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Posts tagged ‘historical fiction’

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.)

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

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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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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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Juvenile Historical Fiction

Juvenile Historical Fiction

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Juvenile – because historical fiction is for kids too, not just adults. How many of us grew up immersed in the past via Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books? Or Island of the Blue Dolphins? Or…

Two popular contemporary series are the American Girl novels and the Magic Tree House series. Many of the popular current works contain elements such as time travel or historical fantasy. My own thinking is – if it enthralls the reader and keeps them reading, I’m all for it.

What Do We Do All Day has a terrific post with 25 books to read after – or instead of – Little House on the Prairie books. They’ve compiled an excellent list other historical tales to entrance young readers.

Here is a site with recommended historical fiction picture books. I’m long past the picture book reading phase, but so many look interesting that I’m making a list to take to my local library. I foresee an afternoon in my future where you’ll find me camped out in the children’s section basking in a pile of historical picture books.

 

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Ideas

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Ideas

The elusive story ideas – where do they lay in wait, ready to spring forth and germinate? They surround us. Ideas for historical stories, too. For what is historical fiction but a story that’s set in the past instead of current or future times.

Many writers I talk to have an abundance of story ideas. They complain instead of not having enough time to write the stories they want to. I commiserate with them. I, too, have more ideas in mind than I’ll probably ever finish. About three years ago I finally put them together in a document and named it ‘Backburner Books’. A lady I spoke with last week keeps her ideas on index cards. And the massive pile of cards is threatening to collapse.

But yet, there are times when despite the wealth of ideas that swirls in an eddy around our existence, we have trouble coming up with an idea. Here’s a few places where I find ideas for plots, characters, or settings.

Cemeteries: I love visiting cemeteries. The older the better. Often as I’m wandering through the graves, I’ll spot an intriguing name that leads down the path to a story. I met Mittie Ann at Medlin Cemetery in Trophy Club, Texas. I’ve wanted to write her story since, and I have a notebook full of Medlin research. I’ve written some short stories and articles about her, yet the book remains on my ‘Backburner’ list. Through my research I also discovered other fascinating women that I’d love to write about. Some day.

Vintage Items: A trip to an antique store, museum, or merely perusing all the collectibles and antiques that fill my shelves hands me more story ideas that I can write in a year. I finger the embroidered dishtowels made from feed sacks and wonder about the woman that made them so many years ago. ‘Don’t Call my Handiwork Frivolous’ won first place and got me a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card at our local writer’s conference last year. A name on a flyleaf in a vintage book led to another story. A depression-era milk glass candy dish started off another tale. Old cookbooks – I’ve written more than one story using a vintage cookbook as the jumping off point to start a new tale.

Photographs and Postcards: That’s all I need is a handful of old photographs and postcards and I’m off and running. An added plus, is that they’re in my budget. But with the internet now, you don’t even need to actually purchase them. All you need is for the photos or postcards to spark an idea.

Research: Ah, the rabbit hole of research – so much fun. When I surface sometimes days later, I not only have the research I was after for my current idea (sometimes, often I’m still lacking and need more!), but I come out with another handful of ideas for other stories or books.

Chance or overheard conversations: Sometimes all you need is a chance conversation, or an overheard snippet, and *whammo* you’re off and running. What if….? If he or she said….

Old Publications: Old newspapers or magazines provide awesome story ideas. I had a copy of some 1904 issues of Horticulture magazine. When I was browsing through them, I found a fascinating report of a Mr. Lawson that feigned grief over his wife’s demise to get a floral pillow delivered. Imagine the florist’s surprise when a very much alive Mrs. Lawson opened the door. Mr. Lawson was sentenced to a month in the House of Correction over the charge of the larceny of one bunch of Lawson pinks. I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind and a short story, William’s Blunder, was born.

Television Shows or Movies: Sometimes one scene or one line will prompt a whole scenario in your brain. Not a replica of the show or movie that you’re watching, but an idea can germinate from your entertainment. One of my favorites is Josh Gates in Expedition Unknown. Oh my! The fascinating snippets of information that he unearths and the unique places he visits, and amazing people that he finds. After watching one of his hour long shows I have another few leads to either write about, or work into one of my current works in some way. I often joke that I want his job. Until we reach an episode where he’s eating bugs or other drinking some unimaginable concoction – or diving in frigid water that will kill you in less than a number of minutes if you didn’t have the proper gear. Then, I’m perfectly fine sitting at home behind my computer writing stories about people, places, and items from the past.

 

Here’s a link with some wonderful writing prompts and ideas for historical fiction writers. I haven’t used any of these yet, but there’s easily a half dozen photographs that I’m dying to use in some way.

https://thejohnfox.com/2016/06/historical-fiction-writing-prompts-and-ideas/

Ana Howard wrote a nice article – 5 Tips: Gathering Ideas for Historical Fiction

https://www.editing-writing.com/5-tips-historical-fiction-writing/

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Genre Definition of Historical Fiction

AtoZ2019tenthAnn

Genre Definition of Historical Fiction

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The definition of historical fiction seems easy enough – it is fiction and it’s historical. Yet, the term can mean different things to different people. All the subgenres that exist today can complicate the matter even further. Add to that about how readers have their own interpretations and perceptions of the genre, and we end up with a really mixed bag.

Personally, I find that I tend to write most of my historical fiction works anywhere from 1850-1940, with the 1930s being my all-time favorite decade. I think of this as historical fiction, but then I find myself chatting with Peggy Harrison, who along with her co-author Jay Hosler have three copper age novels – Rockslide, Spirit Chamber, and Ring of Fire. Now that is historical.

I was at one of my writing groups, and had a snippet of a 1930s short story I was working on. One of the ladies commented that she didn’t like historical fiction – but she was enjoying reading the excerpts I brought in because she was caught up in the story about the women from the past.

At a writing workshop a few weeks later, I was chatting with another attendee. The talk turned to the familiar ‘What do you write?’ conversation. I replied, “A variety of works, but I’m finding myself drawn more and more towards historical fiction.”

When I started explaining how I started with some family stories, and then wanted to start telling the tales of vintage items, her frown turned to a look of curiosity.

She told me, “I’ve never liked historical fiction. I always thought of it as just the old romance bodice-rippers.”

The Historical Novel Society states:

I will mention that my journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a “historical novel” is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Most autobiographical novels would not fit these criteria. Not all people agree on this definition, however, and even we occasionally break the rules. Some readers go so far as to say that a novel should only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history.

A story set fifty or more years in the past – that seems to be a fairly universal parameter. But then I find myself thinking – Woodstock was 50 years ago this August. Granted, as an 11-year old girl I couldn’t have gone to Woodstock and I only remember vague references to it. But still, that’s in a time period I remember. I don’t know if I like the idea that something I have memories of qualifies as historical.

On that thought, come back and join us tomorrow when we look at the differences between history and historical fiction.

 

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Diaries as Keyholes to the Past

AtoZ2019tenthAnn

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 debuts April 5th.

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Diaries as Keyholes to the Past

My fascination with historical diaries and journals began the summer of 2005. I can pinpoint the time because that’s the summer I took a two week driving vacation to see my dad, stopping at eight family cemeteries along the way. Because – antique stores, museums, and cemeteries – don’t the best vacations include these elements? And driving – because in an airplane you can’t spy the ‘Museum next right’ sign, turn on your blinker, slow down and exit.

Coming home from Arkansas, we detoured north, through a corner of Nebraska. I’d never been in Nebraska. And of course, I spied a sign for a sod house museum and came to a screeching halt in their parking lot.

Three books joined us in the car when we left. Naturally.

One book was Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford. Mollie began her diary in Indianapolis on March 23, 1857. She wanted to record the family’s journey west to Nebraska City. January 15, 1866 is the last entry and the diary, or journal, covered her courtship, her marriage, the Civil War years and gives us an in depth look at a young woman’s life during this period.

On February 1, 1895, she wrote:

“I have been very ill, and in my convalescence have determined to recopy my old journal, as the original by going through a flood while camping in the mountains is almost obliterated, and only can be deciphered by myself.

…It is of more value to me than it could possibly be to my children, but I desire that it be kept in the family and treasured as a relic of by-gone days, not from any especial merit it possesses, but because I do not want to be forgotten.”

Two other books I purchased were related. Butter in the Well: A Scandinavian Woman’s Tale of Life on the Prairie, is a historical diary of the years 1868-1888. The other is Prarieblomman: The Prairie Blossoms for an Immigrant’s Daughter, a historical diary from 1889-1900. Each of these are fictional diaries, but are written from extensive family research. They each include many actual family photographs and copies of pertinent records.

I was hooked. Reading through all three books was like peeking into a keyhole that led directly to the past.

Another fascinating book I discovered more recently is The Union: Diaries, Memoirs and Letters of the Civil War. In one letter, Edwards writes to Father and Mother on July 29, 1863:

“…We went to one place and they had about 10 or 12 hives of bees. One of my tent mates and myself thought we should like a little to help a hard tack down so we asked the man of the house which hive was the best one and he said that he guessed that there was not much in any of them but we were not going to give it up. So we went and got a good pile of cotton (there is pleanty of cotton in this states) and set it a fire and got it to smoking then went and picked out a good hive and smoked the bees out and we had a nice mess of honey.

I did not have a very heavy load when I came into camp last thursday. Everything I had was my pants, shirt and cap, Gun & equipments. I lost everything else and my boots I had to throw away. They were all worn out and hurt my feet pretty bad. I came all the way from Jackson bare footed (about 60 miles). (I drew some shoes from the gov yesterday)…”

Then, when I obtained a five year diary written by Flora Caldwell Luper, from the years 1848-1954…that was my own personal treasure and years later I’m still doing a happy dance over that one! But that’s different story for another day.

These written accounts that survive long past the lives that lived them provide great details that we can use as we create historical fiction with realistic touches. And even if you don’t need the specific research for a certain era or period that you’re writing about, it’s still intriguing reading that keeps me at least coming back for more.

Here are some online links with some great resources and diaries that have a lot of information.

http://listverse.com/2015/11/23/10-extraordinary-diaries-of-relatively-ordinary-people/

https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-diaries-and-journals-online-1422040

https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0010/gwdiary.html

 

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Articles as Our Link to the Past

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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 debuts April 5th.

Lawson

 

Articles as Our Link to the Past

Often I joke that I’d be happy if I could figure out how to get paid to sit and research all day. I truly enjoy writing historical fiction – both short stories and longer works. But the research, ah, that’s where my heart sings. Especially when all the planets align and I discover delicious tidbits with ease, instead of the roadblocks and rabbit holes that can so often be the results of our research time.

A few weeks ago, for example, I ran across something that had me doing a happy dance. Luckily, I don’t have a camera on my monitor, so there’s no visual proof of my antics that afternoon. (Be relieved!) Although I write stories in different eras, my passion is in the 1930s. I tease that it’s John Steinbeck’s fault. Reading Grapes of Wrath in junior high, probably coupled with hearing stories about my grandparents early adult years (married in 1935), fueled the favoritism for this decade.

While researching for one of the short stories I was working on, I saw a reference to a series of articles that John Steinbeck wrote, “The Harvest Gypsies”. The articles were commissioned by The San Francisco News and were published from October 5-12, 1936. Steinbeck interviewed migrant workers and shared about the hardships encountered in these post-Depression years. I wanted to read those articles. Can you lust after a printed page? I was.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to foray into the World Wide Web too deeply before I found a copy of The Harvest Gypsies. I read that in 1938 the articles were published, along with Steinbeck’s epilogue “Starvation Under the Orange Trees”, in a pamphlet entitled Their Blood is Strong. Wikipedia reports that ten thousand copies of this pamphlet sold at twenty-five cents each. With a little more digging, I found a copy of the epilogue to accompany the treasure I’d printed out earlier.

Reading these, and other articles in a similar vein are fascinating to me. Interviews with people that lived in times prior and other written accounts are like a time capsule, taking us back to the days of long ago. These written accounts give us a direct peek into lives that we may otherwise not know. And even better, it’s all from the comfort of our own heated and air-conditioned homes, where we live with full refrigerators and stuffed bellies. Then we close the page, go out to our luxurious automobile (compared to my Grandpa’s 1928 Chevy), and drive to the market a mile away to purchase anything we desire. I always feel so spoiled and grateful after reading some of these accounts of the life people that lived so many years ago.

For a little more reading fun, here are a few other sites I discovered in various research expeditions.

Life in a Michigan logging camp

Prohibition times and photos in Michigan

Moonshine in Arkansas

A Pennsylvania Miner’s story

Diaries, Memoirs, Letters and Reports Along The Trails West

Happy reading!

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