From Source to Story: How I Used Primary Materials


The most memorable writers I’ve encountered have a way of throwing you into the story through your senses. Think of Zora Neal Hurston’s description of Janie lying under the peach blossoms, or Jack Kerouac chronicling his manic, visceral, joyous romp across the United States. 
Primary sources are our surest means of knocking the dust off the past and getting our hands on it. They are goldmines for writing historical fiction, and here are three ways I’ve used them for my current novel-in-progress.
Regency evening gown, 1810
Evening gown, c. 1810. The Met.
The item: Letters written by Lady Katherine Cochrane
Kate’s surviving letters, held at the National Library of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere, offer an engaging look at a charming, strong-minded, brave, affectionate, resourceful, stubborn, sexy woman – with a bit of a temper. Next to speaking with her, the letters have offered me the best way to hear her voice. Whether she’s reminding her husband of her brilliant success in helping him attain a pardon from the British government, or lamenting her separation from her children, she’s a force to be reckoned with. 
My favorite line – so good it could have come from Jane Austen – is “With a few dinners and a little flattery I might accomplish a great deal.”
The item: Clothing from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A heroine must be dressed! But how? Thanks to the Met’s collection of Regency clothing – much of which has been digitally photographed– I gained a sense of what a woman like Kate might have worn for day-to-day activities as well as special events like balls.

The item: a reproduction of an 1816 cookbook
strawberry jam
Homemade strawberry preserves.
As soon as I saw A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell listed in the Persephone Books catalog, I knew I had to have it! Not only is it an invaluable source of what people ate and how meals were prepared, it includes the early 19th-century version of Hints from Heloise. There are tips for mending broken china, making homemade ink, and removing stains from linen. 
I’ve found that in the era before freezers, refrigeration, and chemical preservatives, food was much more seasonal! Mrs. Rundell’s book includes monthly menus of what meats, fish, game, vegetables, and fruits are available, and also offers suggestions for

which dishes to serve for dinners at various levels of formality.

Mutton collops, anyone?

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