I come from a family of storytellers. One way we get to know people is to swap stories. I am fortunate to have been told stories about my great-great grandparents. Such as I have a great-great grandfather who died in the notorious Civil War prisoner of war camp at Andersonville.
So if you are blessed with older family members with long memories and great stories, interview them. Besides preserving family history, you may find literary inspiration.
What inspiration from family stories have you gained?
Studying photos or paintings from the time period you would like to write about is a wonderful way to learn about it. My friend Sandra Merville Hart provides in-depth instruction on how to analyze pictures in this post at Almost an Author.
Being a history major, I love looking at old photos and paintings. It’s a way to connect with people I can’t speak to and places I can’t visit. Because I like Sherlock Holmes, I became interested in Victorian history and Queen Victoria and her family. The interactions of this huge family can provide a writer of any genre with characters and plots galore. The most interesting book I have found on the subject isQueen Victoria’s Family: A Century of Photographs by Charlotte Zeepvat.
Composed almost exclusively of photos and captions, this book covers 100 years of Victoria’s family starting with earliest photos taken of the queen and her husband, Prince Albert. Of course, old photos give accurate depictions of what famous people really looked like and glimpses of the fashions of specific times. But I like to study portraits, either photographed or painted, to get inspiration for characters.
I am a character writer. I have to find a character to inspire me before I start a story. And the development of that character is closely tied to how they look, so I am always hunting for intriguing faces.
In Queen Victoria’s Family, a few photos arrested my attention. On page 117, there is a photo of the four daughters and only son of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. I can never look at photos of those kids without thinking how awful it was for them to be murdered for their parents’ incompetence. What catches my attention in this photo is Marie. All her siblings are looking straight ahead, very serious, wearing what the caption calls “Court dress”, and Marie is glancing off to the side with an amused smile. What did she see? Did she have a good sense of humor? Her expression makes her more real to me.
On page 126 is a photo of a great-grandson of Victoria’s, Prince Rupert of Teck, taken around 1919. He looks like a boy who could be one of my kids’ classmates. On page 132 is a portrait of the husband of Victoria’s oldest daughter. Kaiser Friederich III stares directly into the camera. Something about his expression always makes me stop and study it. Maybe it’s because, if you shaved off the beard, he looks like someone you could meet today.
If you have old photos of relatives, take the time to examine them. You can learn a lot about your own family history and may just get some literary inspiration. I am blessed to have some photos of my great-grandparents and even one of my maternal grandmother’s grandparents, who were alive during the Civil War.
I am so excited to introduce you to a friend of mine I met through chapter meetings of ACFW. Cindy Thompson writes historical fiction set in ancient Ireland and early 1900’s America. I highlighted her nonfiction book, The Roots of Irish Wisdom, back in March. Since my focus this month is on historical fiction, I am very pleased Cindy had the time to answer questions about her genre.
Me: Welcome, Cindy! My first question is why did you select ancient Ireland and the American immigrant experience of the early 1900’s for your novels?
Cindy: I love history and there are many time periods that interest me. I got interested in the early Christian period of Ireland when I started learning about St. Brigid at an Irish festival. The Ellis Island series, on the other hand, was recommended to me by my agent at the time. He knew there were publishers interested in that subject so he thought I should write about Irish immigrants.
Me: Which comes first – research or storyline?
Cindy: For me the history comes first. I start learning about a time period and the people who lived during that time, and then the story comes after.
Me: What resources do you rely on for research?
Cindy: Whatever I can find. Researching 5-6th century Ireland wasn’t too easy, but there are books about the social history of the time. Whatever books I can find, biographies, novels in that time period, and for later time periods newspapers and personal accounts.
Me: What is the most unusual resource you have used?
Cindy: For Sofia’s Tune I wanted to learn about people who lost their twin. I discovered there is a national group called Twinless Twins, and they put me in touch with someone who was willing to tell me her story. She influenced the formation of my character Sofia. I’ll leave it at that so I don’t spoil the story too much for those who haven’t read it, but I would say that was a pretty unique resource.
Me: What advice would you give to someone interested in writing historical fiction?
Cindy: Make sure you have a passion for it and you enjoy research. Do your research thoroughly so that you don’t make glaring mistakes. There will always be readers who will nail you if you use a place name that is modern rather than historical or use inventions that had not yet been invented at the time your novel is set. These anachronisms will leave readers wondering if you’ve done any research and cause them not to trust you as an author.
You should feel a connection to the people who lived during the time you are writing about.
Enjoy. It’s my favorite genre and historical fiction fans are always eager for the next intriguing tale!
Me: Thanks so much for your insights and advice!
Please visit Cindy at the links listed below.
Cindy Thomson is the author of eight books, including her newest novel, Enya’s Son, releasing this summer. Being a genealogy enthusiast, she also writes articles for Internet Genealogy and Your Genealogy Today magazines, and children’s short stories for Clubhouse Magazine. She has also co-authored a baseball biography. Most everything she writes reflects her belief that history has stories to teach. Cindy lives in central Ohio near their three grown sons and their families.
Victorian era — Especially Europe, but any location during this time period in which Sherlock Holmes could plausibly appear.
Golden Age of Hollywood — Since I love movies from the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s, I’ve already read a lot about the people working in the Hollywood studio system. A mystery set then would be fun to write.
You might not think of folklore as part of historical research, but delving into this area may provide you with inspiration that historical facts can’t.
When my in-laws retired to the coast of North Carolina, I knew we would be visiting them regularly. Since I look on any place I visit as a potential story setting, I began buying books about the history of Beaufort and the surrounding area. I also found a series of books on the legends and folklore of the Outer Banks. Judge Charles Harry Whedbee, a life-long resident of North Carolina, is the author and was at the time of his death in 1990, “the foremost authority on North Carolina’s coastal folklore,” according to the dust jacket of Outer Banks Mysteries & Seaside Stories.
The stories reveal the fears and hopes of the local people. Since most locals made their living from the sea, many of the stories center around it. In “The Gray Man of Hatteras” from Outer Banks Mysteries, a ghostly man dressed in a sou’wester appears “between Cape Point and the Hatteras Lighthouse” whenever a hurricane is approaching. Despite his ghostly appearance, maybe locals were comforted with the idea of some kind of warning before we had accurate weather forecasts.
In “The Dram Tree” from the same book, a member of a ship coming into the harbor in Edenton was supposed to leave a bottle of rum in a hole in a huge cypress tree that grew in the water there. Crews of ships leaving the harbor stopped at the tree and drank from the bottle for good luck. This story demonstrates again the anxiety of living with the unpredictable sea. Blackbeard lived and sailed along this stretch of North Carolina, and some of the stories concern him and piracy, which I think would worry the locals as much as the ocean.
Just about any town that’s existed long enough has tales to tell. The best place to find them, if they have been written down, is the local library or historical society. Many libraries have a local history room with books you cannot find any place else.
Such stories can inspire speculative fiction. Perhaps the crews who drink from the Dram Tree are more successful. Why? Is it luck? Did someone put a magical substance in the rum? What if someone figures out why and tries to steal the bottle from Edenton?
I find stories about local hauntings a good start for mysteries. In the case of the “The Gray Man of Hatteras”, perhaps the legend is just a vague memory of some real crime, and the main character investigates to bring about long-delayed justice. By reading about the stories that have been handed down in an area, I can craft my own and make it sound authentic to the location.
What kind of folklore do you know about where you live or where you have visited?