Writing About Times Gone By

I can’t claim to be an expert when it comes to writing about bygone eras, but I’ve set a novel (Quakertown) in 1920s Texas, and one (The Bright Forever) in 1972 southern Indiana. I’m guessing 1972, forty years in the rear view now, makes that novel an example of historical fiction. One difference, of course, in my writing of the two books is the fact that I was sixteen years old in 1972, and, therefore, able to rely on memory for my primary research, supplementing it with the reading of old newspapers, high school yearbooks, court reports, etc.. I also visited various web sites to find out when certain songs that I recalled from those teenage years were being played on the radio. I looked at maps of cities. I interviewed anyone who had a connection, no matter how slight, with the true story upon which I based the novel.

When it came to 1920s Texas, though, I obviously had no memory to rely upon. I only had the tools of research. Again, I fell in love with reading old newspapers form the time and place, not only to get the facts of the true story I was following, but also to immerse myself in the culture of the time period. I loved gathering the names of the movies playing at the local theaters, cataloging the men’s and women’s fashions as advertised, keeping track of the society news and the comings and goings of the citizens. I came to realize that the research wasn’t just about getting the details right. It was also a way of transporting myself, best I could, to the place and the time I meant to reconstruct. By that, I mean it was a means to make myself feel like I was living in a long-lost world. It was my way of making the past present.

All of this holds true for nonfiction as well. Even if I’m writing memoir, a genre of memory, I’m still reaching out for the artifacts of my own past: letters, photographs, school awards, newspaper clippings, weather reports, you name it.

It looks as if I’m about to be seduced again. There’s a story from 1844-1845 near where I grew up in Lawrence County, Illinois, that’s calling me. I know a little bit about that time period, but I can tell you that nothing teaches you what you don’t know more quickly than trying to craft a narrative set during years long before you were alive. Quickly, you’re up against questions of details, culture, history, and language. For instance, I set a young girl running along a hog path through the woods in southeastern Illinois on an August day. What would she see, smell, hear? It’s easy enough to call from my own experience the smell of wood smoke, the calling of crows, the whippet branches of saplings, the snarl of blackberry thickets. But what details make this moment belong to 1844? Perhaps someone is still clearing land . Perhaps there’s the thunks of axe blades finding heartwood, the crash of trees to the ground, the burning of brush. And what might that young girl be carrying with her from the larger world? Maybe she’s a Millerite, the religious sect that believed on October 22, 1844, Christ would come, and the saintly would ascend into Heaven. What would that make her feel about her life and how would it dictate the actions she’d take?

Let’s say that girl runs into an apothecary shop to fetch the druggist because someone is ill. Jeez, what’s in that shop? What sorts of clothes is the druggist wearing? What sorts of medicines does he have at his disposal? I went in search of the answer to those questions, and soon I knew that at that time most of the medicines would have been herbal in nature, that the bottles holding the tinctures of opium and cannabis would have been hand-blown and had squared corners and caps made from fruitwood. All of those details mattered to me, not only because of authenticity but also because I know my characters in part from the objects they hold and the things around them.

I know them, as well, through their language. Not just the words that they speak, but the language of the narrative voice as well.  I have to know when certain words and figures of speech came into the common usage. I don’t want the language to caricature the time period, but I want it to have a flavor that isn’t completely of our present day. I wrote an opening passage:

The Mister took sick on a Monday morning in August when the corn was firing for want of rain and the locusts were chirring in the woods. Not a breath of air in the cabin and horseflies all about and making a nuisance. Not a day anyone would want to feel puny.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this opening will be a keeper, but something about the sound of it seems right to me, right and necessary to my first step into 1844.

I guess I’m saying I have to hear the time period and the place through the language first. Then I have to know the larger world of that time. Finally, I have to create a texture of details that brings that world to life for me to the point that I’m no longer feeling my way; instead, I’m participating. I’m living the story, the way I would have had I been my characters, if my life had been theirs.


  1. Cate Von Minden on July 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Hey, Lee,

    I love this entry. I know how it feels to line your story with period detail…to research that foreign world of history and find nuggets of gold that make you say, AHH! I can hardly wait for this new novel of yours!

    • Lee Martin on July 18, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Hey, Cate,

      And you do all that so well! I’m in the very, very early stages of this project, really just feeling around to see whether there’s a novel there. I find it a tough time period to research. Any tips? Thanks, as always, for reading my blog.

  2. Cate Von Minden on July 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Ha, ha, that’s funny…YOU asking me for tips. All I can say is that I researched and read as I could find that took place in the mid 19th century. Finally, when my nightly dreams placed me there, I knew I was ready. It also helps to remind yourself that your readers didn’t live then, either, so they won’t be as judgmental of you as you are of yourself.

    • Lee Martin on July 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      Cate, I love what you say about when your nightly dreams put you in that place. That’s wonderful!

    • Cathie Kingsley on July 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Hi Lee and Cate,
      Thank you both for the great research ideas. You have given me a clear path for my work today! Hope all is well and I look forward to reading both of your historical pieces someday soon!

      • Lee Martin on July 19, 2012 at 10:05 am

        Hi, Cathie! I hope all is well in Nebraska. Good luck with your day’s work and beyond. I fear I’ll spend all of my writing time today trying to figure out what sort of cup my character would drink tea from in 1844 🙂

  3. Bren McClain on July 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I love that — “I have to hear the time period and the place through the language first.” Oh man….that hits home with me. Love your opening, by the way……

    • Lee Martin on July 21, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks, Bren. Almost VT time. Sure hope the weather is cooler there than it has been here.

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