The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff
This is a great time to be a writer of historical fiction because of the mass of historical documents being digitized and put up on the Internet every year. Historical societies, national historic sites, associations, colleges and university libraries, museums, and other organizations all seem to be adopting the new technology in order to put their collections online. Some require membership to access, but many of them are free to use by anyone.
One of my personal favorites for American history items is the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/collections). So much of this rich collection has been digitized, from photographs and documents that go back centuries to audio recordings from as far back as World War I. WARNING: If you are a history buff, you can get lost in these collections and spend hours perusing American History, Performing Arts, War & Military history . . . and so much more.
Another useful tool, the Google Advanced Search (see my October 5 post), can be a big help in locating digitized images of original historical documents. I’ve talked about historical maps before, but there are also early books, diaries, timetables—there doesn’t seem to be any limit to what you can find, if you can build the search to find it.
I once worked as a ghostwriter on a series of Christian romances set on the Oregon Trail between 1836 and 1861. As someone who grew up in Washington State, I knew something about the topic from my school years, but I needed factual details to add realism to my stories. The good news is there are Oregon Trail historic sites all along the 2,200-mile trail, and many of these are digitizing their collections. I was able to find maps of the trail as it developed over the years, railroad maps showing how people traveled from points east to Independence, Missouri, photographs of camps, labeled drawings of covered wagons, and even the text of a nineteenth century Oregon Trail travel guide, which covered what to take and how to pack it, including how many pounds of bacon, flour, coffee, etc., so when my characters headed west, they had what they needed and nothing more.
Another ghostwriting job I did was about a late nineteenth century mail order bride. My client had a city in Colorado she wanted me to use, and she wanted her character to travel there in a specific year by rail. There was only one problem: The Union Pacific went as far as Denver that year, but the line farther south had not been built yet. How did I know? My research on historic rail lines not only netted me nineteenth century railroad maps showing where they went by decade, it also found another gem: a railroad timetable for just a year before my client wanted her story set. So I not only knew where the railroad went, but I also knew when and where it stopped, how long it took to get from point A to point B, and how my character could connect to a stagecoach line to make that last leg of her journey.
So you can find a treasure among digitized historical documents to help bolster your story, and though you sometimes just need a simple historical fact, however simple an item sounds, as I’ve said before, you still need to get it right, or you will lose your audience. For example, one of my science fiction novels is about a pilot from a Commonwealth of Planets who crash lands in the Sierra Nevada in 1873. The first half of the book reads like a time travel story, as my character struggles to fit in on primitive Earth. Historical research was necessary to keep the setting realistic. For example, did they have matches in 1873? Yes, they had been invented, but no, they would not have been using them yet in the American West, so as I edited my first draft, I replaced matches with flint and steel.
Language, especially, can be tricky. I don’t know anything that turns me off faster from a historical novel or movie than the characters speaking modern American English. If you have a word that is either slang or has to do with technology, be sure to look it up! For example, a quick plain-language Google search o, “When was the word gadget first used?” finds the word is a late nineteenth century (1884) nautical term from the French word gâche. So my 1873 characters do not use it—at least not until they leave Earth and return to the Commonwealth!
The old adage, “never assume,” is never more true than when dealing with historical information, and as was true with the cultural stuff, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about an unfamiliar historical period. For example, though the prairie schooners used on the Oregon Trail were built by the Conestoga Company, they were not “Conestoga wagons,” which were much larger and heavier freight wagons that proved too heavy for the rugged Oregon Trail. And despite what you see in the movies, most pioneers used oxen to pull their wagons, not the more romantic horses or even mules, because (1) oxen could survive on poorer feed; (2) oxen could travel farther in a day than horses; and (3) the natives were less apt to try to steal oxen. So I hitched oxen to all the covered wagons in all four of my Oregon Trail stories!
Next time we’ll continue by looking at online resources for time-sensitive topics: the legal, medical, and technical stuff.