Wednesday, April 10, 2019


 Spring Has Returned

Writing historical is not the same as writing a contemporary. I never realized how much different until I started to write one. My desire to recreate an accurate accounting of the families that went west to find, fame, fortune, or just a better life sent me into the history books. And that is when it hit me just how little we learn in school.
          History books are written based on wars. Maybe an event leading up to a particular battle might be included, but mostly, it’s based on wars. Take a second gander at our American History books. The Pilgrims came and then we worked up to the Revolutionary War. Then came that little tea party in the Boston Harbor... We did what? We tossed tea overboard because we didn’t want to be taxed and that cause this big revolt? Not really, but that is the way it’s portrayed in books.
         We did toss tea overboard. Guess we never figured tea would have an environmental impact. I’m sure plenty of fish got sick swimming in tea. Of course, nothing is said about that. No one said what the people ate or how they lived. Well, we know they gave up drinking tea.
         Sometime after George Washington crossed the Delaware River, we won that war with England, and several years later, we had a Civil War over slavery. Nope. That was not how it started, and slavery was barely a blip on the political horizon during the war. Actually abolishing slavery is one of the better things that came into being as a result of that war. But it was not the reason for the war.
         So if history somehow interests you, you probably didn’t get it from those schoolbooks. Chances are a teacher or someone else regaled you with tales of people. Or maybe something from your own family sparked an interest. Or maybe you read something like a biography? Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton?
         Of course, that family tidbit might not be as glamorous as a romance novel. I recently ran across a name on Facebook and asked if they were related to… They weren’t, but she did tell me that the grandfather was an orphan on an orphan train who was adopted by a family. Unfortunately that tale didn’t have a happy ending.
        The writers here at Sweethearts of the West take pride in getting history right. And we share that knowledge with our readers and other history buffs. But not all historical romances are historically correct. Do things slip through? I’m certain. Because no matter how hard we try, backing up 150 years or more can be difficult.
Word choice can be a problem. Did she say it was an oil lamp? When did lamp oil usage end? Don’t even try to argue that they were so wealthy that they preferred to use only oil. If tomorrow someone discovered a fuel for automobiles that cost only 10% of what gasoline cost, and it ran cleaner, was renewable, didn’t leave a major carbon footprint, was better for the engine, didn’t stink, produced as much or more horsepower, and was readily available, just how soon do you think we’d be pumping that instead into our cars? That’s like saying I will only put leaded gas into my car. Is leaded gas available? I don’t think so.
Lamp oil vanished and was replaced with kerosene. Kerosene saved our whales, lots of lives, and quickly phased lamp oil from our lives. Now we have “lamp oil” that is a new generation of lamp fuel. It burns cleaner, it’s supposed to be cheaper, and often comes colored and scented. But we aren’t using those lamps except in an emergency or maybe to add a certain ambiance to a room on a special occasion.
But in defense of those making mistakes, my own father went to his grave calling the refrigerator an icebox. I have an antique icebox. It’s decorative. I own a refrigerator. I grew up with a refrigerator. The icebox was replaced about four years before I was born with a fancy refrigerator. But that didn’t stop Dad from calling it an icebox. “Put that in the icebox!”
Words are fairly easily checked for usage. Dictionary such as Merriam Webster can tell you of its first known usage. But just because it was used in 1874, it probably took quite a few years before it was routinely used. Word usage is quicker today with the Internet and news media. But years ago, it spread slower when it had to be passed by individuals using it.
Hunting for the history of something gets tricky. I like to find the info directly from the patent offices. If you want to know exactly what sort of pen was used, try looking up the history of pens, such as Parker. Most manufacturers keep very good historical records because they are proud of their contributions.
Old photos can be misleading. I think this was taken in 1880 because someone wrote 1880 in the corner. Um, no! It had to be later than that because that building wasn’t built until 1904. And those shoes were not worn back then. It's odd, because 1880 might have been an index number for the photo and not the date. So the more we know the better we can be at discovering the errors.
The other problem is that great online encyclopedia. The Wik is great if you aren't looking to be super accurate. Yes, check other resources, except they also might be using Wik as the god of knowledge. Sources can be checked and if it winds up being a circle, then the accuracy is suspect.
The concept of owning a sewing machine came in the late 1800’s. They were expensive and bulky things. They had a single forward stitch. They were not easy to use. They were merely a commercial version that had been made smaller. The adorable Singer Featherweight didn’t come about until the 1930’s and it used electricity. Now to check when electricity became available in that part of the country. That's a different ball to chase.
A friend was writing a novel and I was reading it. Phone? That far back? Really? Yes. I was wrong and she was right. But who else had phones then? Only a fraction of the wealthy and some of the government facilities in that city. I had so much fun reading her story because it was filled with historical stuff that I knew nothing about. She was sending me photos. She lived in that part of the country and visited those museums, etc. Shipbuilding to her was as natural as breathing.
Too many novels have been written that simply ignore history. Does that make them bad? Not really. People read to escape. Do you like to escape and see life the way it really was or do you only read for the story? Is it all about the hunky guy and her beautiful dresses? Picking up one of my stories, you’ll escape into a different time and place with lovable and exciting characters, but you’ll look at the way they lived a little bit differently. Not only was life different, the way they perceived life was different, even their attitudes were different. I think it adds to the stories. And if you learn a little something along the way…I think that’s even better.


  1. Thanks for this fabulous blog! When researching SE AZ, I learned of grasses that were 4-6 feet tall in the past, including when my characters many details make our version of history ring true.

    1. Those prairie grasses are quite tall! They still exist. We've probably lost a large number of species because we decided that where the grasses grew so did wheat and corn. That lead us into the Bust Bowl. We destroyed nature's covering and replaced it with devastating consequences. But you will still find You Tube videos of people on horseback and you can't see the horse for the grass. The grasses grow as tall as a field of corn. Our American Indians used the grass to make baskets. Soddies often contained prairie grass for a roof. The strong roots of those grasses is what kept those sod houses together. The sod was taken from the prairie grass areas. Today we plant tall fescue grass in our yards and then mow it to keep it at 3 inches, yet if we left it alone it would grow 3-4 feet. Go figure. Let's not forget that buffalo can hid in those prairie grasses.

      In the words of an old Joni Mitchell song, "we've paved paradise and put up a parking lot."


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