Tuesday, March 17, 2015

GUEST POST: Author Dianne Salerni on Hunting Down the Details (Eden Unger Bowditch)

They walk among us. Authors who write historic fiction and compel us to follow them into their time and world. Yes, we have all fallen victim to their brilliance on turn of phrase.

Today, Dianne Salerni joins us here at Mad About MG History. I have fallen under her spell a number of times...and hope to do so again. (Do not miss The Caged Graves or her Eighth Day series.) Dianne explores the challenges of research for historic novels and, even in this time of fingertip-information, it's not always that easy.

Thanks for joining us, Dianne!
Hunting Down the Details

Writing a novel is hard, really hard, no matter the genre. But people often ask me about the research involved in writing a historical novel. Where do I get the information?

I have no idea how writers did it before the internet. Books? How many books did they comb through before finding one that contained the exact details they needed? (And how many libraries did they have to visit?) Historical societies? I imagine authors spent a lot of time pouring through aged letters and journals, searching for the everyday aspects of life that are essential for bringing a historical novel to life. Presumably, some authors still do.

For those of us without the time or means to visit historical collections in person, the wonderful people who scan and post historical documents and photographs online become our salvation. While researching THE CAGED GRAVES, I read accounts of the Wyoming Massacre (1778) that were written less than a hundred years after the event, nineteenth century descriptions of the history and settlement of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, a census, diary entries from the early 1800’s, and photographs of the region taken shortly after the Civil War -- all without leaving my home.

Some things were still hard to pin down. How long would it take to travel by train from Worcester, Massachusetts to Catawissa? Which neighboring towns were less than a day’s travel away – and in existence at the right time? I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how someone would acquire ornamental plants in a time when florists and nurseries were non-existent. Eventually common sense prevailed. My main character could acquire clippings from a neighbor who already had the plants. (How the neighbor got them – not my problem!)

One of the most interesting internet hunts I’ve ever done was for a different historical fiction manuscript. I needed to know how someone would handle an accidental poisoning by arsenic in 1885. Try Googling that!  I did turn up a newspaper article describing an accidental poisoning of an entire family in the mid-1800’s. From that article I was able to identify symptoms and recovery rates, but not how they were treated.

Eventually, Google Books saved me with a 1903 cookbook. (I figured 20 years off was close enough.) In the back of the cookbook was a section titled: What to do Before the Doctor Arrives. It listed various types of household poisons and recommended treatment for each. In the case of arsenic, the recommendation was to induce vomiting with salt water, have the victim swallow raw egg whites to coat the stomach, and if the doctor didn’t arrive quickly, make the victim eat rust.

Yes, rust. Iron binds with arsenic. The doctor, when he arrived, would be administering a suspension of ferric hydroxide and magnesium oxide, which is basically … also rust. Who knew?

Visit Dianne here! 

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