Writing Tip — Researching Local History

libraryw-2824901_1280Not everything about history can be found online. If you are interested in historical fiction set in America, researching local history at a library where your historical fiction is set will produce resources you can’t find anywhere else.

As a test, I visited a local history room of library near where I live. I’d still be there, trawling through the trove information like each piece was a jewel from a treasure, but I had a blog to type up. Here are some of the resources I discovered.

  • City directories — From 2000 back to 1859
  • Yearbooks of the local college — Going back to 1909. The college library is another place to check for local history
  • Genealogical indexes — These covered two counties
  • Books of the census — Covering one county, these went back to 1835. I also found it a great source for unusual names, such as Justice T. Calhoun, Zelotes Jones, and Ev Narden.
  • Histories of local churches
  • Book published in 1891 — Portraits and biographies of “prominent persons” from the county up to that time.
  • Spooky tales of a neighboring county
  • Index to Common Please Court — These were arranged both by plaintiff and defendent
  • State phone books on microfiche
  • Fiction and nonfiction by local authors
  • Family histories
  • Card catalog with obituaries — How many of you know what a card catalog is? It’s the paper way libraries indexed their collection. This one had cards arranged alphabetically by the last name of a deceased person, often with a newspaper obituary cut out and taped to the card.

The library had another room, locked, run by the county genealogical society, with hours listed when volunteers are available to help researchers.

Researching  local history may also take you to old newspapers. The library I visited in Parsons, West Virginia, last summer had the local newspaper on microfilm. While scrolling through an edition from the late 1940’s, I discovered why the bridge I drove across was a memorial bridge. It was dedicated to a sheriff who was murdered on duty.

The microfilm was difficult to use and make copies of, so I asked the librarian if any of these newspapers were online. She said they weren’t. My only option was visiting the library.

What kind of resources have you found helpful when doing research?


Writing Tip — Researching Pictures

albumw1-2974646_1280Studying 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 is Queen 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.

Have you found inspiration in historical photos?

Writing Tip — Researching History

library-1697314_1280Although I am a history major, I have never felt inspired to write historical fiction. If you are interested in that kind of fiction, learning how to conduct research is critical. I know several authors who write historical fiction and their sites have many articles giving advice on research.

Cindy Thomson writes books the Ellis Island series and two books set in ancient Ireland. She is also a professional genealogist.

Sandra Merville Hart has written two books set during the battle of Gettysburg.

Tamera Lynn Kraft had set Resurrection of Hope in 1920 America, Alice’s Notion’s during World War II, and A Christmas Promise in a Moravian settlement in Ohio, 1773.

At writer’s meeting I went to, Sandra gave advice on how to kickstart your novel if it stalls in the middle. One idea was to go back to your research notes. Whether you have researched languages, locations, or legends for your writing, keeping your notes organized and available will help you find your creative spark when you need it.

Writing Tip — Writing in Time — June

class-1986501_1280More than January, I feel like June is the start of new things, the month of great possibilities. With the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation, the month signals throwing off our normal routines and preparing ourselves for something new.

June seems perfect for starting an adventure story, especially if your main character is a kid or a teen. The freedom from school seems to call for a story where something radically different or exciting happens to the main character. You can have the story take place over a summer, wrapping up before school starts and normal life takes over again.

one-hundred-days-baby-1616112_1280Father’s Day is in June.  It can be a setting for exploring male relationships within a family. Like I wrote in May for Mother’s Day, you can write a story, only set on Father’s Day over a number years, to show how the male characters change.

This year the summer solstice is on June 21. Many traditions are associated with this solar event, making it a perfect time for a story of speculative fiction or historical fiction. In the little bit of research I did, I read in The Summer Solstice by Ellen Jackson that the Chumash of California and the Anasazi of New Mexico created ways to mark the sun on the solstice. She also tells an abbreviated version of a solstice story involving Maui, “a mythological hero of Polynesia.”

summer-solstice-1474745_1280According to Farmer’s Almanacthe new year in ancient Egypt began on this day because the Nile started rising. Europe had many traditions to celebrate the day, the best known being the one immortalized by Shakespeare in a Midsummer Night’s Dream: fairies were out and about at this time.

With the coming of Christianity to Europe, the pagan celebrations were given new meaning because now they honored John the Baptist, St. John’s Day, on June 24.  Still superstitions persisted.  In The Folklore of American Holildaysif girls in North Carolina “pare an apple round and round without a break in the peeling and throw the peel over the left shoulder, it will form the initial or initials of your future husband.” On June 23, Midsummer’s Eve, in England “great bonfires were built” in which “people threw herbs, gathered by moonlight, as charms against witchcraft.”

June has such wonderful possibilities as a setting.  Let the adventures begin!


Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageChoose the Write Words

My friend Sandra Merville Hart writes historical fiction and wrote piece on researching words that are appropriate for her characters to say in the time period she is writing about.  She describes how modern words and phrases in the mouths of characters living hundreds of years ago will ruin the effect the author wants to create.

She lists two sites that help authors research words and phrases.  For example, it is “okay” for Civil War characters to say something is “okay”.  But those characters can’t “okay” something because using “okay” as a verb wasn’t done until 1888.

Click here for Sandra’s article And click here to visit her website.

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