As we wrap up May’s theme of historical fiction, I had one more prompt to spark a story. Since it’s also Memorial Day in the U.S., looking at old photos for writing inspiration seems a fitting prompt for today. Since I’m a character writer, I begin to build a story by understanding my characters first. But before I understand them, I have to find them and looking at portraits is one way that I do that. A person in a photograph with an unusual or intriguing expression will ignite my imagination. Such as the little girl in the lower right hand portrait above. Something about her posture and her expression makes me think she’s a character to discover.
So check out the photos below. Or look at old photos of your own family. Maybe one of them will snag your attention, and you’ll want to know more about that person and the time period in which he or she lived.
As a history major, I love the idea of using local history for writing inspiration. Many people have used world events and famous people as writing inspiration. But if you dig into the local history of where you live, you might find the spark to tell a unique story.
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
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, 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. Now there’s the start to a story.
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.
How can you use local history for writing inspiration?
To go along with this month’s theme of historical fiction, last week’s prompt asked what time periods you like to read about in fiction. This week’s prompt encourages to look for story ideas closer to home. Delving into family history for writing inspiration, whether it’s researching a family story or learning about genealogy, can give you the spark for a unique story.
One family story that has always intrigued me was one my maternal grandmother told us. One of her distant grandfathers–she wasn’t sure who–had supposedly married a woman who was a Russian Jew and lived in Harrisburg, PA. They had four children, two boys and two girls and were possibly living in West Virginia. The marriage broke up. The woman took the two girls back to Harrisburg, while her grandfather kept the boys. He remarried and had other children. My grandmother didn’t know if we were descended from the children of the first marriage or the second.
This story provokes all kinds of questions. What would it have been like before the Civil War for a Christian to marry a Jew? Had the wife converted? What broke up the marriage? Did the father ever see his daughters again? Did the mother see her sons? Lots of questions here to fuel a fiction story.
Now it’s your turn. What family history do you know that can inspire stories?
I am so pleased to introduce another friend I met through ACFW. Tamera Lynn Kraft also writes historical fiction set during a wide variety of different times in American history.
Me: Why did you select pre-Civil War and early twentieth century American history as the time periods for your novels?
Tamera: I love American history, but I can’t choose one period I like better. At the moment, I’m finishing up a post-Civil War novel, and I have plans for a series in Colonial Jamestown.
Me; Which comes first – research or storyline?
Tamera: I usually find a storyline by reading about a period of time in history. My mind starts germinating ideas about what it would be like for the people living through those events. At that point, I start researching, and the storyline comes out of the research.
Me: What resources do you rely on for research?
Tamera: First I find out everything I can by Googling the period in history. Then I like to read books about the events and visit the places where they take place. In my latest novel, Red Sky Over America, I visited Oberlin College and talked to the head of the library archives for the college. He was a treasure trove of information. He also steered me toward the right books and journals to read. I also visited Maysville, the Harriet Tubman Museum, and the John Rankin House in Ripley, Ohio and did some hiking across the river from Ripley where most of the story takes place. Lastly, I visited the Freedom Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Me: What is the most unusual resource you have used?
Tamera: In Alice’s Notions, I interviewed my family. The story is set post WW2 and based in rural West Virginia in a fictional town near Kimberly. My mom and uncles grew up in Kimberly, West Virginia, so they were my go to resource about the culture there.
Me: What advice would you give to someone interested in writing historical fiction?
Tamera: Research, research, research. Don’t write a story and try to make it fit into a certain time period. The time period should be so much a part of the store that it is almost like another character.
Red Sky Over America — Ladies of Oberlin, Book 1
By Tamera Lynn Kraft
William and America confront evil, but will it costs them everything?
In 1857, America, the daughter of a slave owner, is an abolitionist and a student at Oberlin College, a school known for its radical ideas. America goes home to Kentucky during school break to confront her father about freeing his slaves.
America’s classmate, William, goes to Kentucky to preach abolition to churches that condone slavery. America and William find themselves in the center of the approaching storm sweeping the nation and may not make it home to Ohio or live through the struggle.
“Red Sky Over America tackles the most turbulent time in history with thorough research and fascinating characters. Tamera Lynn Kraft has woven a tale about the evils of slavery that should never be forgotten.” — Mary Ellis, author of The Quakerand the Rebel, The Lady and the Officer, and The Last Heiress.
Tamera Lynn Kraft has always loved adventures. She loves to write historical fiction set in the United States because there are so many stories in American history. There are strong elements of faith, romance, suspense and adventure in her stories. She has received 2nd place in the NOCW contest, 3rd place TARA writer’s contest, and is a finalist in the Frasier Writing Contest. Her newest novel, Red Sky Over America is Book 1 of the Ladies of Oberlin series. Alice’s Notions is a historical romantic suspense set shortly after World War II. She also has novellas published in eBook and print.
Tamera been married for 39 years to the love of her life, Rick, and has two married adult children and three grandchildren. She has been a children’s pastor for over 20 years. She is the leader of a ministry called Revival Fire for Kids where she mentors other children’s leaders, teaches workshops, and is a children’s ministry consultant and children’s evangelist and has written children’s church curriculum. She is a recipient of the 2007 National Children’s Leaders Association Shepherd’s Cup for lifetime achievement in children’s ministry.