Setting – Research Sources

Two weeks ago, in Setting is Like an Iceberg, I included a grouped list of the ingredients that constitute setting – one of the seven elements essential to transporting readers in time and place. Where, you might ask, does an author find information about those ingredients?

Primary sources are foundational. They include: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries offer insights on period dialogue and attitudes, memoirs, maps, legal documents including wills, deeds, court rolls, treaties etc., which can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time. Then there are judicial reports, school log books, ships’ logs, local newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, journals, advertisements, photographs, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, dictionaries of the time. Civil and military records.

Museums contain a wealth of primary material carefully collected and curated to reflect a particular time and place. I remember being in Stockholm where a 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage is on display –  mammoth, majestic, intricately carved, it gives ample evidence of shipbuilding practices of the time and could fuel the imagination with what it must have been like to sail such a beauty.

Site visits can be considered primary source material, although never assume that things look exactly the same today as they did in the past. Site visits allow an author to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same. Is the earth rich and dark or red and dusty? Are the streets narrow and windy or wide open? Do people speak with a lilt? What building materials were used in Haussmann’s Paris? Where does the sun set and the shadows fall in late September?

Secondary sources include academic writing, non-fiction books, archaeological reports, reference books, biographies, academic lectures, subject-matter experts. Paintings and contemporary portraiture  from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, the shop fronts and advertisements. They also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time. Re-enactment groups work faithfully to demonstrate life the way it was, wars the way they were fought. Books on historical slang and foreign phrases. Books on furniture, costume and houses.

Internet trawling is a favourite pastime of authors. Be very wary though of sources and it’s best to corroborate ‘facts’ with multiple sources. Nonetheless, you can find amazing articles, reports, historical timelines, sites dedicated to the fashion of a particular time period or to a specific regiment’s experience during one of the world wars.

Project Gutenberg and Google feee books offer out of print novels, diaries, journals and more. I’ve found fascinating accounts of World War One and the siege of Paris using Project Gutenberg.

Where else can you look? I’ve assembled a list based on my own work as well as suggestions from other writers.

  • Period novels (novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then and not how a contemporary author thinks about them through the lens of today
  • Poetry of the time period
  • Government collections
  • Talking to locals
  • Bibliographies are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • Dictionaries of quotations from the time period.
  • Books of names can offer popular names of the time. Or you can search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers of the time for suitable names that were popular in the period.
  • Copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • Hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • Google maps; Google earth
  • Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • Broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • Recordings conducted at the time.
  • Interviews conducted during the time period.
  • Pinterest boards – it’s fascinating the material collected by others!
  • Town histories
  • Farm journals
  • Listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • TV and film adaptations
  • Check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Museum websites
  • Historical societies,
  • Educational sites like PBS
  • Children’s books

The possibilities are endless! So I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Bryan author of War Brides and The Sisterhood.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.

Of course, it’s also possible to write lengthy articles for your blog instead of actually writing the next chapter of your novel  🙂

See you next time.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and university lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She’s written four mysteries set in the 1920s: The Jazz Files, The Kill Fee, The Death Beat and her latest, The Cairo Brief. Fiona has previously written for stage and screen which gives her a unique background for historical fiction. I’m delighted to host Fiona as part of the blog tour introducing The Cairo Brief to readers.

Flappers, Fops and Murder – the Poppy Denby Investigates books  by Fiona Veitch Smith

The Poppy Denby Investigates books are murder mysteries set in the early 1920s. At the beginning of the first book, The Jazz Files, it is less than two years since the armistice that ended the Great War, resulting in the death of seventeen million people, and only eighteen months since the height of the Spanish Flu that wiped out a further seventy million. Poppy Denby, who is just starting out on a career in journalism, is full of hope – but sorrow is never far away.

That is something that really attracted me to the period and why, ultimately, I decided to set my books in the 1920s. I wanted to write stories that balanced darkness and light. On the surface the books are fun, frolicking adventures, but you don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find some serious social issues. While some characters are living the high life, others are in misery. The 1920s – alternatively known as the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the decade of the Bright Young People – is characterised by a generation desperate to leave the horror of war behind them and to create a ‘bright new world’. Little did they know, the world they were so blithely building would crash into economic darkness within nine years, and be at war, once again, by the time Poppy turns 40. I find that thought deeply poignant, and it is never very far away from me when I am writing.

But in the early 1920s they did not know this and they danced to new jazzy music from America and wore skimpy dresses and cropped or ‘shingled’ hair that scandalised their Edwardian mothers. Everything was new, daring and very self-consciously turning its back on the past. There is a certain romance about the 1920s, and a rich vein of material to draw upon for any writer setting work in that period. It is the decade in which moving pictures became popularised and much of the film footage is available to us today. In addition, the music and fashion are iconic, providing a fabulous soundtrack and wardrobe for Poppy and her friends.

As I have previously written for stage and screen, my writing is very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I would create the mis en scene by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of the period, I do the same in my novels. Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process– I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. I even made an outfit from an original 1920s pattern for my first Poppy Denby photo shoot!

In terms of the historical background I take a more academic approach. I have a degree in history (simply a BA) but it is enough to ground me in the techniques of historical research. I prepare for writing in the same way I used to prepare for my university exams – sketching timelines and flow charts and trying to reach an understanding of the broad historical, political, social and economic backdrop, rather than memorising ‘details’. The details can, and are, easily added later. But I do not start writing until I have a feel of what it might have been like to live in that period – I try to read diaries, biographies and novels written at the time – as well as how the period ‘fits’ into history.

For my latest book, The Cairo Brief, I signed up for a six-week online course in antiquities theft, run by Glasgow University through Future Learn (a totally free service!).

But then I stop, switch brains, and start to focus on the story, the characters and the mystery. That for me is the most important part. The history is certainly the skeleton of my books, but the muscles, the flesh and the beating heart are Poppy, her friends and their adventures.

I build my fictional worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the mystery. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. In The Cairo Brief, Emmeline Pankhurst, Arthur Conan Doyle and archaeologist Howard Carter all make an appearance.

The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.

Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today. In the end that is what readers will connect with most: real, authentic human beings.

The Cairo Brief by Fiona Veitch Smith

“I’ve heard all about you, Miss Denby. Everyone knows you have a nose for murder.” Poppy Denby is intrigued when she is invited to attend the auction for the Death Mask of Nefertiti. Held on the country estate of Sir James Maddox, a famous explorer, the auction promises to be a controversial and newsworthy affair. Representatives from the world’s leading museums are gathering to bid on the mask, which was discovered in Egypt. Poppy quickly sniffs out that the mask was not the only thing found that night: the underground chamber also contained a dead body. Poppy and her colleagues from The Daily Globe, who are trying to stay one step ahead of their rivals from The London Courier, dismiss rumours about the mask’s ancient curse. But when one of the auction party is murdered, and someone starts stalking Poppy, the race is on to find the killer before ‘the curse’ can strike again…

Many thanks, Fiona. Having written three novels featuring WWI, I can appreciate the perspective you want to bring to your novels. Best wishes for success with The Cairo Brief. Fiona appeared earlier on the blog discussing the magic ingredients that make historical fiction so successful.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

Transported to 1912 Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before some of the photos that have inspired scenes in my novels. I found several that helped me piece this scene together, which is from the current work-in-process. The first photo is of Alice Roosevelt on board ship during a trip to Asia in the early 1900s.

Isabel Taylor clutched her straw hat in one hand and her daughter Georgiana’s hand in the other as the China Seas cleared the tip of an outlying island and Hong Kong Harbor came into view.

“Look at all the little boats, Mummy,” Georgiana said. She pointed at a jumble of vessels the size of large rowboats clustered along the quay, anchored one to another.

“I see them, sweetheart,” Isabel said. “I believe they’re called sampans. The Chinese use them for fishing. But I had no idea there would be so many.”

At least fifty passengers stood at the bow railing, while they steamed into port. Isabel smiled at the line of hats her shipmates wore: boater hats, colorful, wide-brimmed hats, and parasols for the women; bowlers and Panama hats and the occasional bare head for the men.

Hong Kong early 1900s“It’s mountainous.” A woman standing nearby said to no one in particular. “I didn’t expect mountains.”

Isabel hadn’t expected mountains either yet there they were, craggy peaks that embraced the city of Victoria, where she and her husband and daughter had come to live. She was struck by the sudden reality that this foreign place would be her home—a place of strange customs and exotic scenery, of unusual food and dramatically different climate, and of people who looked nothing like her. For a brief moment she wondered if she could stay onboard and return to London.

“Will we get off soon, Mummy?” Georgiana asked.

Isabel smoothed Georgiana’s curls. “Yes, Georgie. Very soon.” She often called her daughter Georgie. Georgiana seemed too grand a name for a little four-year-old girl.

“But where’s Papa? Isn’t he coming with us?”

When they’d gone out on deck an hour earlier, Isabel had been unable to find Henry. Not an unusual occurrence. “Of course, he is. I’m sure your father is talking with Captain Davidson,” she replied.

Isabel crouched down, taking care not to wrinkle the white muslin jacket and long white skirt she’d put on that morning in anticipation of finally reaching their destination. “The captain will have wanted his advice about coming into port.” The ship’s bridge was the most likely place Henry would be right now. Duty and family were often at odds for her husband. For the most part, duty took precedence.

“I’m glad we’re here, Mummy. Will my toys be here too?”

After reassuring her daughter, Isabel continued to watch as they passed other steamers at anchor and navigated through a harbor crowded with tugboats, sailboats, and barges. A green ferry with white trim passed so close to the China Seas that she could see the faces of its passengers standing beneath a dirty canvas canopy.

Hong Kong HarbourIsabel shielded her eyes from the glare to get a sense of their new home. Four- and five-story buildings built of stone lined the shore, while long piers jutted from the quay and smoke belched from factories in the distance. Dotting the hillside beyond the central area of the city were apartment buildings and what looked like spacious homes. When they were closer still, she noticed brightly colored awnings and a church spire that reminded her of St. Mary’s in London.

“Here you are, Mrs. Taylor,” Muriel Fletcher said. “I’ve finished the packing. Can I help with Georgiana in any way?”

“Georgie’s fine with me,” Isabel said to the governess. “But stay and watch the ship dock, Muriel. What do you think of your first glimpse of Hong Kong?”

“It’s astonishing, Mrs. Taylor. I’m so fortunate you asked me to come along.”

The ship made a wide turn as it prepared to dock, exposing a low-lying area filled with ramshackle buildings that looked like they’d blow away in a strong wind. This was Kowloon, located on the mainland to the north of Hong Kong Island. The turn complete, Isabel noticed the Union Jack flying proudly atop what might have been a government building and a line of palm trees waving in the breeze. The quay teemed with people and waiting vehicles—everything from carriages and lorries to rickshaws and motorcars.

Slowly the China Seas drew alongside a concrete pier where men shouted in a language unlike any other Isabel had ever heard and fastened thick ropes tossed by the ship’s crew. After four long weeks, they had finally arrived.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.