Monday, January 24, 2011

It Just Looks Disorganized

     If you looked in my office, you might start dialing the number for the show Hoarders.  Disorganized as it may appear, everything in there relates directly to a writing project.

     A quick inventory would include: Gibson Girl prints, three nun dolls, turn-of-the-century textbooks, s 16 Magazines 1963-68,  The Searchlight Cookbook, copyright 1931 ("Spring Beauty Salad, anyone?), a 1940 edition of Hymnal for Christian Worship, a WWII vintage volume, Song and Service Book for Ship and Field; Army Navy (did the Marines and Coast Guard have their own editions? reproductions of old Sears & Roebuck catalogs, an actual mostly intact copy of the Sears Fall 1941 catalog, a Sherwin-Williams store display book, Colors and Rooms for Your Jet Age Home (very Mad Men!), floor plans for 1920's homes...and that's just the top layer. BTW, the source for 99% of this stuff was the online Goodwill auction site ( I got most of this for under five dollars.

    In case you couldn't guess, I was once a librarian. I am now an ex-librarian who writes historical fiction.  I also live in an area where library funds are nil, the collections meager, and interlibrary loan fees astronomical. So I maintain my own research library.  I always have three books in my head; the one I am writing, and the next two I have planned. The WWII stuff was for Jimmy's Stars, the nun dolls and hymnals for my current project, and the 60's items for a possible sequel to Yankee Girl. (I said possible!)

    I am something of a chicken in writing historical fiction. So far, I haven't written anything that takes place before the 1880's because I can't find primary sources that old on Shop Goodwill, and previous to that, my family was an illiterate crew so there are no family letters or documents to rely on. (Hence, Karen Cushman will have no competition from me...chuckle, chuckle.)

     It takes me a year minimum to research my books.  Step one is to find a calendar for the year(s) of the story. (You can find these on line using the search term "perpetual calendar"  That calendar is taped to the lid of my laptop, so I can instantly see which day of the week was Christmas, or any other holiday or historical event.

      So once I have my calendar, I start researching and writing in the dates that are important to my story.  My calendar for Jimmy's Stars, in addition to marking off the usual holidays as the dates for certain battles and the day in which they became news in the United States. There was usually quite a gap, due to time zones and wartime censorship. What day did the movie The Sullivans open? (For anything you need to know about every movie ever made, is a life saver. It's also good for settling movie arguments!)  What days did certain items become rationed?  Filling out my calendar is always step one.

     I also need maps. I usually fictionalize a real neighborhood, in a real town. The Macken Street Hill neighborhood of Jimmy's Stars is based on the place my mother's family lived during WWII, West View. Macken Street Hill was fictional but Pittsburgh is not. I needed old streetcar schedules, maps of "downtown" and where the department stores and theaters were. 

At some point you have to name your characters. I have stacks of 'what-to-name-the-baby" books (which I have learned not to read in public at my age!) There are several websites that can tell you the most popular baby names for any given year, back to 1880. The book I am working on right now takes place in 1925, which means that most of the characters were born between 1907 and 1917. There are

     Next I think about dialog. What sort of slang was used, or words that are no longer part of our vocabulary, or have changed meanings?  I was lucky with Jimmy's Stars; both of my parents were still alive while I was writing it, and their speech still reeked of 1943. I grew up hearing such expressions as
"malarkey," "That's just banana oil," and "She's some sad apple." To complicate things, Jimmy took place in Pittsburgh, which has it's own distinct dialect, "Pittsburghese." And yes there are Pittsburghese dictionaries online! To me, the most important elements in historical fiction are how your characters think and speak. Nothing drives me crazier than to read a book that takes place during WWII, with characters using anachronisms (i.e.nerd) or words that have changed meaning.

     Last, and the one that takes the longest (and drives me the craziest) are The Daily Details. What sort of food did they eat.  Even as recently as the 1930's, citrus fruit was a rare treat, due to growing and shipping methods, What were the radio/TV stations and their schedules? What did their homes look like? How were they furnished.? How did the characters dress. What sort of make-up or perfume or patent medicine did they use?  This is where those old Sears catalogs come into play. Originally, Sears was meant as a mail order catalog for those who lived far from anything other than a general store. Up until the 1950s, the Sears catalog sold nearly everything; corsets,tractor parts, bedroom furniture, "smoking jackets," acne remedies, perfume, and my personal favorite, a book in the 1922 catalog coyly titled Advice and Instruction for the Married (and you knew they didn't mean a recipe for "Spring Beauty Salad!) The first Sears & Roebuck catalog was published in 1894, which may explain my hesitation to write about anything before that time. I would be one sad apple without my "Wishbooks" to give me the tiniest details of life in that year.

    After a year or more of research (and I am writing or editing another book at the same time) I start to write. and no matter how thoroughly you think you may have done your homework, something always
comes up that stops you in your tracks. In my current book, I have puzzled over how a town in 1925
with a contaminated water source obtain clean water (I'm talking raw sewage here, so just boiling it wouldn't do the trick). I wrote around that detail, but it was one I would eventually have to address. I stewed over that rotten water for over a year when a casual conversation with a former student pointed me in the right direction.

     Now you might write contemporary fiction. This does not excuse you from doing your homework.  At least half of my research questions are ones you need to answer for yourself before writing one word of your book.  Most of the problems you might have in writing, is in writing too soon, before you know your characters and the setting. A question I always ask a student who is stuck is this: Tell me about this character's bedroom. Now that bedroom may never appear in the story, but they tell you an awful lot about the character. Usually my answers are "I never thought about it" or "Hunh?" I tell them that when they can describe that bedroom from the posters on the wall to the clothes he throws in the closet instead of hanging them up, they are then ready to write.

      Now if you will excuse me, I am logging on to Maybe they'll have a copy of Advice and Instruction for the Married for auction today.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Writer's Workout


Amanda Hoving said...

This was really helpful! I normally write contemporary fiction (and I do my homework) but the 2 books I'm planning to write are currently screaming "historical!" Thanks for sharing your process.

mary ann rodman said...

Amanda, I'm glad to be of help. I can go on for hours on this topic (don't worry, I won't right here...but I forgot Newspapers (back in the day) wereTHE best for radio schedules, local prices,etc.
At your ervice,
Mary Ann

BJ Schneider said...

Thanks for describing your process and for all the information. I've found websites such as the Yiddish Dictionary Online, which is great because I don't speak Yiddish, but my characters do. It helped me write in context rather than using long phrases and/or sentences. And I found websites for Cheyenne with pictures from the early 1900s, the Pendelton Rodeo, weather records and lots more. You're right about getting wrapped up in research and enjoying the process, but at some pointt you have to start writing. I have plastic acordian file holders to organize information for each story..I never did like 3x5 cards! Alan Gratz suggested using a spiral notebook to outline each chapter and listing the facts that would go in each chapter. I love legal pads.

Barker said...

Excellent information Mary Ann! I can't believe I never thought to have a physical calendar before!Thanks for a tip I KNOW I will use along with other great ideas.

Anonymous said...

Barker--The calendar also serves as a sort of an outline
for me. I never outline per se, but I do know the time frame of my book before I start. So it keeps me balanced. My current book is weird since the majority of the action takes place over one week....and the last third over six weeks. It's a visual juggling act that reminds me if I am spending too much time in places I didn't intend.
Thanks for weighing in...MA

mary ann rodman said...

BJ---Thanks for the shout out. I forgot to mention that I am not that organized person who always keeps a little notebook in her person or pocket to quickly scribble ideas. I have, however, written on napkins, church bulletins (I do some of my best work there), ice skating schedules. and once even (an unused) air sickness bag, I have a nifty container from the Container Store (cloth, has handles, zips, and is just the right size to take a project on vacation) that I dump all of my "ideas" into it as soon as I get home. I switched to carrying a much smaller persons (I could have carried a toddler in some of my old ones) I then transfer all the thoughts from the Walgreen's receipts, etc. to my favorite form of organization...the spiral bound notebook (I lose 3 by 5 cards).
As for the physical research (pictures, Xerox copies of documents, and those rare primary sources, such as a collection of WWII letters, I put those in archive sleeves, and keep THEM in a three ring binder.
My current project (I'm embarrassed to tell you how long I've researched this one) has SO many primary
sources, and so many "lightbulb at the stoplight moments" I have forced myself to "keep it together."
We all have to find what works for husband assumes that any legal pad, no matter what is already on it (like a chapter) is free for him to write over, saying (later) "That wasn't important was it?"
Nice talking to you and all the other followers.

mary ann rodman said...

OK BJ and Barbara I got your replies mixed up (some organizing hunh?)
BJ (again) What did we do before the Internet? There is so much out there...when I was writing Jimmy's Stars, in which Pittsburgh streetcars plays a big part) I found there was actually a Pittsburgh Streetcar Museum, with pictures of every model ever used AND all of the routes.
My mother had a nearly photographic memory, but asking her to remember the order of streetcar stops in1943 was a little much even for her. Also, the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library (where I all but lived for an entire summer) have the world's best local history reference desk that you can call--I found the number online.
Before I dig into a website, I always check the last time the site was updated (says the woman who hasnt updated her own website in four years!) and the authority of the group running it. (There are a lot of fruitcakes out there) I also stopped using WIkipedia the day I discovered I had a Wikipedia entry (75% in accurate!)
But I so addicted to my primary sources (one of my favorites, a pamphlet titled :"Win the War with Vegetables". Also, wherever I go, I check the local history section of the indie bookstore. I've found some wonderful self-published full of details I wouldn't find anywhere else. Also, the publisher Arcadia Books specializes in local histories that are essentially historical picture albums. I think every sort of historical society in this country has published with them (believe it or not, the volume for Matteson, Illinois had a picture of my kindergarden room, just the way I remember it.
The writer Ellen Gilchrist says that researching is always her favorite part of historical fiction because it forestalls that "writing part." I know what she means

JB said...

All of this is very inspiring. I'm working on a picture book that takes place in SW Colorado during the 1930's. Any suggestions on how to find dialect of that place and time? My husband and I can't agree as to what the boy would have called his parents - Pa and Ma, Mom and Dad, Mother and Father, Papa and Mama, etc. I've got original sources, but they're all from an adult perspective. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, JB

Nancy Craddock said...

Hey Mary Ann,

I learned so much from this article and have some new ideas on how to better research a manuscript that is still just floating around in my head.

Thanks for generously sharing your many great ideas!

Can't wait for your next historical fiction to be published!

mary ann rodman said...

JB--I have to admit to a bit of cheating. Because I don't have time or money for research trips, I usually set my stories in a time and place I already know something about. Or as one wise second grader once asked me "Do you ever write about anything besides your own family?" Smart kid. I was blessed to be born into a family who enjoyed a good story, and I can literally hear the voices of relatives long dead. When I am truly stumped by a detail or expression, I write to the nearest local historical society or university library.
Don't worry terribly about dialect. Dialect is like salt; a little gives flavor, a lot makes it unreadable. also editors aren't wild about reading it, and I've had to argue with every editor/.copyeditor as to why a particular local expression is more important in some places than conventional English. As to what to call parents, unless they are of a particular ethnic group , the US variations are pretty similar , Mom and Dd being a 20th century addition. Let the character tell you what to call their parents. And make good friends with a historical society. historian in the part of Colorado you are writing about. When I said I cheat, I would not set a story in Maine because I've never been there, or known anyone from thee. I lived in Thailand for a year and everyone asked when I would wrie a Thai book. Probably never. I know there are people who write books without ever setting foot in a place, other than the Internet, but I am not one of hem. And although THailand was a beautiful peaceful place with some of the kindest people on earth, I would never presume to under Istand their culture well enough to write about it. I
did write one short story about Thailand called "Farang" in an anthology called SUCH A PRETTY FACE, but it is from the very confused POV of an American teen thrown into an incomprehensible environment. Good luck. Writing historical fiction is like writing two books...the story, and then the background and details that inform the story, and melding them into one. You have to have a passion for it...but then you have to have a passion for anthing you write!

mary ann rodman said...

Nancy---Let those thoughts roam, until they start asking YOU questions. I know your work and believe you are a history writer at heart.Go for it, girl!