Writing an Era – Where to Begin

Stephanie CarrollI am pleased to welcome author Stephanie Carroll to talk about researching historical fiction. In her post you will see  vivid examples of how she has incorporate research into her debut novel A White Room and experience part of the journey she took to write it. Now, over to Stephanie … 
Writing an Era – Where to Begin
I still have a vivid memory of sitting down at my computer prepared to write my novel after I had the initial idea for A White Room. I tried to start typing, but each time I moved my fingers toward the keys, I flinched back, thinking: I don’t know what they wore so I can’t describe her clothes; I don’t know how they talked so I can’t write dialogue; I don’t know what kind of house they would be in or what they would be doing . . . I couldn’t write anything!
Sure I had a degree in history, but I studied the overall events of various time periods, not day to day stuff like the layout of an average home in 1900 or the cost of a tomato. Luckily for me, my history degree makes me a research expert, so I knew what to do, but you don’t have to have a degree to write a historical novel, so where to begin?
1.    Books.
Try to find as much secondary resource (professionals writing and evaluating the past, like textbooks) information via books. Don’t give me that frowny face! Although easy, internet resources are not held accountable for accuracy the way published authors and historians are. Use that amazing resource you have called a library!
Don’t worry! The internet will come into play. Did you know most libraries have online request systems? Find the books you want via searching online and hit request. Your books will be waiting for you at the library desk in a few of days. Just walk up and ask for them. Most libraries also have sharing systems so if you want a book they don’t have, they can borrow it from another library. That means you have a huge amount of free print resources at your disposal. Many libraries are also starting to loan out ebooks.
Don’t get me wrong! The internet is an amazing tool and you can use it a ton for research, especially for double checking facts, but don’t rely on it for learning the facts. Eventually, you will be well versed in your period and can tell if an online resource is accurate or not.

(Mrs. Schwab) was expecting, but continued to work despite the fact that she had begun to show. This wasn’t abnormal among working class women, but polite society considered such a delicate condition to be a private affair and even deemed it an inappropriate topic for open conversation or polite correspondence. Middle and upper class women went into confinement or took a lying-in period. They withdrew from the public and dedicated most or all of their time resting for the sake of the child and public decency.

2.     Internet
Wait, wait, wait . . . didn’t you just . . .
Let me clarify. DO use the internet for getting resources that you are guaranteed are accurate, like visuals. Pictures don’t lie – usually. Be wary of photography students getting creative, though.
Use historical photos to describe buildings, clothing, furniture, etc. The internet is also useful for finding old videos and music. Obviously photos, videos, and recorded music will only go back to a certain point, but you can also find re-creations, paintings, etc.
Use Google Earth to get an idea of the location or setting you have. If you are basing your story in a real place or modeling your fictional town off of a real place, visit the town’s website and historical sites. Most places have already done all the research for you.
Basing a fictional location on a real location is what I did for A White Room. The fictional town – Labellum, Missouri – is modeled after Hannibal, Missouri. I used Hannibal because the Doyle-Mounce house, which inspired the house in the book, is located there. It’s also Mark Twain’s hometown.
Basically, the internet is not good for finding secondary resources but great for finding primary sources.
3.     Primary Sources
Primary Sources are resources that were created during the time period. Journals, letters, newspapers, advertisements, photos, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, even novels and short stories from the time will give you a really important perspective.
These resources are crucial for finding details about day to day life that you can’t find elsewhere, especially when it comes to language. It’s also important for understanding the way people from the time period viewed the world around them – that’s the kind of thing you can’t find in a textbook.
You can find primary resources in print as well, but I have found it is easier to get them online. You will find them in all kinds of sites: museums websites, historical societies, educational sites like PBS, government collections, and even on Flickr and Pinterest, but always check to make sure you are looking at what you think you are. There are re-creations, re-enactments, and even just mistakes. A photograph of a farm community from the 1930s can easily be mistaken for a photograph from the 1900s.

We stored dishes and food in some cupboards with glass doors. I stored fresh food and baked goods in a pierced-tin closet to keep bugs away. The extra buffet and icebox sat against another wall. People in Labellum actually had iceboxes that they filled with large chunks of ice from the Mississippi during the winter and stored in such a way that the ice lasted through much of summer. The stove and oven sat next to the stairs. We did much of the work on a large wood table in the middle of the room and a small dough box with an unfinished wood top for chopping.

4.     Reference Books
Reference books are the type of books that allow you to look something up so say dictionaries and encyclopedias, but there are also tons of reference books for historical information.
Writing historical language in fiction is a difficult task. Get a historical dictionary, but, don’t get carried away. Keep in mind that you as the author have to decide how much historical language is needed to create the atmosphere and how much is too much.
Reference books are also awesome if you can find something that is actually made for writers and researchers like Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians by Marc McCutcheon. I know he also has one for the 1920s. These books are awesome, listing types of transportation, food, medicines, common illnesses, types of clothing, etc. They don’t have any events or context though – just the word and definition. Unfortunately, these types of books don’t exist for every time period. You will find them for popular genre periods like WWII or the Regency Period.

My hair was so long that it took all day to dry by the fire, so I washed it very rarely, using perfumed soaps made from animal fat and lemons. Afterward, I cleaned the tub and brushed my teeth with a horsehair toothbrush and bicarbonate of soda.

5.     Professionals
There will be times when you can’t find the answer to an important question. Once you’ve looked everywhere for an answer, don’t be afraid to contact museum directors, professors, or local historians to ask them. They are always excited when their knowledge is sought out and can be put to good use.
Just call and say you are an author doing research. Do not feel like you don’t have a right to make that phone call just because you don’t yet have a published book. They will be happy to help, and if you keep in contact with them, you might find yourself with a resource for when the book does come out. Feel free to email if a phone call is too overwhelming, and remember this is for when you can’t find the answer elsewhere – don’t bug professionals for easy to find dates and names.
Bonus – Researching and Writing Work Together
The best thing about researching your era is that it’s fun! It is so much fun learning all the little details that will make your story come to life. It’s fun learning about all the stories of things that happened to real people. It’s even more fun to realize each historical fact or anecdote you can incorporate into your story. The best thing is, if you only have an idea and not a full plot worked out – which was the case for me – researching gives you so many ideas. You will be inspired and develop the plot in your mind with each new thing you learn.
I hope these tips are helpful and if there is anything I didn’t cover, please ask me a question in the comments.
Excerpts Quoted from A White Room with the Permission of Author Stephanie Carroll
About the Author
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).
Stephanie blogs and writes fiction in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.
A White Room is her debut novel.
The White RoomAdvanced Praise for A White Room
“A novel of grit, independence, and determination … An intelligent story, well told.”
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine
“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper … the thoughtful, intricate story Carroll relates is absolutely mesmerizing.”
—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego
About A White Room
At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.
John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.
Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.
A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.
Available in Print $14.99 and eBook $3.99 (Kindle, Nook, Sony, e-pub)
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13 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Stephanie. I can tell from the excerpts that you’ve written a story rich with the historical detail I love. I’m writing historical fiction set in rural Iowa during WWI. A research resource I’ve found helpful is the Living History Farms near Des Moines. Walking through houses and barns, talking with interpreters dressed in period clothing, doing the work with period equipment brings the time to life. Good luck with A White Room.

    1. You bring such an important part of research that I completly left out of this post – visiting the area!!! It’s a huge and important part of research but it’s not always possible to do. For me, the house led me to Missouri, but I didn’t have the money to travel there and see the place for real. Trust me I wanted to – I really wanted to see the town and the house that inspired the story …. so I guess this is Writing an Era – From a Distance. ; )

      1. Nothing like getting to walk on the same streets and see the buildings. But fortunately your other approaches to research get you exceedingly close – books, pictures, the Internet. I learned to drive a Model T by watching YouTube videos 😉

  2. Thanks so much for the tips. I’m in the middle of writing a historical novel, and I accumulated a lot more research than I’m needing. Next time, I’ll use your notes as a guide and try to do it in a more orderly and manageable fashion. :o)

    1. I accumulated so much research that I didn’t get to use in the actual book. I think all researchers do, and I think that is a sign that you did a great job researching. If you have that much accumulated information, it means you really know what you are talking about. The extra research will come in handy many times over as you continue your writing and publishing path. And who knows, it might come in handy for the next book. ; )

  3. This is very useful information, as I am working on my first histfic novel. With regard to internet research, can I trust .gov or .edu sites with the same authority as books?

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