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SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
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 :)
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
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.
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
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 :)
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
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 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.
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
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. :)
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
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.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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 know when they've hit upon what they were looking for.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
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.
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
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! :)
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
I'm weird. I doubt I'm the only one.

Oh JBF! You are most definitely not the only one. I do that all the time - and I was thinking as I read these posts that it isn't just information I am after, it is understanding. I crave that more than anything else. And the bits of information that I pick up that never make it into a story, still color it somehow, or maybe it just gives me confidence to continue.

And it also gives me something to talk about when there needs to be conversation, but nothing interesting is going on. As in 'did you know . . . ?" LOL!
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
And the bits of information that I pick up that never make it into a story, still color it somehow, or maybe it just gives me confidence to continue.

This is an important bit, I think. You do the research so even of the fact doesn't make the final cut it does inform the parts that do.

That, and it's amusing to occasionally pull a reader down the rabbit hole when they ask, "Hey, why did you..."
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
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.

My reaction would be that it takes all sorts to make a world, and whilst it is a very human thing to want to identify a single trait or way, the world's not like that. I have been a few places and mixed with a few people and types turn up again and again, you recognise them even when you don't speak the language. Reading anthropology reinforces that. Also habitations there and then were fairly distant and people had plenty to get on with to survive. With little contact social pressures to conform to a norm would be negligible.

They probably practiced everything from acclamation and appreciation, to beating into submission, though they probably wouldn't have called it that :) What do you need for your story? What do you feel like writing?
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
A lot of really great research is currently dying in nursing homes, unvisited. Maybe there are memoirs for the right time period if you can find them.

If you're fortunate enough to have living older relatives talk to them while you can. We have some family stories from the Depression that reveal some things (like my great-grandmother having the only telephone in the area and using the dinner bell and word of mouth to shout for local men who had applied for jobs and were getting a call back) and older neighbors, too. Plenty of older people would love to tell their stories. My retired next-door neighbor was telling me yesterday about what growing up in this area was like...they still had oil lanterns and he and his brother spent their weekends shoveling coal for the family's winter heat. They had an outdoor toilet and he said they 'let the girls go first to heat up the seat' (LOL) and that his mother baked the best bread in the coal-fired stove. About the time that he described melting butter onto the bread he said he was making himself hungry.
 

epimetheus

Friends of WF
There are still some WW2 stories out there to be told, but they're dying off fast. You can also get second hand WW1 stories , or even earlier, handed down through families.
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
They probably practiced everything from acclamation and appreciation, to beating into submission, though they probably wouldn't have called it that :) What do you need for your story? What do you feel like writing?

I did finish that project ("Surviving Nathan"). Having a fairly active imagination I was able to imagine the hardship and toll it took - at times - on family life. Mom was soft and forgiving and Dad was harsh, but at his core he loved deeply. His own history, growing up, did not prepare him for fatherhood, so he floundered but not because he wanted to. Sometimes making yourself a character in your own story works - I knew him well. :)
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
A lot of really great research is currently dying in nursing homes, unvisited. Maybe there are memoirs for the right time period if you can find them.

If you're fortunate enough to have living older relatives talk to them while you can. We have some family stories from the Depression that reveal some things (like my great-grandmother having the only telephone in the area and using the dinner bell and word of mouth to shout for local men who had applied for jobs and were getting a call back) and older neighbors, too. Plenty of older people would love to tell their stories. My retired next-door neighbor was telling me yesterday about what growing up in this area was like...they still had oil lanterns and he and his brother spent their weekends shoveling coal for the family's winter heat. They had an outdoor toilet and he said they 'let the girls go first to heat up the seat' (LOL) and that his mother baked the best bread in the coal-fired stove. About the time that he described melting butter onto the bread he said he was making himself hungry.

That is such a great idea! Makes you feel like going to nursing homes and scooping up stories. I live in Kansas, after all, which was a hotbed during the Dust Bowl. I should start another project - I love that time in history. Thanks, Foxee.
 

SueC

Staff member
Senior Mentor
There are still some WW2 stories out there to be told, but they're dying off fast. You can also get second hand WW1 stories , or even earlier, handed down through families.

You are so right about that, epi. When they find the heroes of past conflicts, they usually talk about service awards, etc., but ignore what it was like to just live at that time. And yes, they are dying off fast.
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
That is such a great idea! Makes you feel like going to nursing homes and scooping up stories. I live in Kansas, after all, which was a hotbed during the Dust Bowl. I should start another project - I love that time in history. Thanks, Foxee.
You're welcome and I just thought of something else.

Libraries have newspapers on file (might have to go to microfiche if they haven't updated to digital) that might even stretch back to the times you want. Local news could have some research potential if you're looking for slice-of-life info. Small local museums and historical societies, too.
 
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