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.