Writing historical fiction takes nerve…fake sign-language interpreter nerve. Unless your day job is at Historical Williamsburg chances are you really don’t know how people lived back then. You’ve read a lot of books yourself (mostly written by people who were also researching). You’ve watched movies, studied artifacts, read biographies, but when it comes down to it, you still need the every day details to make your stories and settings more realistic.
With every book I search out specific resources based on the location of the story, the careers of the characters, and the exact year, but as long as I’m writing about the mid-19th century I have a few books that I keep nearby.
First off, we must know what our heroines are wearing. Besides the hero’s broad shoulders, the ladies’ gowns merit the most descriptions.
This book is a scrumptious visual feast. The illustrations are beautiful and the descriptions are detailed. Although the pictures are black and white, they include color in the descriptions. (And all these book covers are linked to a bookseller. Just click on the picture if you want more information.)
“Sea-Side Toilette – This striking picturesque toilette consists of a princesse dress of mandarin yellow silk, over which is worn a sleeveless polonaise of ivory white India cashmere. The skirt of the dress is simply trimmed with a closely gathered flounce, surmounted by a reversed heading, and supported by a balayeuse of white muslin, edged with Valenciennes. The polonaise, which is very clinging, and falls gracefully over the train, is bordered with black velvet ribbon…”
And it goes on for another two columns. Naturally, not all of my heroines would dress so fine. Rosa Garner and Anne Tillerton didn’t have much use for fashion, but Molly Lovelace and Miranda Wimplegate (if we don’t change her name) would wear gowns straight off these pages.
Now how about the housewares, farm equipment and clothing for the rest of the family? My favorite general reference is the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalog.
Here I can see and read detailed descriptions of everything from kitchen grindstones to poultry netting to shaving brushes. Not only does this help me describe authentic items that would be used on the farm or in the kitchen, it also gives me ideas for possible careers or story lines. A two-dog treadmill-powered cream separator? I’d like to meet the salesman who demonstrated that. Or how about the Bust Cream, guaranteed to enhance her bosom? How would a woman feel if she’d ordered that in the mail and someone found out? Fun ideas!
And because most of my stories have some connection to agriculture, I love to flip through these references:
There are dozens of Foxfire books, so if you decide to purchase one be sure and choose the one that covers the topics you’re interested in. The other two books are instruction manuals on traditional skills, although you must watch for modern helps that might have been added. They might demonstrate how to make your own cheese, but use ingredients and processes unknown in 1878. Still, they are a good place to start.
And the last research book I’ll share on this go-around is this reprinting of a 1837 home health book.
I found “The Family Nurse” at a Civil War Reenactment and have turned to it several times. Let’s face it, you can’t have a 368 page historical novel without someone getting sick or hurt. So how would a mother deal with teething babies, parasites, or scarlet fever? How did they prepare herbs and roots? Let me tell you, reading this brings a new appreciation for those coated pills we can swallow whole.
I’m always on the look out for references that will earn their space on the bookshelf and these have proven helpful through repeated use. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.