Sometimes people ask writers the most puzzling questions. We’re often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I never know what to say about this. Doesn’t everyone have so many ideas they can’t write all those stories in the next 400 years? Maybe a more pertinent question would be, “How do you mold your ideas into a complete story?” Because that isn’t always easy. At least, not for me.
But a question someone asked today really stunned me and I'm afraid I was a little long on the uptake. She asked, “Why do you write historicals? Isn’t all that research boring?”
And she followed it up with, “Where do you find this stuff? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Obviously, she’s not obsessive about old newspapers. I love the archives, especially the Idaho State Archives, which is the best set-up I’ve visited in the Pacific Northwest. Or libraries. Nearly all of them have newspapers on microfiche. I think I have tiny microfiche reels in my red blood cells.
If I’m looking for something specific, I try to narrow down dates and location so I can find whatever I’m looking for a little faster. But... (confession time) what I love most is reading the papers with no thought of anything in particular, and saving whatever interests me at the time. And, going back to the idea question, if I didn’t have enough story ideas already, reading newspapers definitely fills the barrel and then some. With a bonus of a few characters now and again.
Here's a bad hombre:
You can find medical articles. I’d never heard of the Condurango cancer-cure, but that just might work into a story sometime.
Do you know what books your third grade student would use in 1871?
Actually, we learn a lot of things from the article above. We know the Silver City (Idaho Territory) schoolteacher was Mr. P.M. Sullivan. We know how many students attended, the subjects they took, how many days school was held, and the titles of their textbooks. This could definitely come in handy.
Ghosts in Wagontown—looks like our fascination with ghosts is nothing new.
Patent medicines (and devices) are always fun.
Anything with prices in it catches my attention.
So now you know—the newspaper was $10 and a shot of whisky cost 25¢ in Silver City, whereas it cost $2 for a newspaper and 5¢ (for gin, but I bet he means an equivalent liquor) in Chautauqua, NY.
And of course parents and childrearing. A lot has changed in the last 150 years, but parents loved their children then as now.
So there you have a variety of articles, any one of which could trigger and idea, and put together, they could be really interesting!
My latest story, Mail-Order Ruckus (the second book in Mail-Order Tangle—Caroline Clemmons wrote the first book, Mail-Order Promise) has a puppy and a bull. What breed of puppy? What breed of bull? Oftentimes they call a breed one name and a hundred years later, it's another. Such is the case with Durham cattle, now called Shorthorns. For the puppy, I went with a border collie. Then of course I had to find out the various schemes of the mail-order bride business, and there were several (not all of them on the up-and-up, either).
For Don't Go Snaring My Heart in Lassoing a Groom, I had to learn all about breeds of goats. Turns out, they didn't call goats anything but goats until the turn of the century.
Took me a while to find that. Sometimes looking for something that's not there takes a while, but all's not for naught because of course, you find fun stuff along the way.
Of course, that's the danger of old newspapers, especially for someone who has a bad case of "shiny!" and can't stay on task as it is. There's just so much information and every bit of it is fascinating in one way or another, that I simply can't imagine anyone not thinking a trip to the archives is every bit as much fun as going to Disneyland.
But, um, that's just me.
Hearts of Owyhee series