In creating settings, a writer does a lot of research. Historicals require just enough information to help the reader see your story world but not too much to slow the story down. Housing from the era and geographical location can become the juxtaposition of a dramatic twist. While researching my novel I found the homes built on the prairie ingenious.
Soddies and Dugouts
Because in some areas wood was hard to come by, the first homes were often soddies made from handcrafted blocks of dirt. These blocks were cut and placed on a frame. Up until the 1880s, sod bricks were cut from thick grasses with a shovel. With the invention of the grasshopper, a special plow designed to cut through the thick sod, the task went faster. It was not uncommon before this invention to build on a hillside using the hill as the back wall.
If having shelter quicker was needed a dugout would serve. A hole dug in the side of a hill large enough to house the family could be constructed quickly. Either sod blocks or a wood frame covered the entrance.
Both of these were intended to be temporary shelters. Soddies and dug-outs housed insects, snakes and other underground varmints in the walls. Lining the walls with wood or plaster helped create a barrier between crawly creatures and human inhabitants. A large rain could flood a dug-out or destroy a poorly constructed soddie. Once a proper cabin was built the soddie or dug-out were often repurposed as a storage area, a barn or quarters for either a newlywed eldest son and his wife or aging parents. Some soddies were so well-constructed they lasted for decades.
Shanties and Cabins
Another throw together dwelling for new homesteaders might be a shanty. The walls were of thin wood covered in tar paper. The siding might be added after the first cash crop. They were drafty and did little to keep winter cold out. The floors were dirt and often windows were made of butcher paper rather than glass. Butcher paper (used to wrap fresh meat.) would be rubbed with lard and affixed to a window opening. You couldn’t see through it but some light came in through the greasy film.
A real cabin might only be one room wooden structure with a sleeping loft. Much warmer than a shanty and far cleaner than either a soddie or dug-out. Windows might still be butcher paper unless the owner could afford glass. Often windows were made of many panes rather than one large sheet of glass. The small squares were more economical in case the window was damaged only the smaller broken portions need be replaced.
In desert areas or flat plains homes were made of adobe. A special mixture of mud, the base being clay and sand and sometimes dung. Straw was added. One account I read mentioned horsehair. The mixture is poured into frames to create bricks. They were sundried. Adobe bricks have been used all over the world for thousands of years. And are still used as an economical way to construct a home in some areas of the world. They are sturdy and keep the homes relatively cool in summer and warm in winter.
Whatever kind of home a pioneer built the interior walls were whitewashed as soon as possible. This gave a cleaner appearance and reflected light.
Setting creates mood
The Double M ranch in Secrets and Charades is made from adobe bricks. Jake has a soddie on his ranch. It is used by his ranch hands if they are too far afield to make it back to the bunkhouse before dark. And his family’s original homestead is a cabin. Each of these locations is a crucial setting in the story.
Even after all the research on their construction, I chose not to put that information in my novel. Too much description draws the reader out of the action. Evangeline’s observations of her new surroundings set the mood. Each structure plays a key in building the emotional tension between characters. Had I taken the time for Jake to explain how each structure was built you would be bored. Now, if they were building one of these structures together, the process becomes part of the emotional struggle the characters experience.
What have you researched for your WIP to help create your story world? How much of that information do you feel really is necessary to use? Please share in the comments.
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