Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Guest author Anne Louise Bannon: The Hard Part of Historical Research

Anne Louise Bannon
One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is the research. I love reading old newspapers, poring over old maps, trying to decode old hand-writing, trying to determine if I’m getting an accurate understanding of something.

But the toughest part of any historical research is figuring out the day to day minutae of people’s lives. That’s the stuff that seldom gets written down or kept. Even in these days of tell-all social media, we seldom post about the baloney sandwich we had for lunch, the button we sewed back on our shirt, or even bother to describe how we make a baloney sandwich or sew a button on. Why should we? We all know what baloney is. Most of us get the idea of needle and thread going through the holes of a button.

The problem is, that’s exactly the information I need to bring an era to life. When did doctors start using plaster casts? (Doctors in Europe started using them in the 1840s and ‘50s, American doctors knew about them, but didn’t like using them for a long time – no idea why).

That was one of the biggest problems I had when writing my latest novel, Death of the Zanjero, a mystery set in Los Angeles 1870. The medical stuff was reasonably easy to find (my main character, Maddie Wilcox, has medical training). The politics of the then small town? A snap – there are scads of city council minutes I could draw upon, as well as newspapers from the time on microfilm.

However, there’s a lot about daily life in Los Angeles that was not in any of those sources or many others, as well. The story involves the town’s irrigation system, which was a series of ditches, or zanjas (pronounced zahn-ha), that had been dug off the main ditch, or Zanja Madre, which brought water from the Los Angeles River. The opening of the sluice gate to Maddie’s vineyard zanja is a major scene. Could I find anything referencing how the gates opened or what they were made of? Not in the city council minutes. There were several references to monies given to the Zanjero, or Water Overseer, for materials, but zip on what those materials were. Why would they write that down? They knew what those materials were.

One of the primary crops in the area at the time was wine grapes. Yep. The California wine industry actually started here in sunny SoCal (sorry about that, Napa). So, it made sense that Maddie made her living as a winegrower and winemaker. Yeah, but how did they make the wine? I had plenty of information on crop rates, who was making and selling the wine, stuff like that. But even one of the most prominent experts in the history of wine in the city, Dr. Thomas Pinney, couldn’t tell me what the process was. No one had written it down. They knew how it worked. Why should they?

I did actually find the answers, thanks to the doggedness of a couple librarians, one from the public library and the other from the wine industry archive at California State University of Pomona. And you know where both of them found those answers? In the tourist literature of the time.

Of course! Outsiders will write about what we think of as mundane. It’s new and strange to them. The other fun thing about tourist literature is that it goes back a way long ways, even to ancient times. You won’t always find information on cooking and what went on in kitchens and how houses were cleaned. Tourist literature, like most things in our planet’s history, does tend to be written by men and with their perspective. That which was written by women was usually written by women with the means to travel, which means they weren’t paying attention to what the servants were doing.

Diaries remain an excellent source of information. But don’t forget to check the tourist literature when you’re looking for daily life details. It sometimes has what nothing else does – and that’s a lot of fun.


Liane Spicer said...

Hi Anne Louise! Welcome to Novel Spaces.

Great tips on historical research. Yes, it's those mundane little things that are so difficult to unearth. Makes me wonder what we do today that future researchers won't be able to figure out except with great difficulty.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

And thank you for having me, Liana! As for future historians looking at us? Yikes! They say Facebook is forever, but I do not find that comforting. ;-)

Maggie King said...

Thanks for the tip about tourist literature. I love reading about day to day life in times gone by. There was a "Day in the Life" series many years ago. It may have focused on the Revolution and Civil War.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Thanks, Maggie. I'll have to look for that series. It sounds like fun.

Susan Oleksiw said...

You're right about all the little stuff that doesn't seem to matter to the men writing history. And yet that's what I and many others find most intriguing. I hadn't thought about tourist literature, so thanks for the tip (and all the others). I'm reading about the mid-nineteenth century for a story about one of my protagonist's ancestors.

Petrea Burchard said...

Very interesting insights! I hadn't thought of it this way. Thanks, Anne.

Linda Thorne said...

The part about the diary made me think of an author who spoke at our Sisters in Crime meeting in Fresno, California over a decade ago when I lived in that area. Her family had held on to a diary of an ancestor who lived in the early 1900s in a mountain town in Colorado. It had the history of the area down pat - the way people interacted, talked, their beliefs, morals (or lack thereof). It inspired her to write an historical novel about that town. She was able to accurately depict the ambience of the time and place. Poison Pen Press published her book and she was on her way.