Historical research is done by authors, librarians, historians, genealogists, doctoral candidates, homeowners wondering about the history of their homes, and grade school students reluctantly fulfilling classroom assignments.
I’ve done all of the above, at various points in my life. But now I do historical research primarily because I write historical novels, six of them set in eighteenth or nineteenth century Wiscasset, Maine.
I’ve always loved the idea of “place” influencing the people who lived in it, so my goal is to show, in a series of stand-alone books, how people in a small Maine village lived during different time periods.
Why Wiscasset? Because Wiscasset “had it all,” in terms of history. Abenaki lands, early European settlers, citizens taking part in every war Maine has been involved in, a deep-water harbor surrounded by farmlands and lumbering. Mills. Fires. Inns. Wiscasset was on the Boston Post line. The railroad came to Wiscasset.
Contrary Winds (set in 1777) shows Revolutionary Wiscasset and nearby Boothbay. Stopping to Home (set in 1806) and Seaward Born (1805-1807) show Wiscasset when it was the largest port east of Boston. Wintering Well (1819-1820) is set against a background of new statehood. Finest Kind (1838) shows the result of the Panic of 1837. And Uncertain Glory (1861) takes place during the first two weeks of the Civil War.
My major characters are fictional, but the minor characters are the real people who lived in Wiscasset.
I search the Wiscasset Library archives files on “doctors” and “lawyers” and “houses,” and read through newspapers, files on Wiscasset families, and letters. I don’t just collect names; I collect lives. The Lincoln County Courthouse has records of who was in jail when and for what offense. They also have customs records of ships arriving, homes built and changing hands, and legal cases in Lincoln County. Wiscasset’s graveyards help with dates, and raise new questions. (Why would a man be buried next to only his first wife, when he was married three times?)
In Uncertain Glory my protagonist is an actual teenager who published Wiscasset’s newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century. His diary is at the Maine Historical Society archives in Portland. The newspapers he published are in the Wiscasset Library. Files on his family helped me place him in town, and write historical notes about what happened after the book was finished.
Other research? I read extensively in political, military, religious, and philosophical analyses of what was happening in the United States during the year(s) I’m writing about. I choose year-and-place appropriate names for fictional characters. I search dictionaries published in New England during the year(s) I’m writing about, to ensure I use words authentically. I study maps. I collect old medical books, books of old recipes, lists of kitchen utensils, weapons, tools, and laws. I read studies of the ways in which women, children, minorities, and the handicapped were treated, through both laws and practices.
All these pieces of research become fodder for the background of my books; sometimes even the basis for specific scenes. But the most important research I do is on my protagonists and their family; how they fit into the community, how they would react to events around them, and what decisions they would make.
Because I write stories. Historically accurate stories, I hope. Stories set in a real town. But, most important, stories of what happens when my major character’s life is changed, and he or she must decide what he or she will do next to survive. That’s the heart of all my books.
Recently I had two other historical novels published. Inspired by a Wiscasset ship which brought immigrants to the New World, For Freedom Alone (1848) is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the story of one family ejected by the British during the Highland Clearances in Scotland. And Justice & Mercy (1865) is an adult mystery inspired by feminists in the Burned Over district of New York State and the laws they fought against.
My historical novels are my “serious books,” very different from my contemporary mysteries. In every one of my books I’ve tried to recreate the world as it was. Not the world we wish it had been. I was thrilled when this spring the Midwest Book Review called them “phenomenal.” I hope my readers enjoy their visits back in time as much as I enjoyed opening doors to the past.
And you do it so well!
As you know, we have our own family Wiscasset history story, which you already knew when I discovered it. Your research sounds like a lot more fun than crime scenes and dismemberment, I think.
I have to get started reading these. I have relatives in Wiscasset and I’m a history buff.