Michaeline: Add some contemporary to make your historicals more real

A young lady from the mid-1800s reading a newspaper.

Newspapers were a popular source for information of all sorts. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve talked about using contemporary newspaper accounts to make your historical more real in the comments, and I’ve used the technique extensively when researching my Bunny Blavatsky, Gilded Age Spirit Photographer stories. You pick up vocabulary and phrasing for your writing, and background knowledge that would have been part of your characters’ everyday life. You don’t just pick up local tidbits that don’t make it into history books, but in later historicals, you also get world events practically as they happen. The first transatlantic cable was successfully transmitted on August 16, 1858; by the 1870s, messages were transmitted across the ocean in minutes.

According to Wikipedia, there were 43 newspapers in America in 1783; in 1810 there were

A Japanese woman reading a newspaper while clad in a kimono.

Reading a contemporary newspaper could challenge some of the clichés and stereotypes you hold about an era. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

366 (including 27 daily papers), and during the age of yellow journalism and all the good and bad that attended, papers exploded from 971 in 1880 to 2,226 in 1900.

You can find some of these newspapers archived on line; the Library of Congress is a good place to start.

I’m blogging about it today because there’s an astounding article from the today-in-history feature (August 3) on the United Press International website. UPI brought back an article about the death of Warren G. Harding in 1923. The story is first told with the kind of drama I’ve always associated with New Journalism – it’s a mix of fact and dramatic speculation about the last hours of Harding and his wife. The story then turns deftly to the facts of Harding’s last days, with wonderful period words such as “apoplexy” and “ptomaine poisoning”. It details the reactions of key political figures before going into a pithy biography of the late president, including his achievements as president. In true UPI style, the end is a bunch of charming anecdotes that can be included or excluded as the member paper’s column inches required.

Even if you aren’t setting a novel in 1923 (although, to be honest, it seems like an underutilized and exciting time to set a romance!), it’s well worth looking at the article for the details and the story telling.

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: Add some contemporary to make your historicals more real

  1. I pay for a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and I frequently refer to the local London papers for the year of my book, 1815. It turns out there was a lot going on the week my story takes place (not that it happened THAT WEEK, but that’s the week it was published in the papers): 1) Napoleon left Elba, 2) British in London finally got news of their defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, effectively ending the War of 1812, 3) Corn Law riots (and subsequent vote for it in Parliament), and 4) news of the progress of the Congress of Vienna (which would quickly go downhill once Boney returned).

    In addition to that, the papers tell you who had which party or soiree, about hunts, the Regent’s Levees (who attended, etc.), and other things like that. Those little details are fun to add to a story to make it more real, as I’m sure you well know, Michaeline. I love being able to do that!

    What I find so interesting about the papers (particularly London ones, as they’re the ones I refer to most frequently), is that the news — the REAL news — was on the back pages. The front page of the paper (what we would consider the front page) had advertisements for housemaids, horses for sale, etc. That was something I had to get accustomed to…at first, I didn’t think the papers had ANY news!

    • Oh, this is an amazing resource, Neen! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ve researched with history (or history-like) books, of course, and by reading contemporaneous writing (1870s in my case), but haven’t read the papers. Now I know what’s on my agenda this coming week!

      • I like the British Newspaper Archive because it’s extensive and it’s fully indexed, so if you’re searching for “Prince Regent” (or just “Regent”), the papers will show up with the text highlighted. There are a few key papers they don’t have, such as The Times, but for the most part, it’s very comprehensive, and they’re always adding new material.

        They also have a lot of local papers and those are fun to read to see what is considered “news” in the country and/or smaller towns. It’s easy to search by geographical region, too. I believe they also have some Scottish and/or Irish papers.

        Have fun!

    • I was reading about newspapers for this post, and it seems that early Colonial newspapers would have the gossip and satire on the first page, in order to draw in the subscribers/customers. LOL, it reminds me so much of today, when a lot of people forgo the “real news” for comedy news; a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!

      Advertisements are often exactly what the reader really wants; a good lead on a horse or a housemaid, LOL!

  2. That’s a great idea Michaeline. I’ve looked at newspaper from my writing time period to get a general idea of things going on, but I hadn’t really thought of it in very much terms of information that my characters would be familiar with. I can see more newspaper archives in my future. 😀

  3. When I was researching Jephthah’s Daughter, my historical that’s set in 1894 Minnesota lumber country, I used the inter-library system to get copies of the Hinckley Gazettefor the year leading up to the forest fire. I finally realized it was time to stop researching and start writing when I read in the local news column that a certain young woman had just returned from a visit to her aunt in New York. I cried because I knew she got killed in the fire a week later.

    It is possible to overdo your research.

    • That’s the thing though; good journalism is narrative. And I think it’s really useful that we get this omniscient future-knowing perspective. Sometimes it can inspire us to write the story “better” — for instance, our young lady stays in New York for an extra week! It can also remind us that troubles do happen; fires, earthquakes and all the other disasters are part of the human experience.

      On a different note, yay for the inter-library system!

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