Our guest blogger today is author Jennifer Jakes. After trying several careers—everything from a beautician to a dump truck driver—Jennifer finally returned to her first love, writing. Maybe it was all those Clint Eastwood movies she watched growing up, but in her opinion there is no better read than a steamy western historical.
Married to her very own hero, she lives on fifteen acres along with two beautiful daughters, three spoiled cats, three hyper dogs and one fat rabbit.
During the summer she does Civil War re-enacting and has found it a great research tool, not to mention she has continued appreciation for her microwave and hot water heater.
Her debut novel, RAFE’S REDEMPTION, was a RWA Golden Heart Finalist and Won BEST ROMANCE 2011 at DITHR. Visit Jennifer Jakes at http://www.jenniferjakes.com
RESEARCH: WE CAN’T ALL BE HISTORICAL REENACTORS…..
Sad but true. I have to say as an American Civil War reenactor I gained a huge amount of knowledge about the 1860s by “living” it. But what about those who don’t have the opportunity – or the inclination *grin* – to sleep on the ground or cook over an open fire?
As it happens, my last published work, TWICE IN A LIFETIME, was a pirate historical set in 1768, in the Caribbean. Since I live in Mid-West USA, that was a setting I couldn’t just get in the car and research. My WIP, ALSAKAN HEAT, is set in (you guessed it) Alaska, in 1898 during the gold rush. Yes, drivable, but it’s not going to happen.
For TWICE, I started with studying what government(s) controlled the particular islands I wanted my Hero/heroine to land on. Once I knew that, I used a map to chart the course I wanted the H/h to use. (They dock at 3 ports.) For the final big scene – and the final island – I needed to know what part of Jamaica was less inhabited in that year, and where were the available ports deep enough for a larger ship. I also needed to know if the places I wanted to use were named the same as they are now. For example, I debated using Key West, Florida as one of my islands, but found it was called Cayo Hueso then and no one would know where I meant if I’d used that term. I decided against using Key West and started researching the Kingston/Port Royal area of Jamaican. I found I didn’t want to use the Kingston/Port Royal areas as they were destroyed by a huge fire in 1750 and destroyed again by a hurricane in 1774. So even though in theory my story could have happened there in 1768, it’s not a place I wanted to put my H/h to spend their happily ever after since a major hurricane was coming in six years.
Next I studied ships. I needed to know about masts, how many and what they were called; how many men were needed to man what size ship, and what the interior looked like. I read several articles and Googled images of old ships, both interior and exterior.
Another tool – one that I think is an absolute must – is using an Etymology Dictionary. This will tell you the origin of the word and in what year it began to be used. Nothing irritates me more as a reader than for a word to be used that didn’t exist in the (plot) era.
For the story set in Alaska, I again Googled images of Skagway in 1898. I found some wonderful pics that are so inspiring to writing. I also found names of infamous characters who lived then, including Soapy Smith, a mafia-type of that time. He was also a con-artist, running a telegraph office there – charging up to $5 to send a telegraph – but failing to mention no telegraph lines ran to America yet. I’ve found a wonderful book, KLONDIKE WOMEN by Melanie J. Mayer, that tells all about women making the trek to the gold fields. Several of them got rich by prostitution, some of them by actual panning for gold, and a couple of them, by opening hotels or restaurants
I watched a documentary on the History Channel about the gold rush and found in April 1898, an avalanche killed about 80 people. You can bet I will use an avalanche in my story! I love to weave in true facts. I also learned of a husband/wife team who dismantled their small steamboat paddler and hauled it up and over the pass to re-assemble once they reached the Yukon. They not only made it, but beat several of the bigger steamers who had to travel from Seattle/San Francisco all the way around Alaska and then down to Dawson. You can buy episodes from the History Channel to watch at home so if you don’t get that channel it might be work checking their website. http://www.history.com/
Clothing of any historical era is seemingly easy to find through an online search, but I suggest digging deep and not just using pictures. I found a great book titled, THE CALICO CHRONICLES by Betty J. Mills. It lists (grid-like) the decades, the popular colors women wore, and the kind of cloth. Within the book’s chapters it tells about the styles. Those are all invaluable facts! I have found one website that gives good fashion information http://www.fashion-era.com/index.htm
What about someone who calls clothing by the wrong name? The best example is the word Bloomers when talking about women’s underwear. The word Bloomers referred to trouser like pants to be worn under a shorter (knee or calf length) skirt. Women’s underwear was called Drawers (which was crotchless for the convenience of using the outhouse). So when you read of an intimate scene and the hero must remove the heroine’s drawers to touch her bare skin…..um, no, he wouldn’t have to.
So in summary, I have to say I think research is all in the details. Will you use everything you learn? No, probably not. But I think it gives you a richer feeling of whatever era your story is set in if you know these details. I’m so happy to live in a time where a world of information is literally at our fingertips. So if you write historicals, don’t assume you know. Research!