Researching Outside the Box – by Jessica Brockmole

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Jessica Brockmole - Letters from SkyeI’m delighted to have Jessica Brockmole on the blog today. I’ve connected with Jessica many times on Facebook but it was when I read her novel Letters From Skye, that I really came to appreciate her wonderful writing style and story telling skills.

Here’s Jessica talking about some of the more unique aspects of researching history for the novels she writes.

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Writers of fiction must, of necessity, be creative. With nothing but words, we create characters, situations, dialogue, sometimes whole worlds. Historical novelists especially must draw on their imagination. Even if we are familiar with our setting, we have to add to it. Like artists, we paint an overlay of history on a place, so vivid that a reader can imagine the scenes as we do.

While writing Letters from Skye, I lived in Edinburgh. I knew how the streets ran through the city, how the cobbles felt after a rainstorm, how the parks smelled in the springtime. I drove north, across the bridge, and visited the Isle of Skye. I walked the contours of the green hills and shingle beaches. I climbed high and felt the winds coming off the sea across my face. But I didn’t know how it felt to navigate the streets of Edinburgh during WWII blackouts or wait in the queues to buy rationed groceries. I didn’t know the anticipation of waiting for the Skye ferry, before the bridge was up. I’d been to both places, but not sixty years ago or ninety years ago. I’d been to Edinburgh and Scotland, but not to the past.

Here’s where fiction writers again draw on their creativity. Not for fabricating a layer of history (though, of course, some fabrication does occur), as canny historical fiction readers often will not allow anything less than accurate. Rather the creativity is called upon when doing research.

General history books are excellent starting points. They can help us plan our novels from the onset, letting us wade through much history in order to zero in on the few essential tidbits. They can also point us in the direction of other resources. I always follow footnotes to the end bibliography in search of more to read, especially published primary sources. I’ve come across some gems that I may not have found on my own. In researching WWI and WWII, I read collections of letters between soldiers and sweethearts, war diaries, and memoirs. Some were edited and published recently, like Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis’s interesting A War in Words, while others were published back in the day. I have a pristine (and much-consulted) copy of Friends of France, a 1916 “history” book put out by the still-fledgling American Ambulance Field Service.

But I encourage you to look beyond the big publishers or the well-known books to see what local historians and museums have to offer. When writing Letters from Skye, I found little books like Dorothy Slee’s Two Generations of Edinburgh Folk, part of an oral history series through the National Museums of Scotland, and Isobel Macdonald’s slim A Family in Skye, 1908-1916 to be invaluable. Local libraries are wonderful resources for finding some of these small-printed volumes. The central library in Edinburgh turned up the delightful 1940s and Edinburgh at War by Day Greer, a book that truly looked to be photocopied from pasted photographs and typewritten pages of wartime memories. First-hand accounts like these are excellent ways to get a feel for the era and—important when writing an epistolary novel—the language used then.

Published collections aren’t the only place to find excellent primary sources, not in this age of digitalization. Historical newspapers are easily available online, making the search much easier than the days of scanning microfiche. I’ve spent many a happy evening browsing scanned and transcribed newspapers through the New York Times Archive and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, looking for articles and advertisements pertinent to the eras I write. Check the newspapers local to your setting; many have access, either free or via a subscription. For some visuals, the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection and Historic Map Works are two nice sources, with historical maps that can be superimposed on top of modern maps in some instances. British Pathé offers newsreel and film footage, easily searchable through keyword and year. And for the novelist wishing to add a little flavor to her or his storytelling, look for collections like Michigan State University’s Feeding America project, containing images and transcriptions of 76 cookbooks, and the wonderful Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, with copies of thousands of restaurant and banquet menus. [Note: If writing in other than an American setting, don’t be put off by the titles of these digital collections, as many contain ephemera from other locales.]

Ephemera doesn’t have to be digital. I’ve been building my own collections over the years, of vintage magazines, postcards, yearbooks, cookbooks, brochures, and roadmaps—little scraps of life. Those give me insight into the casual details of daily life. This very blog summed it up beautifully in the recent post on the treasures found lurking in attics. What information to be gleaned from such a find!

And don’t overlook novels published during the era of your book. They may be fiction, but it’s a fiction pulsing with the emotions and biases of the period. From the stark (like the powerful WWI novels Paths of Glory and Fear) to the romantic (Rebecca West’s War Nurse), you’ll get a sense of what things captured the public’s interests at that time, as well as catch a glimpse of some of the little details left out of history books.

Researching outside the box can allow the writer to paint a more vivid overlay of history onto that fictional world. Let yourself become immersed in the words and pictures, sights and sounds of the era. Let yourself feel what people in your time and place might have felt. The more that setting comes alive to you, the more it will come alive to your reader.

Many thanks for being on the blog today, Jessica. Your post gives readers as well as writers a wonderful peak into the world of creating historical fiction. I think I’ll make a sign with ‘Research Outside the Box’ to remind me of your ideas.

Jessica Brockmole is the author of Letters from Skye, a novel of Scotland, of war, and of love found through letters. She can often be found browsing in libraries or dusty secondhand book shops and cheerfully digging through boxes of old postcards. She loves to hear from readers, whether through email, Facebook, or Twitter.