This is part 3 of a 4-week series discussing using genealogical sources you can use to help with your fiction writing as a foretaste of my class I will be teaching through Savvy Authors starting two weeks from today. Part 1 spoke about using computerized, indexed census records to help establish your characters’ names, ages, and life-styles. Part 2 suggested using church records if census records were not available for the time and place your story is set. Today we are moving beyond finding appropriate names to bringing your setting to life using: Newspapers!
Yes, you read that right, newspapers.
Newspapers have been printed since practically the invention of the printing press, coming into wider circulation in the mid to late 1700s. Believe it or not, a lot of these are available in repositories and on film still today. Of course, you are going to be primarily interested in those records that are computerized so that you can find and search them with just a few clicks of your mouse rather than drag yourself to a genealogical library. Not to discourage you from doing that, however, if you have one nearby you can visit because newspapers can do a lot for you.
Imagine you’re writing a story set in a small New York town in 1842. You have your characters in pretty good shape, but you need to bring some more interesting life to this community, to really immerse your reader in its day-to-day existence. You find the town’s actual newspaper archives (or a town similar to the fictional one you have created) on line and start examining the newspapers from that year. What will you learn? You’ll read about social events in a lot more detail than we are typically used to in our papers. You’ll see obituaries, notices of church picnics, information about a fire on the outskirts of town, mention of Senator Loudmouth coming into town to give a speech about a current political issue. Beyond that, you’ll see advertisements! Yes, those little beauties could be the most important thing in the entire paper for you. Stores will be advertising hats with feathers and fruit for a price that seems ridiculously cheap to us today and there will likely be drawn pictures! Who owns the grocers? Which attorneys are advertising for which services? What medicines are available and how much do they cost? How much are the local drygoods stores charging for material? For corsets? For dresses? For “unmentionables”? What’s the name of the local funeral home and what services are being advertised? I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these details, pulled from the actual time and place (or as close as you can easily get), will allow you to add a word here and there, a price, an event to your characters’ lives that smacks of reality. Your reader might be forgiven for thinking you’ve taken a time machine back to visit with your character, you’ve got their life detailed so thoroughly.
Of course, other countries beside the United States also had newspapers. There is a huge project in England to collect millions of pages of newsprint and get them onto the web. Imagine reading editorials from a Scottish newspaper about its relationship with England during a particularly important moment in history as you are getting ready to write your next Highland romance! This is a subscription service at the moment, but you might check it out and see if it’s something reasonably priced for the information you can get. There are undoubtedly some free sites as well. Google is your friend.
There are, of course, non-English newspapers available as well and you might be intimidated because of the foreign-language aspect. It’s true that if you don’t speak German, it would be hard to read through a Prussian newspaper. However, don’t forget those illustrated advertisements. They would at least give you some information, some names, some products, and some prices, even if most of the social and editorial content was over your head.
I hope that has given you another idea of how using some unorthodox sources can really beef up your fiction writing. We have one more week of this series and then my class starts the next week. I would love to have anyone sign up if they want a more thorough examination of these as well as other useful sources to help bring your fiction to life!