I'm excited to have Jordan L. Hawk on the blog today talking about Historicals and Research.
One of the questions I get asked most by readers is “how do you research your books?”
I love research, which is a good thing since I picked a somewhat difficult era to write about. If you went to the local bookstore and looked at the America history section, you’d assume the only things that happened in America in the 1800s were the civil war and the wild west. Sources on everyday life in cities usually describe the Victorian era in London—which was in some ways similar and in others very different from America.
The other issue is that the Victorian era was a very long span of time during which society and technology changed immensely. It began in 1837 when Queen Victoria took the throne. Even people living in cities didn’t often have indoor plumbing. Photography and the telegraph were in their infancy, and neither available to general public. The streets of Boston had been lit by gaslight for just twenty years, and the average person still used oil lamps to light their homes. Large numbers of Americans were legally enslaved.
By 1901, when Victoria died, middle class apartments and homes in American cities had modern plumbing, and even small towns in the Midwest often had electricity. The telegraph was about to be overtaken by the telephone, cameras were inexpensive and used by everyday people, and one could expect to see a few motor vehicles on the streets of any large city. Slavery had been struck down, and the progress made by African Americans in the years since the end of the war was beginning to be violently reversed by incidents like the Wilmington Insurrection.
So when doing research, if there isn’t a year or a span of years specified alongside a fact, it’s no good. The world of 1850 was astonishingly different from 1870, which was different from 1890. I couldn’t apply the research I did for Widdershins (1897) to Restless Spirits (1888, taking place in a house from the 1840s).
Three things have helped me immensely. I live near a university so I can find more detailed, scholarly works on the era (although I still to have to sort through a lot of information to find something relevant at times). The second is that people love old Sears and Roebucks catalogs. Seriously, there have been a ton of reprints from various years, which is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to figure out if Whyborne and could both have fit in the tub (answer: yes, if they splurged for the bigger one).
And of course the internet has made research a million times easier. Archive.org is also a fantastic resource for scanned books, including things like the technical catalogs a doctor or engineer would order from, which can be very helpful if you’re writing about battery-operated medical apparatuses or galvanometers. If you find yourself desperately needing to know whether the winter solstice coincided with the new moon in 1900, Sky View Café is the site for you. Google image search or Pinterest can reveal a wealth of vintage photographs (although again, if there’s not a date associated with the photo, its usefulness is limited), or showcase the dresses held by museums and private trusts.
In other words, living in the future has made it a great deal easier to write about the past.
Jordan L. Hawk grew up in North Carolina and forgot to ever leave. Childhood tales of mountain ghosts and mysterious creatures gave her a life-long love of things that go bump in the night. When she isn’t writing, she brews her own beer and tries to keep her cats from destroying the house. Her best-selling Whyborne & Griffin series (beginning with Widdershins) can be found in print, ebook, and audiobook at Amazon and other online retailers.
Connect with Jordan and her books here:
Jordan L. Hawk
Men, Monsters, and Mayhem!
Best-selling author of the Whyborne & Griffin series.http://www.jordanlhawk.com
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