Every writer is first a reader. For writers of historical fiction, this truism extends further: for every book that’s written, at least five more new research books will be added to your already-groaning home bookshelves. I don’t mean dictionaries, or the thesaurus, or the encyclopedia your grandparents bought you in seventh grade for school projects. I’m talking about the odd-ball esoteric books, the ones that we often find used, remaindered, or at library sales, in museum shops or college bookstores or Amazon.UK. If you’re interested in the past, you recognize these books as treasures as soon as you spot them. They’re the books that help make history real.
Below is a short (very short) list of a few of my personal favorites, and why they’ve earned a permanent spot on my Greatest Hits list.
Titles and Forms of Address: A Guide to Correct Use, published by A & C Black, London, 1997. If you’re interested in English titled folk for whatever reason, this one’s a must. With this slender volume by your keyboard, you’ll never mistake a knight for a peer, or bumble over what to call the second wife of a duke’s third son. Also a useful section on honors and titles for the clergy, the military, and government officials.
Lost Country Life: How English country folk lived, worked, threshed, thatched, rolled fleece, milled corn, brewed mead…., by Dorothy Hartley, Random House, 1979. As the extended subtitle explains, this is primarily a guide to the daily lives of rural people from the middle ages well into the 19th century. Chapters are organized by month, with information that ranges from hunting to travel to medicinal plants, from celebrating holidays to mending wagon wheel.
Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620-1920, by Peter Thornton, Viking, 1984. A thick picture book, filled with illustrations from original sources of European rooms of every class, from farm houses to palaces. If you’re a one-picture-worth-thousand-words kind of researcher, than this is worth the weighty-tome price.
Textiles In America, 1650-1870 by Florence M. Montgomery, W.W. Norton, 1984. Ready to move your characters’ dress beyond plain old silk to calamanco and beaverteen? As the subtitle says, “A dictionary based on original documents, prints and paintings, commercial records, shopkeepers’ advertisements, and pattern books with original swatches of cloth.” Yes, it’s primarily American sources, but most of these fabrics were imported, so works for Britain, too.
Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, transcribed by Karen Hess, Columbia University Press, 1981. Every historical writer has a favorite cookbook, and this one’s mine. Forget Mrs. Washington in the title (why does the name Martha demand such commercial respect when it comes to domestic art?) This is a very old collection of family recipies dating from Elizabethan and Jacobean times that eventually descended to Martha. Wonderfully transcribed, explained, and elaborated descriptions of food, meals, and preparation.
The English Country House in Perspective, by Gervase Jackson-Stops. Toucan Books Ltd, 1980. Imagine Loretta’s maps, only for houses. Floor plans and “exploded” illustrations of a dozen famous English houses help put rooms in relation to one another in a way that not even videos can.
Textiles for Colonial Clothing, by Sally Queen
Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic, 1800-1850 by Lynne Zacek Bassett
Both available from www.sallyqueenassociates.com. I discovered these in the Colonial Williamsburg bookshop; spiral-bound “workbooks” with actual fabric swatches attached to the pages. Yes, you’ll finally be able to tell the difference between nankeen and linsey-woolsey by touch as well as definition!
Now share and share alike, and reveal some of your own favorites! J