When I began writing my first manuscript, a time travel set in 1871 Wisconsin, my knowledge of the era came mainly from history books (like those read in school), from movies, or from other romance novels. It wasn’t enough. I needed to know more.
In each scene, I struggled to imagine myself in my heroine’s mind, a late 20th century urban business woman cast back into the life of a 1871 farm wife. But, although I had grown up in a house built in the late 19th century, it wasn’t the same. I hadn’t actually lived in the time when that house was new.
What did they eat and how was it cooked? What illnesses were common; what medicines were taken? What were their beliefs and values? How much was a pound of sugar? Did women hand-sew everything, or were some clothes ready made? What did a child learn in school? What dances were popular? How were holidays celebrated?
Not that I needed to put all those details into the story, but I needed to know so I could put myself in my characters’ minds.
In those pre-Internet days, I trudged to the library. There were, of course, long shelves filled with history books. I'd already read many. Most were written about famous events and battles, about economics and politics. I found almost nothing about how the every day man and woman actually lived their day-to-day lives.
What I was looking for, but didn’t realize it until a few years later, were books on cultural history.
Over time, I’ve found many books that proved helpful to better understanding the era. Foremost of these was a series Harper Collins published called Life in Everyday America Series.
A few years after the Harper Collins' series, Writer’s Digest books published the Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life series.
I discovered a wealth of information about my Civil War veteran hero when I found The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the
Later I uncovered its companion book – The Life of Johnny Reb.
Diaries and journals are an incredible source, first hand impressions of the time. Mary B. Chestnut’s Diary from
Today we are so fortunate to have the internet. Through it, a whole world of resources have been opened.
A favorite site of mine, one I've shared before with Hearts Through History readers, is the Food Timeline, a record of foods and when they were introduced from the beginning of man’s recorded history.
There’s a huge amount of information on World’s Fairs from the first one held in 1851
Victorian era fashion information can be found at Harpers Bazaar.
I’ve found a wealth of material on the Lone Star College - Kingwood American Cultural History site. It gives links, decade by decade and topic by topic, for 19th Century America. It also has a link which will take you to the 20th Century.
~ What are your favorite books, or websites of interest for learning about cultural history and how your characters lived?
From the comments received for this post, I’ll hold a drawing for a lovely hand-crocheted bookmark. Drawing to be held Friday evening, April 29th. Be sure to leave a link with an e-mail address where you can be reached.
AND THE WINNER OF THE BOOKMARK IS...Anna Kathryn Lanier! Thanks so much to all who read and commented. Enjoy the links!
Posted by Debra Maher.
Please visit my blog at debmaher.com.