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.