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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3 Types of Primary Sources You Can Use as a Historical Fiction Writer


Photograph of Dundonald Castle, c. 1903.

Let’s face it – historical fiction is easier to get wrong than to get right. When you write historical fiction, you aren’t just writing a story; you’re building an entire 360 degree universe. Your characters likely have ways of thinking, and ways of expressing themselves, that are the result of a time and place very different from our own.

Primary sources can be valuable keys to unlocking past worlds. Mining them for details allows you to recreate a universe that your readers can see, hear, and taste. 
Archival Materials
What they are: Manuscripts, letters, journals, books and documents held in archive or library collections. These are sometimes referred to as “special collections.” Unlike secondary sources, all of these materials date from the period. Sometimes special permissions are needed to access these kinds of collections, but there is nothing like holding a letter written by one of your characters to inspire thrills and chills. These collections may be held in city, state, or national archives, or sometimes at university collections or in research libraries such as the Folger Shakespeare Library or the British Library
What they can tell you: Archival materials are terrific sources of information on details you just won’t find anywhere else. Reading a family’s letters may tell you far more about their dynamics and relationships than a biographer’s account. Census records, or registers of births and marriages, are great place to go shopping for authentic period names. A caveat: you will likely need to do some extensive research in the special collection’s catalog to find what you are looking for. If the material isn’t available digitally, you’ll need to go in-person to take a look. Extra effort, but I’ve always found it to be well worth it.
Digital Collections
What they are: Much like the name suggests, digital collections are digitized versions of “physical” materials. More and more archival materials are being made available in this way. It reduces wear and tear on the objects themselves, and it also makes materials available to people who can’t visit the collection in person.
What they can tell you: You can find much of the same information that archival materials contain. However, touching and seeing an object may reveal things that seeing it on a screen won’t – the quality of the paper, signs of wear like tears or watermarks, etc. The Library of Congress has extensive digital collections of everything from photographs to sheet music to sound recordings.
Reproductions
What they are: Reproduced versions of original items. Not all primary sources are available as reproductions, but when they are, a reproduction may be an excellent and far more accessible version of the original. 
What they can tell you: You won’t get a sense of how the item was originally made or the signs of use it has accumulated over the years, but you will see the tastes and aesthetics of the period in the reproduction. For example, the Museum of Jewelry in San Francisco has many kinds of reproduction pieces representing many historical eras!
In my next post, I’ll share some of my favorite sources in each of these categories and how I have used them.
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A Room of One’s Own, aka Cache

Virginia Woolf  wrote that for a woman to write, she needed an independent income and a room of her own. While exceptional women authors have emerged without those two advantages, I do see Woolf’s point. Quiet is nice. Solitude is nice. And I imagine that I could write a whole lot more if I didn’t need this thing called a day job to pay my bills.

This is my first morning writing in the room I have made my office. Birds are chirping outside the window. I’m sitting in an old wooden chair that I used when typing essays in graduate school. My laptop rests on a desk that my dad found in some antique store and painstakingly refinished. The desk has a drawer with a lock – and a key. It feels old and secretive. I love this desk.

So my immediate writing zone is good. However, boxes lie on the floor, and I have a suitcase, an ice cream maker, and piles of assorted gift wrap keeping me company. It feels more like an attic than an office at the moment. But we’ll get there.

Earlier this spring, many of the materials now in my room were in boxes for temporary storage in our sunroom. A flock of 8 adolescent chickens were also resident in the area. What I learned from this unfortunate juxtaposition is that chickens are terribly dusty. Notebooks, papers, letters, souvenir brochures, newspaper clippings of articles that I’d written  — things collected over a lifetime — were all sprinkled with a fine layer of white, smelly chicken dust. Some of these things could be salvaged. Others could not. I spent hours sorting, saving, going through my past with a fine tooth comb. Throwing some of it away.

What’s left is mostly collected in this room, my writing room. I am slowly making order out of the chaos. I’m starting clean. I’m making happy discoveries.

For instance  – my National Insurance card from my time in England, last seen in 2007. It disappeared during a move, and I felt sure it was lost forever. It unexpectedly turned up in a box of papers, along with my student ID cards from various institutions. My access card for the British Library (now expired), and assorted library cards. The tally looks something like this. Major credit cards: 1. Library cards: 7. Student ID cards: 3.

This room is where the past catches up with the present. Amy the student, Amy the traveler, Amy the writer are all here, working on the same story.

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