In my series of blog posts (and, this past spring, my series of writing workshops) on researching for historical fiction, I’ve discussed “going to the source,” by which I usually mean interviewing live people, getting expert opinions or local insights or eyewitness accounts. But as I explained in my workshop a few months back, sometimes the best “live person” source is long since dead and gone, so you have to rely on the next-best thing: contemporary accounts. Letters, legal documents, newspaper reports.
One of my current book projects is a novel set on an Oklahoma farm in the mid-1920s. It’s (very) loosely based on members of my family and events that happened to them, so I’ve been relying on a lot of those old print-source documents — my grandmother’s stories, her parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ letters, her grandparents’ land deeds, and so on. But when my parents visited us here in Tacoma recently and we all toured the Fort Nisqually living history museum, my mother bought me an early birthday gift from the museum’s gift shop: a practical guide to farm life, written in 1909, called Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them, by Rolfe Cobleigh.
Actually, what she bought me was a verbatim reprint published almost 100 years later, but the text is exactly as it appeared back in 1909. And folks, this book is an absolute TROVE! Already I’ve learned about hand-built grindstones, improvised “coolers” made of barrels buried in the earth or metal bins dropped into water wells, the difference between stanchions and stalls for keeping milk cows (“The only point in favor of stanchions is that they take up less room than stalls, but the increase in milk is a reward for allowing more space and convenience to each cow”), the best method for butchering hogs and where to build a slaughterhouse for that purpose . . . . All of which is informing my characters and their lives as I develop my novel.
Along the way, I’ve also picked up tips on how to craft a bread-slicer for evenly sliced homemade bread, how to power a washing machine with a bicycle, how to fashion a simple fire alarm from weighted string and a bell . . . . and I’m not even halfway through the book!
Most of this is simply fodder for my book, even the odd trivia like the bike-powered washing machine. I don’t know if I’ll actually use that contraption in the novel, but this book is so full of weird little innovations and improvisations that I could certainly use it to “shop the catalogue,” so to speak.
And I’ve skimmed ahead a bit, out of curiosity, and discovered a whole series of floorplans and instructions for hand-building farmhouses and barns, which is going to prove invaluable for defining the spaces my characters live and work in. (Knowing the layout of your characters’ homes can often be just as important as checking the map!)
But much of the material in this book is also good, practical advice for life today. In our new home, I have a garage with space for a workshop, and I’ve been thinking about building my own workbench out there; this book tells me how to build it as well as what tools I should keep there! In that garage, the people who sold us our house left an old glass display cabinet that I’ve been thinking about turning into a piece of dining-room furniture; I kid you not, this book has instructions for how to do just that! Later in the book (the back copy promises), I’ll learn the best form of trellis for roses, something I’ve actually been wondering now that I have rosebushes in my yard!
I’m also spotting future sections in the book about staining and preserving wood (I have a fence I need to work on), crafting a homemade gate latch (I’m not happy with the gate latch I have, and this book’s version looks cheap, easy to make myself, and exactly the solution I was imagining), and keeping hawks away from your chickens (okay, I’m not actually going to start raising chickens, but I find all this stuff fascinating).
To be honest, a lot of the material in this book feels like stuff I should have known already. If my mother’s father — who came from a family of farmers and took over his family farm at the age of 12 — had lived longer, or if I’d thought to ask him these sorts of questions when I was younger, he could have taught me a lot of this himself. I still have pieces of furniture he built, and you can see the kind of simple craftsmanship this book describes in my grandfather’s work. Often, while reading the book, I can remember the smell of his workbench in his garage, that distinctive blend of sawdust and machine oil with faint undertones of rust and stale cigarette smoke leftover from before he quit smoking. I remember his strawberry beds and sunflower stalks in his backyard, and the terrifying goose named Daisy who thought she was a dog and liked to chase me around the yard, barking and biting me, when I was just a toddler. He was an oilman by then, but I think there was always something of the farmer in him, and I remember his stories about working by lantern-light, using the outhouse, hitching up the horses and riding in the “buggy” to church on Sundays.
Reading this book feels a bit like reconnecting with him.
In short: this is one of the most valuable books I’ve ever put on my shelf, and it’s going to have a permanent home in my writing study. So thanks, Mom, for that early birthday gift!
PS: my wife’s early birthday gift from my mother, also from that museum gift shop at Fort Nisqually? The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Francis Child! Originally published in 1832, the book is full of not only advice on frugality but also loads of other practical information, like “simply written recipes for roasting a pig, preparing a calf’s head and buffalo tongue, as well as fixing corned beef, hasty pudding, carrot pie, apple water, cranberry pudding, and scores of other tasty and filling dishes. [Child’s] advice for non-culinary matters included suggestions for removing grease spots; cleaning pearls and white kid gloves; relieving chilblains, dysentery, and the night sweats; educating one’s daughters; and dozens of other domestic concerns.” This is all advice from the early 1800s, a bit earlier than any of my books or book ideas are set, but you know I’ll be borrowing this book from my wife frequently just for ideas. Also, the author? The back copy describes her as a “newspaperwoman, novelist, and ardent advocate of women’s rights.” Hurray for early feminism and independent women, and happy 19th-Amendment Day, y’all!
* The title of this post is, of course, Shakespeare, but I first heard it in my freshman year of college: my first literature professor, Dr. Kathleen Hudson, said this FREQUENTLY and burned it into my brain. That and “Make your own myth” have stayed with me all these years and still inform a lot of what I do. Thanks, Doc! 🙂