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Historical Romance Author

History, Romance and Research

History, Romance and Research

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.

Victorian Fashions

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.)

Example:

“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.

Sears

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:

Foxfire

BacktoBasics

Country Wisdom

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.

Family Nurse

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.

12 Comments

  1. I love doing research for my historicals, Regina. And you are so right about those fashion books–they are a must have! Also, I love my Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue! For my series set in New York, I’ve found I couldn’t seem to get enough research–I have over 12 books just on New York City history–the city, the people, apartments, maps, you name it, I’ve tried to find it. I think that kind of research makes the time period and setting come to life, don’t you?

    • Wow! 12 books? I bet it is hard when you’re writing about the most famous city in the country. So many details that everyone would recognize. But I’ve read one of your New York books “A Place of Refuge” and I have to say all that research pays off. Good job.

  2. I love the description of the clothes! Probably because I love clothes. As a contemporary author I do the same thing with modern fashions. Check out clothes at websites, often from stores I could never afford, and incorporate them into my story.

    • That’s a great idea, Terri. And you have to love Pinterest, no matter what era you write. I love to pin gowns I think my ladies would wear on the story boards.

  3. I’m so impressed by your ladies who write historical fiction. Just thinking about going through those old books makes me want to run away! I don’t even like to research for my contemporary novels. I’ve read your great historicals, Regina, and you definitely do your homework.

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m afraid I’d come off sounding really old-fashioned even if I wrote contemporary, so I’d better stick where I am.

  4. I use both the Montgomery and Sears catalogs (reprints). I have a “fashion” book I love for my Wyoming cowboys “I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains” (tons of pictures) and for the girls “Calico Chronicle: Texas Women and Their Fashions”. For RETURN OF THE COWBOY DOCTOR, I did a lot of reading of modern-day medical remedies and then tried to take them back and see how they would’ve been treated in the Wild West. Cholera – shivers! – nasty disease and I was grossed out during research. Also gunshot wound freaked me out but I had to know how they would treat it. Probably my last “doctor” book because I’ve found the only research I don’t like!!!

    • I need something like that for my cowboy clothing. I’ve borrowed books on Civil War uniforms and took pictures at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, but that sounds like a great resource. You’re so funny about the medical stuff. I bet it’s hard to decide whether to have your doctor do something that’s historically accurate or something that would really help the person. :)

  5. Amen, Robin! I’m not a lover of doing research, but I sure love that historical writers like Regina get all up into it. Makes those books way more real for us fans of the genre. Regina, I totally want to see that bust cream in the next story. But hey, let’s make it a challenge and maybe the hero buys it (for some ridiculous reason that I know you can come up with).

    • Leave it to you, Erin! That’s a great idea. And off the top of my head I’m thinking it might have something to do with cow udders. :) Thanks for visiting!

  6. This is so cool!!
    I had to start from scratch with my research, and it wasn’t easy researching the Navajo Nation pre and post Bosque Redondo/Hweeldi in 1868.
    See? Your jaw just dropped, didn’t it? And if it did not? YAY!
    Everything from doors always pointing east, to a Navajo person never pointing a finger. And owls are not friendly, but crows are.
    I love what I do, but I have 22 books on my shelves that are JUST for Navajo history. That’s alot of work!

    • My jaw dropped…good guess. You’re really close to being able to open a Navajo research center, aren’t you? I live in Oklahoma and am frequently asked why I don’t write about Oklahoma and this is why. I don’t know enough about the different cultures here pre-1889 and I wouldn’t even know where to start. Maybe someday…

      Thanks for sharing! I’m impressed.

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