole entire topic on its own.

Literature began to change during these years. Novels and short stories proliferated and popular genres seemed to morph from ‘highbrow literature’ to popular fiction. Many authors that wrote during this time are still popular and well known names today, such as Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, James Joyce, Beatrix Potter, George Bernard Shaw, and others.

One site, Two Worlds, posted a piece about ‘A look at the Edwardian Era and World War I.’ Their take of how the Edwardian Era was different from the Victorian Era sums it up as this:

“So the difference between the Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era in its strictest meaning, is that the Victorian Era was the time in which Victoria was on the throne (1837-1901) and the Edwardian Era was the time in which her son, Edward VII was on the throne (1901-1910). But as history tells us, the spirit of the age is what defines an era, not just the monarch. There are some things that both eras have in common, but there are some major differences. The Edwardian Era was different in its morals, having a more lax standard in its code of conduct, compared to Victorian society, which was incredibly conservative. Furthermore, the Edwardian Era is when we start to see more and more implementation of the standard inventions used in our modern world today. By the late 1890’s it became more common for homes of the middle to upper class to have electricity, phones, indoor plumbing, and even a car. These are but just a few examples of course, but the Edwardian Era is one of the finest examples in modern history of an era truly in the crux of two very different worlds.”

Does all of this give us all we need to know to go write a story set in Edwardian times? No, definitely not. There’s still a lot of research needed. But hopefully this gives you a few clues about pieces you’ll need to research and know to incorporate tidbits into your tale, making for a believable and enjoyable story.

Happy writing – in whatever era you choose to write about!


If you want to know more about what it was like living in these years, there’s a video segment on YouTube, filmed in 1973, where Mary Parkinson chats with three ladies who grew up at the turn of the century as they discuss what Christmas’ were just after the turn of the century. Christmas in early times

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Historical Fiction Short Story Contest #IWSG


Today I’m writing for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s blog hop. The first Wednesday of each month, we write in inspiration to a question posed by the group’s administrators. We don’t have to write in response to the question posed. Usually I like to use their query as the springboard for the monthly post. However, this month, I’m taking a break from my norm to do a little shameless self-promotion for a historical fiction short story contest I’m holding.

The March 4 question (which I’m not answering this month)- Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family traditions/customs in your stories?

The awesome co-hosts for the March 4 posting of the IWSG are Jacqui Murray, Lisa Buie-Collard, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, and Shannon Lawrence!


Historical Fiction Short Story Contest

Part of being a writer involves marketing and self-promotion. That’s not always a good mix for the ‘Insecure’ part that qualifies me to be part of this lovely group! But, no matter where a person is on the insecure spectrum, it’s always good to grow and move outside of one’s comfort zone.

So, here I go – breaking with my tradition of answering the monthly question posed by the fearless leaders at the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Because…well, writers! There’s lots of writers here and I’d like to reach a few more to let them know about a short story contest coming up.

It’s historical fiction. So, no sci-fi, romance, thriller, or terror. Sorry! But if you write historical fiction and feel like taking a chance to win a $50 gift certificate – keep reading.

I have a weekly newsletter that celebrates historical fiction – Pages of the Past. We also have a Facebook group. We’re having a short story contest every quarter. This is our second contest.


Write a 400-600 word story to one of the three pictures below.

Email your entry to texastrishafaye@yahoo.com with ‘CONTEST ENTRY – (title of your story)’ in the subject line.

Entries are due by midnight, Friday, March 20th.

The stories will be printed in the April 3rd newsletter. A PDF will be compiled with all the stories and posted on Facebook, allowing others a chance to read the stories and send in their votes. The contest will run until April 12th at midnight. The winner will be announced in the April17th newsletter.

The winner receives a $50 gift card.

If you’d like to read the stories that were submitted in our first contest, click here.

If you like to read or write historical fiction, you can sign up here for Pages of the Past, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

We now return you to your regularly programmed station and we’ll be back the first Wednesday in April – answering the monthly question.

FFContest_April 2020_1FFContest_April 2020_2FFContest_April 2020_3

R: Research Round-Up

photographs-1209751__340 pixaby

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.


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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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.


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


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?


11 Jobs From 1850 That Are Totally Extinct


35 Important Jobs that No Longer Exist – Part 2


Old Jobs that No Longer Exist


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


Free Dictionary of Old Occupations and Trades


Old Names of Occupations and Their Meanings


London Census 1891 Transcription Blog



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