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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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Keeping the Memories Alive

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.

Keeping the Memories Alive

Luetta and Amanda.jpg

(Not a family photo – simply the inspiration for the two women in my 1928 short story)

It’s always fun as an author when we can use elements of our family history as part of our writing. It feels like you’re keeping a small memory of your beloved ancestors alive – at least in a small fragment. Others may not realize that they’ve read something that was inspired by a family member past, but you as the author know.

I’m finding out that I’m not the only one that enjoys this small tribute to our loved ones. Last year, in a guest post – Mom and Dad May Be Gone but They Live on in My Series – author Lindsay Downs shared about how characteristics of his parents live on in his Upson PI mysteries. (Lindsay is the featured author in Pages of the Past April 19th issue)

You’d think that writing further back in time, say in the time of Mary Queen of Scots, it wouldn’t be possible to include family snippets. Not true. Author Emily-Jane Hills Orford, in writing Queen Mary’s Daughter, was able to use characteristics of her beloved grandmother as a the grandmother in the tale. In the debut issue of Pages of the Past, Emily-Jane shared how her grandmother was a factor in her historical interests. In her author spotlight, she shares:

“I have always been fascinated with the life and times of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. Once again, this was a shared interest with my grandmother.”

In my own writing, pieces of family history and characters have been used here and there. One of my Vintage Daze Short Stories I was working on ended up being the most fun when Grandpa Jones (deceased since 1976) pushed his way into the story.

Two small 1928 cookbooks were the original inspiration for ‘Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.’ One I’d purchased in an antique store and one I’d inherited from one of the elderly women that lived next door to us when I was a child. That’s all I knew about the story – is that it would be set in 1928.

I researched events in 1928 to see if there was anything I could work into the story. I saw that in Chillicothe Missouri, the first loaf of sliced bread came out that year. My Grandpa Jones grew up in a small town, Dawn, outside of Chillicothe and his brother, Uncle Scott, had a farm outside Chillicothe where my mom and Aunt Ida were born. Voila! I had the place. The vague outline of a young flapper girl and her quest for cooking began to form.

I also saw that Chillicothe held a popular Chevrolet Day that year. And I read that that’s the year the Hall Brothers Company, in Kansas City, changed their name to their trademarked Hallmark, and started using the new Hallmark logo on their cards. Since I work part time for Hallmark, I knew I wanted to include this part, so the young flapper, Luetta, instantly got herself a boyfriend that just happened to work for Hall Brothers.

The story had been ‘brewing’ for several weeks and I was a few scenes into it, when I happened to be talking to my mom one afternoon. I was telling her about the new story idea and where it was set. “Grandpa would have been a young boy in 1928 though?” I asked.

“Oh, no. He was born in 1908, so he would have been twenty years old.”

“Twenty years old? So if Chillicothe had a Chevrolet Day, he would have been there then?”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “He was a Chevy man his whole life. That’s all he ever drove. I’m sure he would have been there.” Mom continued to tell me a family story that Grandpa had repeated many times throughout his later years. He was driving through town – in a Chevy – and had one arm around the girl in the car. (Pre-Grandma Jones’ days) The constable pulled him over and said, “Casey, you need to use both hands.” Grandpa, the smart-alecky young man that he was, responded, “But, officer, I need one hand to drive with.”

Well, Luetta already had a boyfriend, but now – how to work a young Grandpa Jones into the tale? Luetta’s best friend, Amanda, had to meet Casey so I could work this family story in.

A short time later, my cousin – not knowing I was working on this story- texted me one morning about another Grandpa Jones story. Uncle Alvin had shared about when Grandpa was running a trunk load of moonshine up from Arkansas to Missouri, stowed in the trunk and covered with armloads of hay. He was stopped and the officer said his lights were out. Grandpa played dumb like he didn’t know. The officer opened the trunk asked, “What’s with all the hay?” Grandpa replied, “Why, officer, you feed animals with it.” And the officer closed the trunk and Grandpa went on his way.

Yes, that was written into the short story too. In real life, the Grandpa I knew was such a quiet, unassuming man. Yet here he is forty years later getting a little pushy from the afterlife, pushing his way into the story. No one else will know as the read that these two parts are real life tales, from a Grandpa’s younger days so long ago. But I’ll know and feel good about keeping a small part of his history alive.

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