Researching Other Time Periods

Happy Monday, SEers! You’re with Mae today as we wind down to the last week of November. If you live in the U.S., that means it’s almost Thanksgiving.  I wish you a happy Turkey Day in advance. May it be filled with fun, family, and good food!

Victorian parlor with ornate furnishings, wallpaper, and two windowsEarlier this month, I shared a post about researching locales for settings. If you missed that post, you can find it HERE. Today, I want to talk about other time periods. And no—this isn’t simply a post for writers of historical fiction. Often, it’s necessary to reference something from another time period, whether an event, person, furnishings, or custom. As usual, the internet is a great tool with plenty of blogs devoted to historical information and various time periods. I use it frequently. Most every novel I’ve written draws on some aspect of history, with several having entire chapters set in the past.

My normal MO is to immerse myself in nonfiction related to the time period of interest.  This is especially true if I’m researching a specific event (i.e, the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia) or topic (sham mediums in the late 1800s). I’ll buy anywhere from 1-3 books, read through them with a highlighter,  making notes in a separate workbook as I go. Usually as I read,  I’m plotting how to apply the information to my characters or setting. This is a lengthy process which I normally undertake before I start a new writing project.

Often, however, I simply need a quick reference. That’s when I’ll hop on the internet, or I’ll grab a reference dictionary.

Book cover for Every Day Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutchen shows sketch of woman in vintage dress plus a vintage typewiterMany years ago,  as a member of the Writers Digest Book Club, I purchased a series of books that I still find extremely useful. The book to the left is the one I use the most, but I also own several other titles. These include The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West,  and Everyday Life Among the American Indians.

My 1800’s reference book is dogeared, has multiple highlights, scribblings, and several bookmarks sticking from the pages. It’s easy to  look up a topic such as “Clothing and Fashion,” or “Slang and Everyday Speech,” then find an overview followed by an alphabetical list with brief definitions.

Godey’s Lady Book: a popular women’s magazine begun in 1830 that featured color fashion plates as well as serial stories, verses, etc.

Maybe I just want to drop that name to add flavor and authenticity to a scene. Or—now that I have a starting point—I can reference the internet for more information. How long was the magazine in publication? Will it fit my decade? (If you’re interested, it ended publication in 1878 and was most widely circulated prior to the Civil War).

Although these books are out of print, most are available through third party sellers and marketplace sources on Amazon, eBay, Google, and Barnes & Noble. I realize not all writers have a need, but these are a handy tool for anyone curious about other time periods.

When I was writing fantasy (my main genre for many years), I found The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Age a useful reference for weapons and clothing. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West was excellent for my forays into short story writing, as well as a full length novel set in a fictional western town in the 1870s (which will probably never see the light of day).

Now, it’s your turn. Have you ever needed to research previous eras for your novel(s)? What sources do you use? Do some work better than others, and are there some that you return to time and time again? Drop your thoughts into the discussion below.

Ready, Set, Go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

46 thoughts on “Researching Other Time Periods

  1. Excellent ideas on researching different time periods, Mae. I agree with the idea of using several sources and not going with just one, especially if it’s on the internet. Thank you for sharing! And a HUGE congrats on killing NaNoWriMo!! You are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and found it helpful, Jan.
      Regarding NaNo, I hit the required word count but the book is a train wreck. Worse piece of crap I ever wrote, LOL. It will probably never see the light of day but it did spawn three excellent characters and a setting I can use elsewhere, so it was worth it 🙂
      I hope you had fun participating. I may try again in April. I’m a glutton for word punishment, LOL!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am like you, Mae. A great believer in research and multiple sources. My new WIP about the Anglo Boer War has two POV, one is the British perspective, the other the Boers. I have read 10 non-fiction books from straight fact to daily life in the concentrations camps, on the farms and in the battles. I have also read parts of two thesis’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great set of books to have, Mae:) I use the internet mostly now, but in the past, I poured through old newspapers and magazines. Historical libraries come in handy as well as books on the subject. I do enjoy researching:) Happy Turkey Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The internet has definitely changed the way most writers conduct research, Denise. I am so thankful for how handy it is, especially when I’m typing along and hit something I need a quick answer for. And like you, I enjoy doing that research.!

      Happy Turkey Day to you as well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sometime down the road I plan on writing a book set in the 1940’s. There’s a part of me that wants it set in London during the peak of WWII. If I do that I’m looking forward to the research. I know my basic history but this will be knee deep history. I’ll learn things I never knew before. This was a fun post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admire authors who can set their story in another country (and another era). It sounds like that particular era resonates with you. I admit my WWII European knowledge is not the best. I think it’s VERY cool you are looking FORWARD to the research.Wishing you all the best as you dive in. And I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t written that much in the past (just a few short stories that I used the internet to research), but I do love myths, and I’ve bought several books and printed internet articles to study on those. I love the background flavors you bring to your books, though, especially in the Hode’s Hill series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Judi. I appreciate the compliment, given the effort I put into those background flavors 🙂

      I love myths as well, and am so thankful for all the resources out there, both from the internet and printed material. I remember (way back in the day) going to the library and going through reference books that you couldn’t check out. Wow, how times have changed!

      Happy writing!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I just went to Amazon to check out the Wild West Book. 🙂 Might be useful with my current series, even though I only reference events from the 1880s. I use the internet a lot for research purposes and have done so for my current book. When I find a useful website, I’ll bookmark it for future reference. I think writing about the recent past is sometimes harder. For example, your Point Pleasant Series was set in the 1980s. I still think of that as modern times, but so much has changed since then. For instance, it would be so easy to have a character use a cell phone, but that wouldn’t have worked for then.

    Another great post, Mae!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joan, I just responded to John in the comment above how hard I found it to write in the recent past (70s and 80s) despite living through those time periods. I couldn’t believe how many things I had to stop and look up when writing my PP series. Even certain terminology of the day was different.

      I like book marking good internet sites too, and will usually create a folder for each novel I write with bookmarked sites. If you grab the Wild West book, I hope you find it useful. I wrote a plethora of short western fic “back in the day” and one full length novel. It’s actually kind of hard to think of a genre I didn’t write in at some point, LOL!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I do a lot of research, but almost all of it is Internet based today. Sometimes I find so much I can’t use it all. 110 cameras didn’t make it into Wisp, for example. Traveling via animals is important to get right. Some have to chew their cud for digestion, all need grazing time, those kind of things. Lingo from the days of tall ships took a lot of time. Even if it’s only a line or two, it is important to get right. I’m jealous of your old reference books. I can see the Research Sirens leading me astray with those.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’ve had to look up various weapons, armor, and castle fortifications at times. It’s more for visual and getting an idea of their capabilities. Writing fantasy, I try not to take too much from history in terms of customs and systems. Honestly, I think past authors taking a lot from Medieval Europe has made it that people assume all fantasy worlds are like that. Causes some problems when you step away from it like readers complaining that ‘it wasn’t like that back then’ when it isn’t even Earth. So, this does have a double edge.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely, Charles! If it’s not Earth, the realm is wide open. I was clueless about a lot of weapons and castle structure, and often used Medieval Research books to gain some authenticity, but the bulk of my fantasy worlds were open to my own interpretation.There was a time when I wrote nothing but epic fantasy, including six novels and a several dozen short stories. I always enjoyed the freedoms creating those worlds gave me.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Researching has changed so much over the years. Once upon a time, I would reference my family’s trusty and prized set of encyclopedias. I spent a whole summer researching Greek and Roman mythology just using those encyclopedias. Then in college, I learned how to use multiple books from the library – not just encyclopedias. Now, I’m like you – I buy a few non-fiction books on the subject and use the internet to fill in the gaps. My daughter recently had to use actual books for a college research paper – she called the professor ”old school” for requiring actual books and not just allowing references from the internet. 🤦‍♀️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, I’m laughing about the whole “old school” thing. I guess it does seem odd for younger generations, but I remember the days of sitting down at a library table and spreading reference books (including encyclopedias) all across the surface. You were never allowed to take references books out, so all research had to be done then. We didn’t have Encyclopedias at home, so my parents would frequently have to drive me to the library when I was younger. Oh, how times change!

      And as much as I use and like online research, I’m still “old school” in that I love a nonfiction book, a yellow highlighter and a tablet for making notes. It’s easy for me to get lost in the research hole when I have those 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Even the recent past needs to be checked, technology changes so quickly. My novels that were going to be set in ‘the present’ I decided to set in the early years of the twentieth century – if the characters had had access to smart phones it would have spoiled the plot!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I absolutely agree about the recent past requiring research. My Point Pleasant series is set in the early 1980s, and although I lived during that period, I needed to research a lot of detail about how things were done. I also needed pop culture for flavor. It’s amazing the rends I had fogotten.

      Cell phones are a huge game changer when it comes to fiction. Sometimes I need my characters to have access to them and other times, I prefer an earlier time period. As you said, they can easily spoil a plot, unless their absence is explained away or set during a time when they didn’t exist.

      Happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I have been researching information from 1971 for my current book! Although it wasn’t forever ago there has been real obvious differences I have needed to include. The library archives was an interesting place to gather information and photos! Thanks for sharing your post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi, Rebecca! So glad you dropped by.

      I lived during the seventies, but I would have to research trends and society as well if I were writing a novel set in 1971. As you said, so much has changed. Even terminology. The library archives is a great resource. I’m glad you found it helpful. Many thanks for sharing it here!

      Liked by 2 people

    • I tend to hung up in the past more than venturing into the future. I don’t think I’m brave enough to attempt it, although I have dabbled in a short science-fiction story or two. I admire future and dystopian writers for those visions.
      I’m glad you found the books interesting, Harmony. They have been a great resource with the many story settings I write.
      And thank you for the reblog!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Researching Other Time Periods – Story Empire – Guam Christian Blog

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