For a recent freelance project, I found myself reading through scores of old articles about medical advancements. It’s been fascinating to see the discoveries of the latter half of the 19th century, and how the discovery of antiseptics, vaccines, and anesthesia wiped out so many of mankind’s scourges, causing the life expectancy to skyrocket. In fact, from 1900 through 1930, the death rate in the United States was slashed by half. Tuberculosis, Diptheria, and Cholera were some of the greatest killers, and to have them reduced by vaccinations was truly a Godsend.
Just as with today’s medicine, animals were the unfortunate recipients of many procedures that would later be tested on humans. While a necessity, it is still sad. And, in some cases, a bit ridiculous. After all, sometimes you just have to laugh in order not to cry.
One such account was relayed by an old doctor, Lewis A. Sayre, upon his retirement in 1897. In the days before X-rays, rather more inventive methods were employed to determine what was going on in someone’s insides. The good Dr. Sayre spoke of witnessing a remarkable demonstration by a famous surgeon, Dr. Senn, at a meeting of the American Medical Association.
With colleagues gathered all around, Dr. Senn proceeded to pull out a gun and shoot a dog. Then he placed a tube into the animal’s rectum, and inflated the dog’s intestines by pumping hydrogen gas into them. Hurrying to the other end of the dog, the doctor held up a lit match to the dog’s lips. The gas ignited the match, and thus demonstrated that the dog’s intestines had not been perforated.
Whereupon Dr. Senn pulled out his gun and shot another dog. Once again, he pumped the creature’s abdomen full of hydrogen gas, and held a match to the dog’s lips. Since no flame resulted from the lit match, it became clear that this dog’s intestines had been perforated. Then,
“Instantly performing laparotomy on both dogs, Dr. Senn demonstrated that his deductions had been correct and that the test could be used by the profession throughout the country as a test of whether laparotomy ought to be performed when men and women are shot through the abdomen.”
So, I suppose that in addition to being shot, victims of gun violence in the abdomen had also to withstand the ignominy of having a tube of gas pumped into them through their rectums.
Lest you think that meetings of the American Medical Association were seldom this scandalous, then consider another tidbit I came across from the 1938 proceedings of the AMA. One of the scientific reports given involved “the effect of politics on the intestinal tract.”
If today’s politics are any indication, the intestinal tract is quite distressed indeed.
No, this is not a bizarre idea for a new Christmas panto! Just a plain, factual statement of what took place in Norfolk in Georgian times.
From the late 16th century, thousands of geese and turkeys were walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London each year. The journey would take three months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the contemporary phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.
I saw on my reading list where one blogger did a “What I’m Reading Wednesday” post. Brilliant idea, thinks I. It’s not always possible for me to work up a book review post, but I am constantly reading one book or another — usually nonfiction — and I can certainly post about them. So here it is.
When I first heard the term Exodusters I thought it was some sort of sci-fi like title: Exo- Dusters. I imagined a Morpheus-like fellow, complete with long black coat and sunglasses, blasti bad guys while flipping through the air.
Yeah, I know. I am taken by fancies quite often.
A little googling told me that the term came from Exodus, as in the book of Bible. Therefore, Exodus-ters. Exodusters were poor black families who left the South after the heartbreaking failure of Reconstruction, following the Civil War. As the South descended into an abyss of white supremacy, violence, fear, and pain, news of hope came from Kansas. It was the land of John Brown, that fiery abolitionist who denounced slavery with violence, and died for his crimes. Families who had emigrated there wrote to those still oppressed in the South and encouraged them to flee, to come to the Promised Land. Many thousands did just that, the Exodusters.
The definitive study of this group of people is by historian Nell Irvin Painter in Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1976, 1986), and it is brilliant and dense. Painter puts into words concepts and ideas that have, in less than three chapters, made her one of my history heroes. For instance, for years I have been taken aback by the term “white trash” because it assumes that everyone else, who is not white, is naturally trash. But I could not articulate this feeling. Painter, speaking about a similar concept, does so succinctlyThis political conflict between masters and slaves, so often identified as a racial conflict, was, at bottom, a conflict between workers and employers, between poor people and wealthy people, in which race functioned as the idiom for discussion of class. Unless the terms of the discussion were modified–“poor” white, “educated” Black–the word black meant poor and white meant rich. (p. viii)
As a historian myself, there’s nothing more thrilling than to connect the thread of some unwinding truth from age to age, as Painter has done here and with many other such revelations. But she also includes heart, as she quotes Louisiana farmer John Solomon Lewis in 1879 as he and his family fled the oppression of the deep South for Kansas.
“When I knew I had all my family in a free land, I said let us hold a little prayer meeting; so we held a little meeting on the river bank. It was raining but the drops fell from heaven on a free family, and the meeting was just as good as sunshine. We was thankful to God for ourselves and we prayed for those who could not come.
“I asked my wife did she know the ground she stands on. She said, ‘No!’
“I said it is free ground; and she cried like a child for joy.” (p. 4)
It will take me quite a while to get through this book, and as I do so I will be underlining and making notes and pondering what Painter says, but as I read the pleasure is all mine.
I recently had the opportunity to make use of my master’s degree in history when I gave a talk to a local writers group on how to use history to spice up your fiction writing. The idea is that history is filled with stories–millions and millions of them. Down through the ages cultures have developed, flourished, and fallen, each of them expressing a path uniquely its own. There’s little need to do extensive world-building in your story when you realize the manifold variations of government systems, religions, wars, art forms, costumes, literature, philosophy and so on that have arisen in the past. But how do you find out about such things?
Does it sound boring? Fie up on you if it does! It’s not, once you get the hang of it, and then you will find yourself lost down endless tunnels of delight, rarely to emerge, like a gopher whose treasure lie underground. Wait. Did I just compare you to a gopher? Er … a quite splendid gopher, I assure you.
Let’s get at it. You are after two things in research: primary sources and secondary sources. Both have their places and both work off one another and provide you with juicy, delectable details.
Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, photographs, artifacts, tools, and other objects. In the more modern age, primary sources can be found in interviews, surveys, fieldwork, email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups. They are firsthand experiences such as a letter about a battle from a Civil War soldier; a diary entry from the Queen of England about her coronation; photograph of a woman, arms raised in horror, after a student is shot at Kent State University in the 1970s. They can also be artifacts like ancient Greek urns with painted figures on it (beware though – some of these are downright pornographic. Naughty Greeks.). Basically, primary sources are the closest you get to what happened in the past. Consider this primary source from the beginning of Popol Vuh from 16th century Guatemala:
Secondary sources depend upon primary sources; they are the study of them and the interpretation of them. They describe, discuss, analyze, evaluate, summarize, contextualize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials are articles in newspapers or magazines, book or movie reviews, articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research, and most frequently, books and web collections. Here is an example of a secondary source that discusses the Popol Vuh:
Pretty big difference, right? Both are necessary for research. Secondary sources so you can get your head around the culture/event/person from the past in an objective, intellectual way. Primary sources are present, impactful, vivid, in your face – and studying them will inform your fiction by helping your tone, voice, setting, and more.
Okay, so now that we have terms down, here is how you are going to go about finding them. With the ….
Isn’t it beautiful? And by beautiful I mean barely acceptable, appearance wise. But the info! Oh, the info! Let’s dig in.
On the left you see those nifty arrows. You’ll start at the BOTTOM of the triangle, which are sources that are okay, and you will proceed up the triangle to sources that are better and better and more wonderful until finally you will reach the apex of amazing primary sources! *cue dramatic music*
Start with Children’s Books and/or Encyclopedias/Wikipedia
Once you have a general idea of your topic, such as Ancient Rome, I recommend that you start your research with children’s books. Say … what? Heck yeah! And not just because I’ve written a gozillion of them. Children’s books – usually middle grade, not picture books or alphabet books! – are great at distilling information down to a level that will quickly and clearly orient you to place, time, and the people/institutions associated with it.
An encyclopedia is also good for this. I often go to the juvenile section of encyclopedias to get the simplest information, and work my way up. Respected encyclopedias are the best, such as Britannica. My local library has a subscription to the online version that I access from home. Yours might as well.
I also recommend Wikipedia with a caveat. It’s good to get a general overview of a topic and to give you ideas about how and where to start more intensive research. Beware, though, because anyone can change the content and while problems are usually corrected promptly for popular subjects, this may not be the case for more obscure ones. Wikipedia is best for sources which you will find at the bottom of the page – the footnotes and underneath them, the external links. These will give you respected sites to work from.
2. General Interest Books and General Interest Books with Bibliographies
You can find these books at your local public library, or online if you prefer – Amazon, Abebooks.com or Thriftbooks.com. These books are for the general reader, not the specialist, and usually for adults. They will generally be well-written and an overall pleasure to read. In addition to the content and whatever interesting details/important figures/events you discover, you will also want to flip to the end of the book to the bibliography, which most general interest books have, though not all. Sometimes the bibliography is separated by primary sources and secondary sources. These will provide you with many more resources to follow up on.
I recommend that you use a number of different books, since each author has their own biases that color what they choose to focus on and how they present the information. For example, let’s say you are writing about Alexander the Great. You will find no shortage of books by authors who think he was a magnificent bastard who triumphantly conquered in the name of Western Civilization. And then there are those books whose authors find him to be a despicable, murderous megalomaniac. Both kinds of books are helpful but as you can imagine, they provide different evidence to support their theses.
3. Specialized Books and Journal Articles with Footnotes and Bibliographies
These books are authored by academics and can generally be found in research libraries on university campuses. They are usually not written very well and can be dry as the dust, but they can provide you with laser sharp focus into the subject at hand. I find that they can be a bit much, though, since you have to take high level scholarship and translate it to something on the page. Maybe that appeals to you, but sometimes for me it can be difficult to wrap my head around and translate into fiction.
The footnotes and bibliographies will lead you to even more resources. And thus you are deep into the gopher hole. You will begin to find the same names of authors and academics pop up again and again. These will likely be the recognized experts in the field. They will provide you with the highest quality information.
Each of these categories will also list primary sources, which makes up the next tier.
4. Primary Sources in English and Primary Sources in Native Language
As demonstrated above, your primary sources are going to give you fantastic subjective details and commentary on whatever you are studying. Those sources in English can vary (think about how many translations of the Odyssey there are) depending on the translator, so you may want to get several versions depending on what is available. The absolute best primary sources are in the native language but they are not always accessible if you don’t read Old English, ancient Persian, German, or whatever.
If you’re lucky, you will be able to find lots of information online – including primary sources. A couple of good ones are the Internet Sourcebook at Fordham University (every time period you can imagine) and StoryCorps (oral history interviews numbering in the thousands). Universities (.edu) will provide you with high quality information, as well as government agencies (.gov). Institutes and organizations can also be a good source (.org) though you may want to figure out their bias, if they have one, by reading their “About” page.
So that’s a quick and dirty look at how to do quality historical research without getting too overwhelmed by the subject and avoiding, you know, actually writing your work in progress. Like I may or may not be doing by authoring this blog post.
Am I serious? Antarctica? Like, with the whiteouts and zillionty degrees below zero and icebergs running into the land?
Oh, yes, my pretties. And you will like it.
The Icebound Series
All Mouth and No Trousers
A romantic novelette in the Icebound series, an ongoing collection of polar delights.
Behold dogsleds and penguins. Howling winds and cold, pitiless wastes. This is Antarctica, where the intrepid inhabitants of the frozen ends of the earth battle the terrain, and each other, to find love—in a past much like that of the early 1900s.
Amidst the scientists and explorers at the British Antarctic base in 1900 there are a few women who serve as maids, cooks, and nurses.
Then there’s Electa Yellowsmith.
The beautiful blonde secretary has no problem attracting male attention, but she’s got her eye set on Commander Gorge Elderbatch. He may yell like a longshoreman and drink like a fish, but Electa likes the cut of his jib, and the idea of being an officer’s wife.
Gorge has enough trouble with ice crevasses, blizzard forecasts, and upcoming polar expeditions without his smart-mouthed secretary defying him at every turn. What could a looker like her want with a grump like him, anyhow? Especially since he’s sworn off women after his disastrous divorce.
Gorge may be as dense as an iceberg, but Electa hasn’t yet met a man she couldn’t charm. Though if that doesn’t work she has plenty of schemes that just might. The result is a comedy of errors and explosions in a frostbitten frontier.
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Reluctant spinster Florance Barton fled to the British Antarctic base to escape a scandalous love affair, among other things. Amidst the handful of other women there, Florance is the perfect chambermaid, meek, mild, and forgettable. No one has a clue that she’s also a novice spy.
When handsome young Handy McHanagan arrives at the base, he sets everyone agog. He’s charming, artistic, and … an accomplished gardener. His arrival may just be a mistake on the part of naval command. Or is it something more sinister?
Killer seals and subzero ice storms and aren’t the only danger in Antarctica: a enemy spy is on the loose. Florance has been ordered to choose between queen and country and her heart. Because penguin is off the menu now–and murder is its replacement.
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Behold, gentle reader! Here you witness the start of an intermittent series of blog posts designed to feature those subjects that are dear to my writerly heart. Namely, the quirks of history, which is called, descriptively enough, Hiccups in History.
The very first of such posts is a reblog by TwistedSifter. It’s just too good to pass up. More hiccups to come soon!
Photograph via Library of Congress In this old law enforcement photo from 1924, we see a police officer trying on a ‘cow shoe’ used by moonshiners to disguise their footprints. In the United States alcohol was banned from 1920-1933 in an era known as Prohibition. Moonshine (a type of strong, homemade whiskey) was often…
Like many work-for-hire writers, I usually find out when my book’s cover is done by checking Amazon.com. The other day I was thrilled to see the cover for my upcoming nonfiction release Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt. I absolutely love it! Just like I absolutely loved writing the book – ancient history is the jam in my jelly roll! I believe it’s coming out in August.
If I had unlimited time, I would probably spend several hours a day, every day, learning Latin and perusing old newspaper articles. Alas, I do not have unlimited time, but in my research for various fiction and nonfiction projects I do come across some interesting bits now and again. You may recall my rampaging monkey post. This is another post in the same vein.
First we will start with the wild. Bears! I do believe this has the makings of an American nursery tale.
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Hyenas can be pretty dangerous, too.
Dogs in danger always pulls at the heartstrings! It seems that Jack London’s Call of the Wild may have inspired some unsavory people:
And last, but not least, apparently dogs have been accompanying folks on car rides for quite some time.
You will notice that these articles are from around the turn of the 20th century. That’s the setting of my latest project, a quirky romance between a dog musher/postman and a bicycle-riding pastor in 1911 Alaska. Check out my newsletter to keep apprised of its progress and to read free flash fiction while you are at it.
Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.
It’s glamorous, all right.
I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.
Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.
Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.
The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.
The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.
You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.
I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.
Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.
No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.
One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.
Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.
Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.
In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.
Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.
But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.
Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.
Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.
This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.
Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.