This week, let’s dust off the phonograph, practice the Fox Trot , and welcome Barbara J. Taylor to our writing dance party. Barbara J. Taylor is the author of Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night. I’ve had the joy of attending one of her readings and talking with her about her writing process. Her debut novel is a beautifully-written story and a must-read for next summer. Here’s Barb’s fantastic research advice:
WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION THE eBAY WAY by Barbara J. Taylor
While working on my first novel, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, (shameless self-promotion about to happen) due to be released by Kaylie Jones Books on July 1, 2014, I found eBay to be a great resource for historical fiction writers. My book, about a young girl in 1913 who’s blamed for the death of her sister, takes place in Scranton, PA, during the height of coalmining, evangelism and Vaudeville. Since I’ve never mined, evangelized, or Vauded (well, it should be a word), I had lots to learn. At some point, after long hours in the public library and the historical society, I discovered the goldmine (my metaphorical foray into mining) that is eBay. Below I offer several ideas to get you thinking about your own work. And remember, you’re looking for primary sources, not collectibles, so when it comes to your purchases, the worse the condition, the better the bargain.
I bought a tattered dictionary from 1910 and referred to it often when trying to determine if a word existed at the time of my novel. For example, I needed to convey that a Fourth of July sparkler fizzled prematurely. I originally used the word “dud,” only to discover that “dud” did not come into mainstream use until World War I; however, according to my dictionary, “lemon” was used before 1913 to describe something as defective.
Internet Bonus: etymononline.com is a great, free, online, etymology dictionary.
2. Home Catalogues
I purchased a partially intact Montgomery Ward catalogue from 1905 with enough pages to dress my characters and furnish their houses. When one of my characters needed to wear an eye-catching hat, I created one based on two or three I found in the catalogue. “A band of moss-green silk circled the bell-shaped crown. A single quill shot out from three crimped rosettes, nestled in the seam of the brim.”
Also consider catalogues used for specific purposes, such as colleges, seeds, and so on.
Period cookbooks offer interesting recipes that may make it into your novel. They also include information about the appliances and utensils needed for each dish, so you know how to stock your character’s kitchen. Additionally, these resources often offer helpful advice about homemaking or healthy lifestyle habits. One book in particular offered several hints that I incorporated into my novel such as, “How not to fall asleep in church,” and “How to drive away rats.”
4. Manuals and Textbooks
One of my main characters is a miner, and the family lives in a mining town. I bought a few textbooks on the industry to help me understand how it worked. Along the way, my character decided to go back to school, and these are the books he carried with him.
Internet Bonus: Check out books.google.com for scanned copies of industry-related materials.
5. Medical Books
For the most part, I found medical books to be expensive, but you can still get a bargain if you find one without a cover or with missing pages. One of the characters in my book required medical attention for serious burns, so I always emailed sellers to see if the treatment of burns was included in their volume before bidding. One kind soul scanned a chapter on burns and emailed it to me, knowing his book was a collectible and out of my price range.
6. Magazines and Newspapers
Both resources offer glimpses into daily life. The featured articles are helpful, but also be sure to check out the ads, train schedules, theater scene and any other information that may be useful. A local newspaper, The Scranton Truth, included cause of death in their obituaries and moral judgments on the lifestyles of the deceased. These made for fascinating reads and inspired some interesting details in my novel.
You can follow Barb on Twitter here or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have something to say about writing and would like to be a Guest DJ, please contact me here.