Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

How often do we get to quote Rod Stewart - not often enough IMO. But enough about Rod.

Who are these women? Famous? Infamous? Distant relatives? None of the above.

For my first (and not quite finished) historical novel I did a tremendous amount of research. Sadly most of it is now sits on a clipboard, perhaps never to see the light of day. But it was not time wasted. Everything I read or did related to my time period (1899) was worthwhile - except perhaps the trip to Chicago to see the museum exhibit on the 1893 Columbian Exposition. That was a bust. Should have just re-read Devil in the White City…or waited for the movie.

One of my fave research activities (and way cheaper than flying NY to Chicago) has been collecting old photographs. It's all well and good to read about the whalebone and the mourning jewelry or see it in a museum but it's pretty cool to see real women of the time. To wonder who they were and why they had had these pictures taken. Were they given to sweethearts? Sent off with men going to wars in the Philippines or Cuba? I started to channel the older woman in these pix whenever I wrote about my heroine's stepmother. The younger woman became her best friend. The little girl with the flowers could have grown up to be my heroine.

New technologies - including tintypes - and the proliferation of studios with painted backdrops and props brought the cost of portraits down to a penny a picture. And they took less time than daguerreotypes. On the back of my toddler pic are the words Instantaneous Portraits of Children, A Successful Specialty.

So who were they? I'll never know. That's for me to make up. To be inspired by.

One special find - a stereograph viewer and a box of pictures. Two images side by side on a card but when viewed through the handheld device they appear as one - in 3D. I didn't bite the first time I saw them. Kicked myself for the rest of the day and then went to a second estate sale held by the same company and scooped them up. Endessly inspiring including pix of the Columbian Exposition! That prompted me to check out Pinterest - which up until that point I thought was for pix of shoes and desserts. Wrong. Positively addictive. I was able to search some of the places my heroine visits on her picaresque journey and see what they really looked like. Particularly helpful if they no longer exist.

I'm not even going to get started on the vintage books, maps and newspapers I've been collecting. (My office is beginning to look like my last name should be Collyer. Google Collyer Brothers if you don't get it.) As I said, much of this info will never make it to the printed page but hopefully my total immersion in the time will come across in the writing.

So what non-traditional things have inspired your writings?

© 2015 Rosemary Harris


  1. I am inspired by pictures as well. I have several books about life in the 1940s and files of photos I've found on line. I'll thumb or scroll through them to gently travel back into the past and into my heroine's world. Particularly street scenes. Everyday life, off guard. Nothing like it.

    1. I realize that isn't really non-traditional, but the items I have that I can rely on absolutely to put emotionally into Lauren's world with a look or a touch -- they are talismans. They are the only things about which I am superstitious. I'm afraid if I tell anybody, they will lose they magic. We writers can be a bit odd.

  2. Usually an event or real-life situation that I heard or read about. One of my novels was based on the true life story of the woman judge in Tennessee who pretended to look out for the welfare of young girls - but actually led a business that bought/stole children then sold them to wealthy parents in big U.S. cities! And one book was based on a comment by a colleague at Marymount Manhattan Writing Center about a man who buys and sells human body pieces all over the world. T.J. Straw

  3. I was on Cape Cod a few summers back browsing in an antique store that sold old black and white photos and ended up purchasing the photon from the turn of the century from the turn of the century. I named her Maude (no clue or reason why), but I was really taken by her, knowing she must have story but that I will have to make it up. She's sitting in a hat box until I decide what her story will be. Maybe I should take her out and frame her so she's actively on my mind. Can't wait for your book, Rosemary. Maybe that will inspire me to tell Maude's story.

  4. Can see your title, Michele - " Maude's Story"... tjstraw in Manhattan