Tips for doing research for an historical novel

One of my husband’s ancestors. Great resource for period clothes.

If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know I write Historical Romance. And one of the key things any historical writer or fiction writer in general needs to do is research.

When I get a germ of an idea and the plot noodles around in my mind, I do research. It can take days, weeks or months depending on how familiar I am with the time period, setting and other details beforehand.

Let me share how I research my first novel Secrets & Charades

The idea of a female doctor going west as a mail-order bride formed in my mind. I knew nothing about female doctors in the mid-1800s or if they existed. I’d read mail-order bride stories but didn’t understand the process. My thoughts on ranching came from watching Bonanza and Big Valley as a kid. And although I’d lived in Texas for a while as a child, I still needed to research setting.

Google it

First, I used the internet to answer some basic questions. Were there female doctors in that time period? Who were the notable ones? What was the male view of female doctors?

 I looked at historical maps (which are really hard to see online) for setting and railroad lines. And checked out ranching of the period.

Pinterest has boards of wonderful pictures of historical dress.

There are websites with photos of the time period and models in period dress. Those photos helped me describe the clothing. I found some interesting faces that helped me picture my characters.

And there are YouTube videos on a variety of historical subjects, from guns to preparing food in a fireplace.

Books, books, books

Where I really hit the mother lode of research was the library and used books on Amazon. My local library has a wonderful atlas of period maps. I was able to see the geography of Texas more clearly and where the railroad lines traversed the state in 1870.

I found diaries and biographies from women of the period, and books about cowboys and ranching. Large coffee table books with town scenes showed me the architecture of the time, and photos of homesteads and ranches. That’s where I learned about soddies and a dugout homes. I spent way too much timing reading about food preparation and how to cook a roast in a fireplace.

Those same books were great reference material for my last for historical romances.

Reenactments

I went to a Civil War reenactment encampment and ask lots of questions of the man playing the doctor. That information along with the research I did on female doctors helped me shape Evangeline’s backstory.  I used the Civil War reenactors’ insights to create a deeper backstory for Jake.

Living History Display

I purchased a few out-of-print books explaining the customs of the 1800s.

Some writers use historical accounts from their own families as a basis for their novel. I have some miners as minor characters in my recent novel WIP. My Welch ancestors moved to Southern Illinois and open coal mines. Mining was more privatized in the 1800s and that information changed the way I approached my setting.

Makes it feel real

Research is so important for believability. But you only need a sprinkle of details through historical novels to bring the setting and characters to life. Readers want to feel like they are there but not get bogged down with a history lesson.

Lastly

And one last key thought. You need to have a passion for what you are researching. Then the story you create is richer because of your investment in your research.

How do you research and what is your favorite resource?

Diaries are a Gold Mind for Author’s Research

Some of the journals I’ve kept over the years. Great Aunt Ruth’s is written in a simple composition notebook.

If you write any sort of historical fiction, delving into journals of the time period is essential.

I love reading diaries. Not the ‘I have a secret crush’ teen diary but historical ones. As a writer, the insights I gain while reading personal diaries is a gold mine. These people didn’t write the diaries with a goal toward publication. Some dealt with a situation through journaling.  Anne Frank; The Diary of a Young Girl is an example of that.  Others wrote them for their children and grandchildren. The entries were spontaneous, full of emotions and commentaries of their day to day lives.

Family Diaries

My husband’s great aunt wrote a diary from 1940-42. She and her sister kept house for their bachelor brother who was working in the oil fields of Southern Illinois.  They lived in a huge tent with a wooden floor. Ruth journaled about what they fix for dinner, sewing projects and my husband’s parents who lived in a neighboring tent. They’d get a ride into town once a week to do their “trading.” She wrote that she paid a few cents more for a quart of milk. “It was worth it. Jersey cows give more cream.” Then on D-Day, when Pearl Harbor was bombed she made no reference. Instead, she continued to speak about those things near and dear.  Her journal gave me a glimpse into life in Southern Illinois in a time before I was born. And a deeper understanding of my mother-in-law who also talked about doing her “trading in town”. Such a fun journal to read.

I am presently reading some diaries written by William Huff. He may be related to my husband, Charley, through the Huff branch that moved to Texas. He printed the diaries from the internet back in the 90s when the web was young. The diaries were found among his descendant’s thing. The yellowed pages passed from generation to generation. William Huff traveled from Texas to California in 1949. The details of the geology of the area and his observations of his fellow-travelers are fascinating. He was a journalist who’d been outfitted by a businessman who wanted to know if a gold rush venture would be of value. Unlike others who struck out on this journey, his family was well-cared for while he was gone. There was only one woman among the travelers on his wagon train, Mrs. Dixon. William spent several paragraphs praising women for their ability to keep men civilized. He also talked about European immigrants in his group. I was surprised to hear a Prussian immigrant carried only a sword for protection.

The idea of a story set on a wagon train is why I’m reading this. I am noodling with this setting for a future novel.

How diaries influenced my debut novel

Historical Romance

When I was writing Secret & Charades I read journals and diaries of women in the West. They talked about the food they prepared and the chores they did. Some spoke about more private things. Some had traveled west; others had pursued a new path such as being a doctor. The things they shared helped me add realism to my stories.

I cried when I read the account of a woman who opened her door one morning to find her dead brother on the porch. She spoke of her numbness and pain.

I’d read historical diaries even if I never used the content in a book. They remind me of all the sacrifices of those who shaped our country.

Do you use personal accounts in your research, or have you read an ancestor’s diary?   I’ve maintained journals in years past, how about you?

 

 

What’s a Harvey Girl? and a Giveaway

Linda Yezak is the final author I’m featuring from the novella collection The Cowboys. It releases today and I love having Linda round out the collection. She’s a Selah Award winner and loves all things western.

When I asked her to tell us about her research for writing Loving a Harvey Girl she graciously let me repost an excellent one she’d already written on the subject. Her excitement mirrored my own at being ask to be a part of the collection. Take it away, Linda.

When the managing editor for Smitten Historical (a Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas imprint) asked me to join in a collection of historical romances, I got excited. I’ve always wanted to write a historical. I’ve even delved into it a time or two with Slider, published in The Saturday Evening Post’s collection of short stories and an unpublished short story called Masquerade.

The as yet untitled story I’m working on now fits in with my series of contemporary western romances, except it’s a historical western romance. Things aren’t that different—cows, cowboys, and the girls they give their hearts to—but they’re different enough that I need to research. I was flipping through MSB’s Time Life collection called “The Old West,” and found reference to the Harvey Girls. Immediately I had my story idea involving a cowboy and a Harvey Girl. I’ve never heard of the Harvey Girls, so of course I jumped on the internet and did a quick search until I found a great article about them plus a vimeo of an interview with a latter-day Harvey Girl.

Along with these resources, I found one more. Not long ago, PBS did a series called “Texas Ranch House,” in which 21st Century Californians came to run a 19th Century ranch in Texas. Several folks from all over the US came to join the experience. Everything for this ranch was supposed to be authentic to 1867, after the Civil War, when cattle roamed the ranges free of ownership. But Fred Harvey didn’t start his Harvey House hotels and restaurants until the 1880s, so I have to make time adjustments. Still, the PBS series is vital because it shows life on the 19th Century ranch, and as I said, very little has changed. They still needed pens and chutes, range and water, and the men necessary to work it all in 1887 as they did in 1867.

So there’s my research start: books, internet, videos. From these I can learn setting details; character descriptions; clothing, kitchen items, and everyday articles of use; attitudes of the time; hazards of the time—lands, with these three resources, I can learn everything I need to know to write a romance novella set in the 1880s.

Using the resources I have at hand, I study and observe, noticing everything I can in the pictures and videos and looking up terms I’m unfamiliar with. I went so far as to figure out what an 1880 barbershop looked like and what all a barber did, because one scene takes place in a barber shop.

The trick with research is not using in your book everything you learned. Doesn’t that sound odd? But it’s true—as you study your era, setting, and culture, the temptation is to show off your new knowledge for your reader. This kind of info dump (or research dump, as I call it) bogs down the novel and bores the reader. So use of the information is the same as in any novel: you reveal what you’ve learned through the character’s daily activities.

I learned some fun things about the 19th Century barber shop, but instead of describing them to the reader, I let my character, Cal Hardy, do it:

Walter Neville swept up what looked like a half pound of hair and sent a stream of tobacco juice toward the spittoon. “’Afternoon, Cal. Be right with ya.”

“Ain’t in no hurry.” Cal rubbed his jaw and studied the handwritten sign over Walt’s new National cash register. Walt had gone up two bits on both hair cut and shave—three bits on a bath. And heaven help anyone who needed a tooth pulled.

So, on the off chance someone didn’t know that the barbers also served as dentists, now they do. They can also see the progress of technology through the cash register. NCR was founded in 1884, and one of the earliest Harvey Houses was built in Ladonia, Texas, in 1887, and Ladonia is close to Fort Worth, one of the cattle capitals of Texas, complete with stockyards which were built in 1887. Now we know the era of my setting.

I can know all this about when the stockyards were built, when NCR released its cash registers, etc., but it’s not necessary that my reader does. I want my reader to feel immersed in the time and culture, not educated about it. If she learns while she’s being entertained, so much the better. And if I can convince hardcore Texas history buffs that I did my research, so much the better still! But I’m a novelist, not the author of a history textbook, so my goal is to entertain and enlighten through the stories I tell. Research dumps have no place in Historical Romances.

More about Linda:

Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee—with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn’t begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.

 

Website: http://lindawyezak.com

Newsletter: http://dld.bz/CoffeewithLinda

Facebook: Author Page

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/lyezak/

Twitter: @LindaYezak

Amazon Page: http://dld.bz/LWYAmazonPage

Goodreads: Linda W Yezak

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/linda-w-yezak

Blurb: Loving a Harvey Girl

Eva Knowles can’rt imagine why the local preacher doesn’t like Harvey Girls–women who work serving tables instead of finding a husband and falling in love. But if Eva can get the handsome and wayward cowboy Cal Stephens to join her in church, maybe the reverend will accept the girls. Or maybe she’ll forfeit her job for a husband, hearth and home!

Don’t forget this is the last chance to enter to win a $10 Amazon card. You simple post here who your favorite cowboy is or anything you’d like to say about cowboys. If you haven’t commented on the other three posts about this collection go to mine, Jennifer’s and Sandy’s to add your comments for more chances to win and learn more details about the collection. I’ll be posting the winner next Thursday, August 22nd.

 

Romance, Research and Fun Factoids

Sandra Merville Hart is my special guest today. She writes Civil War Romance. I love historical romance. I’ve read a Stranger on My Land the first book in her Civil War series. I’m very interested in her newest release A Rebel in My House. Sandra tells us about it.SandraMervilleHart_Headshot2(1)

A Rebel in My House is set during the turbulent Battle of Gettysburg. The townspeople lived through a nightmare that extended months beyond the battle. This novel gives a glimpse of that suffering through the eyes of a Gettysburg seamstress. A Confederate soldier caught behind enemy lines after retreat needs her help. Sheltering him ushers in more difficulties than she ever imagined. Lines become blurred as her feelings for him grow. Loyalties threaten to divide them as Confederates seize the town.

Both have made promises to family members.

Some promises are impossible to keep.

How do you research for your book?

I read articles online to learn some initial facts. Then I check out nonfiction books from the library and take copious notes. I try to travel to novel settings. Visiting local museums and walking the historic streets piques my imagination. I learn the history and, along the way, the story is born.

What inspired you to write this book?

When it was time to write my next Civil War romance, I knew there was story waiting for me in Gettysburg. My husband traveled there with me. We spent long hours in the battlefields and attended several ranger tours.We took a private ranger tour with a Battlefield Guide who tailored the tour around my questions about Tennessee regiments. A hazy idea formed.

We visited museums in town and learned of the horrific nightmare the women and children endured. Then I knew I had to write their story as well as the experience of the Tennessee regiments.

Share a few Civil War factoids about Gettysburg most people are not aware of.

The Confederate Army gathered both runaway slaves and free citizens when they crossed into Pennsylvania in June of 1863. Many African Americans had fled by the time Confederate General Jubal Early entered Gettysburg on Friday, June 26, 1863, a few days ahead of the famous battle that began on July 1st.

After the battle, Confederates left behind 7,000 comrades too severely wounded to retreat.

The first Confederate soldier killed at Gettysburg was Henry Raison of the 7th Tennessee Infantry. The hero, Jesse Mitchell, in A Rebel in My House is from that regiment.

The Battle of Gettysburg ranks first among our bloodiest Civil War battles with over 40,000 casualties.

Now, I’d like to ask a few questions about you that my readers might find interesting.

Do you have a favorite verse that resonates with you?

“I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” Revelation 3:8 (NIV)

If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice for your younger self about writing what would that be?

Start writing now. Don’t let someone else determine whether or not you follow your dream. Take writing classes. Attend writers’ conferences. Learn as much as you can about the craft of writing. Pray that God guides your steps.

Who is your best support system to keep you focused on your writing?

My husband is amazingly supportive. If I tell him I need to go to Gettysburg for a research trip, he checks his work calendar to plan a week he can take off with me. I take photographs; he logs where the picture is taken. He helps me figure out directions and mileage between historical towns. When I’m baffled by some historical object in a museum, he helps me figure out how it might have been used. He is amazing.

What is your favorite genre to read for fun?

I love to read romantic suspense, cozy mystery, contemporary romance, but my favorite genre to read for pleasure is historical romance.

About Sandra Merville Hart:

Sandra Merville Hart, Assistant Editor for DevoKids.com, loves to find unusual or little-known facts in her historical research to use in her stories. Her debut Civil War romance, A Stranger On My Land, was an IRCA Finalist 2015. Her second Civil War romance novel, A Rebel in My House, is set during the Battle of Gettysburg. It released on July 15, 2017. Visit Sandra on her blog at https://sandramervillehart.wordpress.com/.

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A Rebel in My House Book Blurb: Click to order.

When the cannons roar beside Sarah Hubbard’s home outside of Gettysburg, she despairs of escaping the war that’s come to Pennsylvania. A wounded Confederate soldier on her doorstep leaves her with a heart-wrenching decision.

Separated from his unit and with a bullet in his back, Jesse Mitchell needs help. He seeks refuge at a house beside Willoughby Run. His future lies in the hands of a woman whose sympathies lay with the North.

Jesse has promised his sister-in-law he’d bring his brother home from the war. Sarah has promised her sister that she’d stay clear of the enemy. Can the two keep their promises amid a war bent on tearing their country apart?

If you’d like to find out more about Sandra visit any of the links below.

Sandra’s Blog, Historical Nibbles:  https://sandramervillehart.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sandra.m.hart.7

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sandra_M_Hart

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/sandramhart7/

Sandra’s Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8445068.Sandra_Merville_Hart

Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/100329215443000389705/posts

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Sandra-Merville-Hart/e/B00OBSJ3PU/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_j3JI-wECyY&feature=youtu.be

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Populating Your Historical Story World

 

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Notice the diversity in these cowboys.

I am a pantster, I write my stories as my characters speak to me. I don’t usually outline and sometimes characters appear I never met until the words appear on the page. During my research in preparation for my historical novel, I was fascinated by the various nationalities, who populated the geographic setting of my story. Because the information ruminated in the back of my mind, many minor characters took shape from those tomes.

 

Potpourri of ethnicity

During the mid -1800s significant immigration by many diverse people groups to the unsettled regions of the Midwest occurred.  African Americans came west after the Civil War. Former slaves looking to start new. Irish immigrants who’d help build the railroads and were sick of big city life in the East. Some who in order to gain citizenship fought in the Civil War on both sides. Chinese nationals helped build the railroad. Wikipedia places them only on the west coast. However, my resource books show they also moved inland. Not all Native Americans were on reservations either. And Mexicans were the first immigrants to the area under the Spanish flag.

All of these nationalities took up residence either on the ranch or the surrounding community in my novel, Secrets and Charades.

Research the nationality of your setting

 

thp-irish-csa

Irish immigrants. Notice the one in the union hat.

 

When populating your novel with characters, it’s important to know who settled the area. For example, did you know that most police officers and firemen in New York in the 1800s were Irish? Those jobs were considered dangerous. The Irish were treated as second-class citizens when they arrived on American shores. Some had military training, either in Ireland or were Civil War veterans. Because these jobs paid better than most available to the Irish, many took up the call. Often patrolling tenement areas housing Irish

irish-laundry-girls

Irish women took any job available. These washerwomen might have traveled west for a better life. My ancestors among them.

immigrants. So, it would be appropriate to have Irish police officers in your novel set in this time period in New York. Those same poor, abused Irish immigrants came west as farmers, miners and the like. The various free land opportunities gave them a chance for a better life.

 

139whm-blackhomesteader-copy

Former slaves on their homestead.

 

African-Americans

African Americans who had served during the Civil War also participated in homesteading opportunities. Former slaves with specific skills such as blacksmithing could make a living out west.  Black communities sprung up throughout the west. The stigmatism leftover from slavery made it safer to form their own communities.

 

vaqueros2

Mexican vaqueros taught the American cowboy many things.

 

 

Mexican -Americans

Mexican-Americans from the rich to the poor had to make room for many settlers. The poor Hispanics found work on ranches. Non-Hispanic cowboys learned their skills from these experienced vaqueros. Often the household staff on large ranches were Hispanic.

 

chinese-railroad-workers

Chinese railroad workers

 

Chinese

The Chinese usually create their own communities in a section of town. Their different dress, language, and culture put them under suspicion. Chinese were not permitted to bring their families with them. Although I don’t explore the seedier side of their communities in my novel, sadly there was one.  Rather I chose to paint them with a more compassionate brush. Asians have been part of American culture for hundreds of years. Besides, a key scene in Secrets and Charades would be impossible without my Chinese characters.

 

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Native Americans

 

Native Americans

Native Americans were ever present in the old west. Not all lived on reservations. Their life was hard, abuse at the hands of the white man is well-documented. Still, there are accounts of Indians and mix-race families living peacefully with white neighbors.

Less Vanilla

Knowing the culture of those who lived during the time you place your story can make the tale not only more believable but far more interesting to the reader. Don’t hesitate to add some color to your otherwise vanilla characters.ed1c1dd3bf71efd7db9ad9c540d4421a

Who are the characters that populate your story world?

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Homestead Homes: Soddies to Cabins

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.

neat soddie

Well maintained soddie

sloopy soddie

This soddie looks thrown together.

 

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.

in a hill soddie

Soddie built into a hill.

 

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.

 

dugout home

Dugout with a roof.

 

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.

cabin

Small cabin

 

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.

 

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Adobe structure

 

Adobes

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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