Friday, June 22, 2012

Bits and Pieces....again

If you follow Author Expressions Blogspot you may remember a blog I posted last year titled  Bits and Pieces- Voice and Style. I’m not  resurrecting that blog, but I do choose to use the title again. This time I offer a look at all the Bits and Pieces from life that we use in our writing. Ideas do come from life. Life can provide the warp and woof to weave a tale of historical fiction.

How do we imagine a person who really lived in another era? If you are lucky to have ancestral photographs, you could study the clothing of the people in the photos. Is there an infant wearing a long, white dress with infinite rows of tucks and lace? Can you picture the child’s mother laundering that dress, using starch and a flatiron to make the dress picture perfect? Or would your turn of the century “mother” hire a laundress to do that chore? Finding out how the household was managed can  answer some questions.

I took that direction in researching my first historical novel. I was lucky to find a set of family ledgers. Actually there were three journals of daily family expenditures kept by the matriarch of my children’s paternal great grandparent’s family. Not only did that mother list everyday costs for the butcher, baker, grocer and sundries for the family, but the feed and care of the horses and carriages in the stable, the painters and carpenter’s wages for house refurbishing and the building of out- buildings. She listed fees paid to hardware, and department stores, cost of coal delivery and chimney sweeps, weekly wages of three household help (each by name), church contributions, gifts purchased when, and for whom, weekly commuter train tickets from the suburbs to the city, and vacation shore excursions every summer. All this and more was recorded in a neat and legible hand. Amazing!

It was a treasure trove which presented a way of life from 1897 to 1899!   From the least expenditure of 15¢ for fly paper, to $148.00 for the building of a chicken house, $5.40 for oats, bran, and hay, and the purchase of a buckboard for $45.00. Reading this, my mind’s eye could picture the home, the out buildings and accoutrements of this ancestral family.

Doctor bills,$4.00, bottles and nipples, and a baby carriage with all the “fixins” for $37.00  revealed the month the youngest child was born. Theater tickets at $3.90, a portrait painted for $60.00, country club dues, and children’s private tutors and dance instructors hinted at the cultural milieu they lived in and the values they cherished. In the final year of the ledger, purchases of a Persian Lamb coat for $185.00 and a Coupe Rockaway for $575. signaled the height of the Victorian era they lived in.

These household ledgers were invaluable to me, saving countless hours of research and displaying all the bits and pieces of life which I needed to know about  a family living close to the turn of the century. It helped me write a book with authentic regional flavor and true family dynamics. Perhaps the sharing of my find will point you in  a similar direction. It may be a well worn axiom, but  Ideas do come from life.


Jacqueline Seewald said...


You are so fortunate to have these wonderful family journals! It's also great that you are using them in your writing, perpetuating family history and information.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I find this kind of research fascinating--getting into another time and life. You're fortunate to have these ledgers both for your family history and your writing.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Mary: You didn't include the name of your historical, which I'd love to read. Do you belong to the Historical Novel Society? If not, you should. Feel free to contact me offlist if you like.

Mary F Schoenecker said...

It was my first historical novel, titled Four Summers Waiting. It had a succesful first edition and a second edition by Thorndike Press. Since it was remaindered I put Four Summers Waiting on Kindle and it's available there.
I did belong to The Historical Novel Society for two years, but after I switched to a contemporary series, I dropped my membership in HNS. I still try to put a bit of history in my novels. You can read about them on my web page

Mar F Schoenecker said...

Jacqueline and Susan,
Yes, I was fortunate to have those ledgers. Our youngest son helped to find them and also found family letters in a collection at a library. I obtained copies and was able to use them in my novel, Four Summers Waiting.