Typical resources provide facts and figures, and can contribute context—but good historical fiction needs more. Mindy Tarquini offers eleven resources to shake loose the soul of your setting so it can sparkle on the page.
The concept is intriguing, the protagonist well-developed, and the setting is not present day. That last was the challenge I faced while researching for my recent novel, The Infinite Now (SparkPress, 2017). Set against the backdrop of the First World War, my story focused on a 16-year-old immigrant searching for her place amidst the horrors of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Philadelphia.
Historical fiction has unique needs. The author must recreate an era long gone, one that likely no longer exists in any living person’s memory. The typical resources—histories, documentaries, Wikipedia, Google—can provide facts and figures, contribute context, but a good historical needs that breath, that spark, that sense of place that will bring the world to life. What follows are eleven resources I found to shake loose the soul of my setting so it could sparkle on the page.
1. Read fiction and non-fiction written during the era. (Google Books, or the Gutenberg Project are wonderful for finding out-of-print titles).
Subtle clues as to language usage and cadence can be found which may not be evident in a modern-day history. Social attitudes may be hiding in the corners of a whodunnit. Presumptions, assumptions, misconceptions, even dinner menus might be paraded across the pages of a popular novel of the period.
2. Listen to their music.
Opera was the everyday music of the Italian community in 1918 Philadelphia, not the high-brow indulgence it is considered today.
3. Watch movies!
Look for gestures, slang, sentence structure. Note clothing, hairstyles, house furnishings, kitchen gadgets, cars, trolleys, neighborhoods. I watched a lot of silent movies and got a kick out of all the emoting required when tone and voice could not be used to convey meaning. I was intrigued by how the frames flickered, and the fonts used on the titles.
4. Memoirs, letters, photos (think Ken Burns) are a treasure trove of information.
Diaries, recipe books, grocery lists, ticket stubs, utility bills, any paper history that might be tucked into an old trunk, stuffed into the back of a photo album, or crammed into an ancient coffee can could yield details to delight your readers.
Don’t have any items like that lurking in yours or a relative’s attic? Don’t despair. Poke around Pinterest, eBay, or online museum collections.
5. Newspapers and periodicals of the time are a must-read.
Online archives maintained by genealogy sites, universities, libraries, are arranged by city, state, year, country, and language.
Here’s the unconventional part: don’t just read articles regarding your topic, read the whole newspaper, first page to last, one a day, like you’re a subscriber and the paper just thumped onto your doorstep. Read the classified, the advertisements, the editorials, the funny pages.
I read several of Philadelphia’s local papers, in both English and Italian. I noticed classifieds were grouped by gender, and, cringeworthingly, by race. I learned how much rents were, what trade schools cost, what jobs paid, what kinds of jobs were available, how much a coat cost—and what kind of fabrics were preferred—the price of sugar, what fruits and vegetables were in season, where they were available, and the daily weather forecast.
A chilling trend emerged, the damped down reporting on the influenza, and the oddly upbeat reports regarding the war. I researched and turned up information that newspapers submitted to voluntary censorship which promoted the war effort and suppressed news detrimental to that effort, including an epidemic that might keep war workers from their jobs.
Bonus tip! Get into the groove of the period. Read an 1865 newspaper by firelight in the dead of winter with the heat turned off. Read an 1880 newspaper published in a coastline town by oil lamp, preferably with the sound of waves in the background and sea spray blowing across the keyboard. Your novel’s descriptions will thank you.
6. Haunt used bookstores and yard sales for long out-dated medical books and old-timey encyclopedias.
My husband’s great-grand aunt was a gynecologist in a big city in the very early part of the last century. Somewhere among her mementos was a handbook of ‘modern’ birth practices, circa the 1920s, meant for the instruction of the patient. From my cozy, well-informed truly modern perspective, the handbook was equal parts horrifying and amusing and indispensable when I wrote the birthing scene in The Infinite Now.
7. Cities often have old plot maps online or at their halls of records.
Modern day companies sometimes have histories of their technology on their sites. Take the time to find out when houses were built, or streets planned, when electricity was wired, or asphalt laid. Nothing will spoil a historical faster than one very well-informed reader who points out the street your character lived on had a different name at the time, and oh, by the way, zip codes or area codes were not yet invented, and ballpoint pens were still a dozen years into the future.
8. Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites house a wealth of documents of all sorts, immigration records, service records, old phone books, yearbooks, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses.
I especially liked looking through census records, going block by block, studying the surnames, searching family groupings, places of origin, occupations.
My story, set in an Italian immigrant community, had crossed an ocean. I’d spent hours, days, weeks searching my family’s genealogy in Italian records recorded on microfiche. Imagine my glee to be able to take the knowledge gained of trades and family ties in Italy, then compare and contrast with new world translations on this side of the Atlantic.
9. Peruse old catalogs for pricing, for products, for information on how people dressed, how they decorated, what they ate, how they cooked.
Look for sewing patterns, fabric swatches, wallpaper books, paint chips, cooking utensils. Sears even carried a line of house kits, complete with detailed blueprints, which they’d ship to your door, pre-cut and measured, down to the door hinges, for the most ambitious do-it-yourselfer.
10. Oral histories are a pinnacle and should be sought for any story taking place in living memory.
Search out somebody who can not only inform your novel but might be willing to read with a critical eye. These are the beta readers who will catch errors with slang, or dating norms, or radio or television shows. They will gently remind you the internet wasn’t a ‘thing’ until the mid-1990s, that Tweeting has not always been with us. They will point out how back in the olden days phones were hardwired to the grid, did not call other states or countries without operator assistance, and couldn’t travel any further than the length of their cord.
An alternative to interviewing a live person who remembers the time is to find recordings of interviews of somebody from the period. And remember, YouTube can be your friend.
11. Finally, peruse how-to manuals of the time: for housekeeping, etiquette, even sex.
Each opens a window onto the era’s zeitgeist, often presenting an idealized view of how things should be and sometimes glimpses into how things were.
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