Research tip #5: Shop the catalogue

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page

I’ve written about this before, but just to recap: Tom Franklin hates doing research. Yet his first two novels were historical fiction, which stuck Franklin doing the very thing he hates. Still, Franklin prefers to focus on the writing, to let the fiction drive his work (which is probably the way we all should work), so he developed a way to conduct the research he needed to do without letting it get in the way of his writing. The idea wasn’t his — he credits Steven Scarborough for the suggestion — but he made it his own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Franklin has a thing for details. The way he sees it, a story might be entertaining if you focus on character and plot, but the characters aren’t real and the plot won’t ring true without the help of minute details. “You can’t write convincingly unless you know the tiny details of a place, of people, buttons on their britches or zippers, how much their snuff costs, the caliber of their sidearm,” he once told interviewer Rob McClure Smith. But in Hell at the Breech, Franklin was writing about the late 1890s, a period he had little access to. So, how to get the details right?

Scarborough suggested he find an old Sears & Roebuck catalogue. “Everything in the world you could get you got through Sears & Roebuck,” Franklin told Smith. “I got one from 1897 and it’s filled with pictures of everything from Adzes to zebra lined boots. [. . .] This Sears catalogue’s got it all.”

The catalogue became his springboard into the fiction. He’d write and write (and revise as he went), and just keep plowing away at the story until he couldn’t write any more. He was dry; he needed a dip at the well. So he’d pull out his facsimile copy of the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalogue and flip through it. Eventually, he’d find something — sometimes an item he was looking for, like, say, a pocket watch, but often he’d stumble across something he hadn’t expected, like a stereoscope for viewing photographs, a kind of Victorian-era version of our old 3-D View-Masters — and he’d start describing whatever he found. The catalogue, after all, contained drawings or diagrams of the items for sale, descriptions of what they were and how they functioned, ads explaining who might find them useful, and so on. An absolute wealth of information — practically a time machine. So Franklin would describe the item, would perhaps assign it to a character and let him or her use it, and just keep working over the bit until it developed into a scene. The next thing Franklin knew, the fiction was rolling along again and the story progressed.

Franklin got lucky, of course, that anyone was bothering to print facsimiles of the old Sears catalogue at all, let alone that it was from the same time period he was writing about. But it’s not hard to find similar items for yourself, and the more we writers come to need these books, the more our demand will create a market for them. That same 1897 Sears catalogue is actually available now through Amazon, as is an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue and an 1886 Bloomingdale’s illustrated catalogue. A quick search through your local library might also turn up books on the history of advertising, in which you can find ads and illustrations from years past.  You can also find useful information in histories of clothing and costumes, antique furniture guides, even old cookbooks.

And while you’re there, look into the library’s newspaper archives. Most public libraries — even the small town libraries — will keep archives of the local papers, and many larger libraries will keep archives of major national papers as well. If your library is well funded, you might even be able to search through the microfilm or microfiche collections for newspapers that are decades, even centuries old. (If your library is not well funded, lobby your local government to increase library funding, and join your area Friends of the Library group to help raise money.)

I mention the newspapers because they’ll also have print advertising and can help add a little local color to your details, and while you’re there, you can also browse some of the community articles to see what people were writing their editors to complain about, what people were gossiping about, what the local community was interested in. Check out the photos, too — you can see what people were wearing, which, as Sherlock Holmes would tell you, can provide excellent character details.  You can do the same with magazines, sometimes with surprising results (the library at one of the colleges I attended has the entire run of Playboy — in full color — on microfiche, though you have to know who to ask to get access to it and sorry, I’m not going to help you with that one).

When I was working on my Civil War novel, I found myself slowing down about halfway through and I started wondering how I was going to push on through. I thought about Franklin, in the same predicament while working on Hell at the Breech, and I decided to follow his advice: I shopped the catalogue. Of course, I don’t have a copy of that or any other historical catalogue, and living overseas as I do, it was going to be difficult to get one on short notice. But with some search guidance from a librarian (actually, my wife), I started poking around online and I stumbled across the excellent web site titled simply The Civil War. The site is good for all its history and essays and trivia, sure, but the pot of gold is their collection of Civil War-era Harper’s Weekly magazines, which they’ve scanned in and posted online. (The coolest thing about their project is that they preserved the text as text, so the magazines are fully searchable!) Now, not only did I have access to contemporary news about the war, but I also had letters, political cartoons, sketches of battles, and, best of all, advertising. Thanks to these magazines, I was able to add vivid realism to my battle descriptions, give depth to characters’ personal sentiments about the war, and include rich details about daily life. In one scene, my characters come across a few worn old books in a dead soldier’s rucksack, and I listed the titles, which I’d found on a bestseller list from 1863. In another scene, some characters are haggling over the price of a few blackmarket firearms, and I was able to describe some of them based on advertising in the magazine, which sold pistols alongside ladies’ stockings.

The Harper’s Weeklys weren’t as easily perused as a Sears catalogue, maybe, and they were comparatively limited in scope, but they got the writing going every time, and that’s the only point anyway — it is always the point — to get back to the writing.

Of course, once you shop the catalogue, you have to unpack all that stuff and arrange it, which is for some people the biggest trick of all. So, tomorrow, I’ll write about marbling….

Bonus link: For more recent cultural and material research, check out the delightful Retroland website.  Remember Trapper Keepers? Yeah, so do they.  Loads of nostalgic fun.

Obama has tweeted about Haiti — his first post on Twitter — and asked Americans to continue supporting Haitian relief efforts. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for troops and aid organizations to unclog the bottleneck of supplies, and indeed the US military (according to some, a source of the bottlenecking once we took control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince) has agreed to help speed the distribution of supplies. Yet as the death toll mounts, with some estimates now reaching more than 200,000 dead, survivors continue to be miraculously pulled from the rubble, alive and in dire need of food and medicine. That means it remains important — is perhaps more important now — to continue giving to relief efforts. There are reports now of fake support groups popping up on Facebook, which is unfortunate, but the list I put together a few days ago remains a good starting point for finding legitimate, carefully vetted aid organizations. Please check out that list and consider giving.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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