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  1. #1

    Old Books

    I don't know how many members are interested in writing or reading historical fiction, but I was wondering what sources are used for research.

    Some time ago, I was working on a story in which the setting was the dust bowl in the U.S. in the 1930's. What I wanted to know was, how did parents discipline their children, or otherwise take care of their families during those difficult times? Did they just let the kids run amok and hope for the best? Or were they hard and tough disciplinarians? I could see valid arguments for both, considering the times, but wanted to know for sure.

    The Internet was helpful in identifying what the dust bowl was, how it came to be, what 'dust pneumonia' was, and so on, but nothing about family life. I ran across some books, which were much older than the dust bowl, but I thought they might be helpful. They were not. One book was Social and Economic Forces in American History, Chataqua Press, 1904, which gave insights into societal norms at the turn of the century, but not specifics about how families were run. Ultimately, I just had to guess.

    I have frequently watched and listened to personal accounts of the Holocaust and they are more informative than any book on the subject when it comes to family connections. Unfortunately, that type of exposure is not always available.

    What sources do you find helpful when you are doing research for historical or any other kind of information, that is not readily available? Is Google your only option, or do you have other sources? Is it even important to be accurate?

    Thanks for any comments
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  2. #2
    Member JBF's Avatar
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    Ideally, talk to somebody who was there. Not much can rival the value of a firsthand account and, as an added bonus, you can ask specific questions that can't be answered any other way. For a secondary option, find somebody who was there and wrote about it (fiction or otherwise). If they have any knack for storytelling they'll fill in the details that historians tend to bypass. Individual accounts can be a goldmine.

    The Depression, for instance, is one of those periods that generates a lot of publishing heat but not much light; authors love talking about the stock market crash and the black blizzards and organized crime, and they do so ad nauseum. But what about somebody living in the hills of East Tennessee whose farm didn't blow away, who never resorted to robbing banks, and who was already living hand-to-mouth and whose fortunes didn't change appreciable with the Crash of '29?

    Specific to that end, I'd look for something like a copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times. Terkel's book collects firsthand recollections from a broad swath of those who lived through the era, from every class and corner of the United States. For something a bit more focused, Tim Egan's The Worst Hard Time looks at three towns at the confluence of the Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico borders which were particularly hard-hit by the Dust Bowl and how each came through.

    In fiction you have stuff like Grapes of Wrath which, while not citing its sources, has deep roots in the time and place and specifically addresses the nature of dealing with hardship as a family unit. The advantage to something like this is a lack of historical restraint; Steinbeck might not give the 'big picture', but he can make you feel the beating sun and taste blowing dust in a way that historians and statisticians can't.

    You may also find it worth your while to peruse trawl the book section of local antique stores or thrift shops. There's a surprising amount of print dedicated to matters of the past, scholarly and otherwise, that have long since dropped from the view of the digital world.

    Good hunting.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by JBF View Post
    Ideally, talk to somebody who was there. Not much can rival the value of a firsthand account and, as an added bonus, you can ask specific questions that can't be answered any other way. For a secondary option, find somebody who was there and wrote about it (fiction or otherwise). If they have any knack for storytelling they'll fill in the details that historians tend to bypass. Individual accounts can be a goldmine.

    The Depression, for instance, is one of those periods that generates a lot of publishing heat but not much light; authors love talking about the stock market crash and the black blizzards and organized crime, and they do so ad nauseum. But what about somebody living in the hills of East Tennessee whose farm didn't blow away, who never resorted to robbing banks, and who was already living hand-to-mouth and whose fortunes didn't change appreciable with the Crash of '29?

    Specific to that end, I'd look for something like a copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times. Terkel's book collects firsthand recollections from a broad swath of those who lived through the era, from every class and corner of the United States. For something a bit more focused, Tim Egan's The Worst Hard Time looks at three towns at the confluence of the Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico borders which were particularly hard-hit by the Dust Bowl and how each came through.

    In fiction you have stuff like Grapes of Wrath which, while not citing its sources, has deep roots in the time and place and specifically addresses the nature of dealing with hardship as a family unit. The advantage to something like this is a lack of historical restraint; Steinbeck might not give the 'big picture', but he can make you feel the beating sun and taste blowing dust in a way that historians and statisticians can't.

    You may also find it worth your while to peruse trawl the book section of local antique stores or thrift shops. There's a surprising amount of print dedicated to matters of the past, scholarly and otherwise, that have long since dropped from the view of the digital world.

    Good hunting.
    What a generous response! That was wonderful and exactly what I was looking for. Of course, books written as a first person account are truly valuable and I don't know why I didn't think of that. Thank you so much for giving me some options. Very helpful.

    Sue
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by SueC View Post
    What sources do you find helpful when you are doing research for historical or any other kind of information, that is not readily available? Is Google your only option, or do you have other sources? Is it even important to be accurate?

    Thanks for any comments
    Honestly? Wikipedia or something similar and I bet thatís true for a surprising number of writers of historical fiction. Of course, it depends.

    Iím not a big believer in researching periods extensively prior to or during writing because I see it as a bottomless pit that can really drag you down.

    For example, letís say you needed to find out what type of clothing women wore around the home in 1930 because you have a character you want to describe the appearance of. You can look that up, sure, but how do you know if what you find is true for the type of woman your character happens to be becuase - inevitably - there isnít a single, straightforward answer to that kind of question. Women dressed variously in 1930 just like they do now. So, when have you researched enough to get it right? When youíre sure? What if you never feel sure? How many hours are you going to invest in researching details that may not even matter? May not even survive the edit?

    I am not saying historical research is bad or anything, not at all, only that it can result in more questions than answers. I donít think itís something that necessarily works great when itís being done for a specific purpose such as a writing project. I prefer to research things for the sake of learning about them, then if I feel inspired to write something that uses the info ó great! In general I think itís good to ďwrite what you knowĒ rather than try to learn about something, especially something as complex as life in a period, on the fly.
    Deactivated due to staff trolling. Bye!

  5. #5
    Lucky, I can see the value of what you are saying, but I don't know. I admit I don't usually just store facts about a period randomly; it's usually because I feel the need to have information for a project. If I only stuck to "what I know" everything would be the same, whether I was writing about now or then. For example, it's not a secret as to how women were demeaned even as late as the 1950's or 60's. I don't know what that would be like, so I don't have first hand knowledge of how it would feel and personally, would find it hard to understand why a woman would accept that - from anyone - even if it was common for a given period of time.

    I've been streaming a series on Apple TV+ called Emily Dickenson. It started out as a more upbeat teen type show and I almost stopped watching, but evolved as time when on (and the Emily character grew up) into something much more difficult to watch. She was odd, no doubt about it, and her poetry was not well accepted in her time because it was strange, but what captured me the most was how she was held back, deflated, ignored, ridiculed and debased because of her desire to write, by just about everyone she knew, men and women alike. We here on this site, for example, celebrate the off-beat, the unique voice that some of us are capable of expressing. The character who played Emily did a good job showing me what that was like, to be so diminished, with the fire still burning. That would something I would not know, if I ever had to write about it.

    Thanks for your input, Lucky. Your comments are always welcome and relevant.
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  6. #6
    Member JBF's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2020
    Location
    South Dakota
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    215
    I wallow in the pit. Mostly this is because I have a hard time writing about something if I don't feel I understand it properly, but it's also a factor of finding minutia interesting. I spent half an hour the other day trying to figure out when hazard lights become common on vehicles in the U.S. This led to the question of whether a particular model had them (it did) and where the switch might be located (on the steering column).

    Did the detail make it in? No. But I had to ascertain whether it was important enough to affect that part of the story. I don't consider that to be time wasted. Some might, and probably have a solid rationale as to why I'm wrong. Doesn't matter. I write how I write and have done so long enough to understand that some parts of the process can't be skipped. I'm weird. I doubt I'm the only one.

    As an aside...one unlikely resource I've found for historical fashions and furnishings has been turn of the century mail-order catalog reprints. Both Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co have offered copies in later years, fully illustrated, and flipping through will give you a fair idea as to what was in style during a given era. It may also give you crippling anxiety about the devaluation of modern currency...but such is life.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    Honestly? Wikipedia or something similar and I bet that’s true for a surprising number of writers of historical fiction. Of course, it depends.

    I’m not a big believer in researching periods extensively prior to or during writing because I see it as a bottomless pit that can really drag you down.

    For example, let’s say you needed to find out what type of clothing women wore around the home in 1930 because you have a character you want to describe the appearance of. You can look that up, sure, but how do you know if what you find is true for the type of woman your character happens to be becuase - inevitably - there isn’t a single, straightforward answer to that kind of question. Women dressed variously in 1930 just like they do now. So, when have you researched enough to get it right? When you’re sure? What if you never feel sure? How many hours are you going to invest in researching details that may not even matter? May not even survive the edit?

    I am not saying historical research is bad or anything, not at all, only that it can result in more questions than answers. I don’t think it’s something that necessarily works great when it’s being done for a specific purpose such as a writing project. I prefer to research things for the sake of learning about them, then if I feel inspired to write something that uses the info — great! In general I think it’s good to “write what you know” rather than try to learn about something, especially something as complex as life in a period, on the fly.

    Maybe try it sometime yourself. It's never been as easy to get specific answers in historical research as it is right now. Good, solid information about styles, mores, professions, and lifestyles abound in both directly obtainable and subscription based sources (the latter often the case for scholarly studies). Intelligent, ept writers are quite likely to known when they've hit upon what they were looking for.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by SueC View Post
    I don't know how many members are interested in writing or reading historical fiction, but I was wondering what sources are used for research.

    Some time ago, I was working on a story in which the setting was the dust bowl in the U.S. in the 1930's. What I wanted to know was, how did parents discipline their children, or otherwise take care of their families during those difficult times? Did they just let the kids run amok and hope for the best? Or were they hard and tough disciplinarians? I could see valid arguments for both, considering the times, but wanted to know for sure.

    The Internet was helpful in identifying what the dust bowl was, how it came to be, what 'dust pneumonia' was, and so on, but nothing about family life. I ran across some books, which were much older than the dust bowl, but I thought they might be helpful. They were not. One book was Social and Economic Forces in American History, Chataqua Press, 1904, which gave insights into societal norms at the turn of the century, but not specifics about how families were run. Ultimately, I just had to guess.

    I have frequently watched and listened to personal accounts of the Holocaust and they are more informative than any book on the subject when it comes to family connections. Unfortunately, that type of exposure is not always available.

    What sources do you find helpful when you are doing research for historical or any other kind of information, that is not readily available? Is Google your only option, or do you have other sources? Is it even important to be accurate?

    Thanks for any comments
    This link points to a few scholarly articles on the subject. Baumrind 1971 may be the most useful, from my brief perusal. That study is behind a paywall, though.

  9. #9
    At some point we all must set aside our research, decide that we’ve been aiming log enough and it’s time to pull the trigger. Like everyone else I do a lot of research before I start writing, but my attention is on what I need to know for the story. I’ve listened to Stephen Hawking lectures speculating on interstellar travel, researched artificial intelligence, military weaponry, and a lot more for my Extinction series. Again though my focus was on the story.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by indianroads View Post
    At some point we all must set aside our research, decide that we’ve been aiming log enough and it’s time to pull the trigger. Like everyone else I do a lot of research before I start writing, but my attention is on what I need to know for the story. I’ve listened to Stephen Hawking lectures speculating on interstellar travel, researched artificial intelligence, military weaponry, and a lot more for my Extinction series. Again though my focus was on the story.
    As is mine. I confess to being micro-focused at times, wanting to be sure I get it right. What were they doing then? What were they thinking? How did they manage?

    With your research, it may be what works (or worked)? What's possible?

    Thanks!
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


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