Tuesday, January 26, 2010

18C Research: Where To Go When You Don't Know

Fellow writer Carla Gade has a post today, Writing What You Know Or What You Want To Know. I seem prone to writing what I want to know, at least as far as settings, character occupations, cultures and backgrounds go, which translates to: I have to do a huge amount of research for my novels. No surprise then that I've been deep in research lately, trading stacks of books with the library once or twice a week, and finding a steady stream of Amazon parcels in my mailbox. Isn't that such fun to find those bright orange envelopes among the junk and bills, or the brown boxes on the doorstep? I get a little thrill with each one that's delivered.

While deep in research it's often hard to come back to 21st century reality of places to be, dinners to cook, cars to get serviced. Part of my mind stays immersed in the settings, clothes, homes and lifeways of the 18C.

I've been exceedingly blessed in my research for Burning Sky. This is a counting of a few of those blessings I hope might be helpful to others who cross these same research trails; the research books I have in active use this week (which means they're lying open around my desk and on various pieces of living room furniture, making me wish I had one of those nifty multiple book-stands that Thomas Jefferson invented):


What Clothes Reveal, the Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, by Linda Baumgarten. This book is a must have (or at least a must check-out from library) for those writing 18th century fiction set in America. It's full of photos and descriptions of period clothing, often items not usually seen, including close-up details of fabric and construction. I have the book lying open at present to pages 66-67, in which the author discusses whether men and women really were smaller "back then" than they are today. Short answer... not so much. These two pages also detail descriptions of frontier clothing from James Fenimore Cooper's writings, show a photo of George Washington in his military uniform, and a photo of the most darling deerskin moccasins decorated with silk, glass beads, metallic braid, and tin cones, from around 1780. "The moccasins show the interaction between Native American design traditions and imported materials."

Frontier Living, by Edwin Tunis. I have a growing collection of Tunis books. They're written for children, but the information and detailed drawings packed within their pages are worth whatever price you might pay for these books. My copy lies open to Pages 38-39, where there's a drawing of a grist mill I'm using for the scene in Burning Sky I'm going to start writing in about an hour. I'd never heard of a mill like this, one that uses a small waterfall to turn its wheel, which is located under the mill house, not beside it.


Living History, Drawing on the Past by Cathy Johnson. This gem of a book, by a period re-enactor/artist, has been invaluable in creating my naturalist character, Neil MacGregor. In these pages can be found drawings of the "Equipment of an Artist, Topographer, Spy, Naturalist, (or other Scientist) and including Various Writing Accoutrements and tools to Boost Vision." As well as the "more Common Accoutrements such as those of the Middling Sort might find of Use, including Pistols, Shooting Bags, Lanterns, Horn goods, Cookware and the Like." I keep this book handy at all times, so I can outfit Neil whether he's going to the edge of the cabin yard to sketch a bit, or making a long-term foray in the wilderness, or walking to the nearest village.

Adirondack Upland Flora by Michael Kudish is another handy book I keep close by, both for describing a landscape that I'm not familiar with firsthand (the Mohawk Valley and southern Adirondacks), and for Neil's benefit. He's a natural philosopher (as they called themselves in the 18C), and so he knows his plants. And he knows them in Latin. I sure don't. Thanks, Michael Kudish, for compiling them all in one place, with clear explanations of the various types of forests that grow at different elevations, and some gorgeous photos, too!

 
Forgotten Allies, The Onieda Indians and the Amercian Revolution, by Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin. I'm finding a lot of what I need to know about the early missionaries among the Mohawk Indians in a book largely about the Oneida nation. At this time period, just before and during the Revolutionary War (Burning Sky picks up at the end of the war, in 1784), the Oneida tribe was rife with conflicts between traditionalist who wanted nothing to do with the Europeans or the American colonists, and those who had embraced the good-works-based religion of the Anglican Church, and those who had embraced New Light Christianity (salvation based on spiritual rebirth and a relationship with Christ). This information has heavily informed the back story of two of my main characters.

8 comments:

  1. It just amazes me how much hard work historical writers put into their novels. Researching alone seems to take just as long as writing the book. At least, it would for me. I'm glad your research is going well!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Cindy, It is going well, even though there is still so much more I want to learn. The reward is (aside from enabling me to write books!) I'm gaining an ever richer knowledge of our country's history, and the history of the varied peoples that made us such a melting pot (a hissing, boiling one) in the 18C. I'm floored at how much I managed not to take in during my school years, even about subjects that interested me at the time.

    Thanks for stopping by to comment! Historical writing is a peculiar passion, eh? I can't think of another reason to do this but love.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, thank you, Lori, I'm delighted to help!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Cathy! I so love your book. It was literally an answer to this researcher's prayer. Thanks for stopping by. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for mentioning my blog post, Lori! You sound like me with all those research books around. And the ones you mentioned look like great resources. I just got a new research book in the mail today, and yes, it makes going to the mailbox so much more fun! My new book was written by the first preacher in western Colorado (1899 pub) and is just fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Carla, Primary source material is the best! Really all we need is an extra set of eyes, or two, to soak it all in faster. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nothing like a good book in the mail! I have a few here and one coming on interlibrary loan as the cost is prohibitive - What Clothes Reveal. Can't wait to hold it in my hands. Looks good enough to eat:)
    Thanks to you and Carla for sharing the bounty in your posts!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Laura, I wondered if you had seen WCR. You will love it, I'm sure! I do recall it was hard to find an affordable copy of that book, and I kept checking out our library copy over and over until I did. Often when I want to dress a character, I go to that book for the detailed descriptions of fabric and the wonderful photos of clothing from all walks of 18C life. There's a helpful timeline of changing styles at the back of the book too.

    ReplyDelete