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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.


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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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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N: Names

N: Names


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.


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


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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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.


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


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lawson article.jpg


Genre Definition of Historical Fiction


Genre Definition of Historical Fiction


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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Elements of Historical Fiction


Elements of Historical Fiction


Five or seven? Or more? How many elements of historical fiction are there? It’s said that the five main elements of a story are:

  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Conflict, and
  • Theme

A Writer of History wrote that there are seven elements. To the five listed above, they added two other elements:

  • Dialogue
  • World building

But then, they went on to add that historical fiction has one additional challenge. They write:

All writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

You can see their excellent post at A Writer of History.

Help Teaching has a fun little video clip about the elements of historical fiction. It’s geared towards students, but I still enjoyed watching it. It’s only a minute and a half. Check it out. See if it prompts any ideas for you.


Now I’m off to go contemplate about how I can put more effort into making sure that my writing brings the past to life.


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