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 (www.shopgoodwill.com) 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, www.imdb.com 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
Woodrow and Wilson, for the president, Margaret, Mildred, Ted (Theodore, again for a president), Dorothy, Muriel, Louisa, etc. You just can't write a book about 1925 with characters named Dillon and Dawn.
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 Shopgoodwill.com. Maybe they'll have a copy of Advice and Instruction for the Married for auction today.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman