When I first started thinking about writing historical fiction, I knew that the storytelling and worldbuilding would be completely different than the projects I had undertaken in the past. Since my story was to take place in 1913, I went to the library, checked out a book called Daily Life in the Progressive Era, and plopped down to read. However, I quickly realized that reading an overview was not a great way to immerse myself in the time period. Over the years, I’ve amassed a battery of resources to help get in the right headspace for historicals.
Capturing the tone of the time can be difficult, and one of the biggest red flags that a writer hasn’t done their research is when the text is full of anachronistic language. The first impulse for a lot of writers is to throw out contractions to make speech seem more “old-timey,” but there are plenty of (free!) resources online that I use to create historically accurate prose.
The first is EtymOnline, which is exactly what it sounds like: an online etymology dictionary. I have a tab open to EtymOnline whenever I’m writing—it’s that essential. Instead of giving you the definition of a word, when you look something up, it gives you the history of the word. When it began being used, what the meaning was when it first began and how it changed over time.
To supplement EtymOnline, I use a neat little tool from Google called the NGram Viewer. It lets you search a word, and then it will search all the books in the Google Books database and spit out a graph on usage over time. So, EtymOnline can tell you if a word existed in the time you’re writing about, and the NGram Viewer will tell you if it was in common usage at the time.
While these tools are awesome, the absolute best way to get a grip on the language of the time is to read primary source documents (this is going to be a theme). I like find popular novels from the time and really pay attention to the dialogue, keeping in mind that it’s probably 50 percent slicker than the way people actually talked. If possible, check out an audiobook to get a sense of the rhythm of speech.
Location, Location, Location
My historical fiction novel is set in Boston, which is where I lived during graduate school. Luckily, the Boston of a hundred years ago isn’t physically that different from now, and so I had a good sense of the neighborhoods my characters would be in and what they would look like. If you don’t have the same familiarity with your setting, there are lots of ways you can get to know a place.
Historic photographs are definitely a must, if you’re writing about a time when photography existed. Local historical societies can be a big help on this front, so be sure to reach out to them. For the United States, Images of America has a comprehensive series of photo books for specific times and places that will help you capture the atmosphere. Another photo repository I like to browse through is the subreddit Colorized History. You may not be able to find images that apply exactly to your project but seeing all those old-fashioned scenes in color always puts me in a totally different state of mind.
Another way I capture the setting accurately is by referencing historic maps. Historic Mapworks has an incredibly extensive collection of historic maps, down to individual neighborhoods, on their website for free. I use these to figure out approximately where my characters are going to be situated, then I cross reference with Google Street View, to get a sense of what the area looks like now.
By Any Other Name
Let’s be real: if you call your 1890s main character “Jaden,” readers are going to give the name major side eye. This is where I recommend a resource I’ve recommended before, Behind the Name, though this time for a different reason. Behind the Name has compilations of data from the Social Security Administration that tell you what names what names were popular for children historically, so you can pick something that makes sense for the context of your story.
All the Livelong Day
In addition to Daily Life in the Progressive Era, some other books on my shelf on the minutiae of historical life are Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Victorian and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. However, my favorite way to get a sense of what my character’s day-to-day might be like is reading newspaper archives.
I’ve saved this for last because it’s absolutely, definitely the best. My subscription to the Boston Globe gives me full access to its digitized archives, dating back to 1870. I read the serialized fiction, the gossip column, the schedules for movie times. Every last bit of it is fascinating. From advertisements, you can learn what kind of fashion was in vogue, which products people used to clean their homes, and where people did their shopping. There are pages of recipes, so you know what kind of food your characters might be eating. And of course, the front page news gives you a sense of the things that might be on their mind. Reading the newspaper gives you a sense of the little things that an overview book might miss.
For a few bucks a month, you can also subscribe to Newspapers.com, which gives access to major market newspaper archives as well as the papers from smaller towns.
While the resources listed above are my first line, sometimes I’ll need to find some crazy specific detail that requires me to dig a little deeper. Although often times they are pretty difficult to navigate, government archives can be really useful. A while, I found I needed to know the hours of operation for a certain line of Boston streetcars in 1913, and I found that by digging through the archives of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wealth of knowledge that comes from local historical societies and universities. If there’s something you want to figure out that you can’t find online, reach out to a local historian. Even if they don’t know the answer off the top of their heads, they will know how to point you in the right direction. As a bonus, they are often thrilled to help out.
Part I | Part II | Part III
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