Hogwarts, Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom, Star Wars, Narnia, and so many other popular worlds exist because their characters inhabit them. Creating worlds is a challenge beyond anything I can imagine. However, my characters live in the past, often the near-past, and rather than creating their world, I must go back and try to walk through it as it existed, despite the fences of time.
Because I write mostly ‘vintage’ stories, one of my passions is researching settings, in particular the houses of the time period. In a time when old homes are being snapped up for renovation, seeing these houses as originally constructed (not as they’ve evolved over years of changing ownership and necessary repairs and modernization) is always fascinating.
Whenever I travel, I always make it a point to tour any available older home open to the public, especially antebellum houses. I recently visited the McCollum-Chidester House in Camden, Arkansas, which dates from the 1850s and was used as Union headquarters during the nearby battle of Poison Springs.
While researching a setting for a story set between the present and Civil War eras, I happened on Plantation Houses and Mansions of the Old South (J. Frazier Smith, reprinted in 1993 from the original 1941 version, Dover Publications). The discussion of the homes, complete with sketches of grounds and outbuildings, explanatory text, and floor plans, fascinated me and eventually led me to the absolute ‘right’ model for my story.
Sadly, many of these grand structures were victimized by looters both during and after the Civil War and later fell into disrepair beyond reclamation. Those that remain are rich sources of ideas for writers. And, perhaps stories lurk even among the silent columns and disembodied steps of those structures no longer whole.
We tend to take for granted many of our modern conveniences, but did you know that outhouses were in common usage until at least 1920? Larger, more expensive homes of the 1880s had indoor plumbing, including flush toilets. Some bathrooms even had showers in that decade, and there were smaller bathtubs built for children.
Kitchens, originally detached buildings due to fire risk during the antebellum period when cooking was done on an open hearth, moved inside. Wood burning and coal and stoves evolved into gas and electric appliances. During the later 1880s, women left outdoor wash pots for deep sinks that even came equipped with wringers. “Slop sinks” served for the messier jobs like rinsing floor mops.
Between 1879 and 1889, electricity and stamped metal ceilings (still to be seen in many older business establishments) appeared. Most houses were two-story with the requisite parlor and front ‘lobby’.
From about 1908 t0 1940, Sears Roebuck sold homebuilding kits delivered to your lot (hopefully with basement and foundation ready) by train or truck. Montgomery Ward and other companies provided their versions of the product and service. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Colonial Revival styles became popular. Enclosed porches, basement furnaces, steam radiators, and sheet rocked walls marked newer homes in this time period. Also popular were attic dormers.
Houses known as ‘bungalows’ were fashionable in the next decade. The latest in electric appliances, as well as the candlestick telephone, took up residence with the families who occupied these homes. Residents might even add a sleeping porch or a fireproof steel garage for their car.
In the 1920s, people became interested in European style homes. Glass doorknobs, highly prized by some collectors today, opened inside doors. Built-ins included Murphy beds and ironing boards.
The came the Great Depression. Forced from their homes, people migrated to shanty towns, living in any shelter available to them. Still, those who could, built stylish homes with stucco exteriors, slate roofs, sunken living rooms, and all the latest conveniences, including air-conditioning. Tile and linoleum flourished, and those who had cars parked them in detached garages.
In 1940, my parents built and were married in the living room of their first home. I lived there until the age of four, so I have some memories of the house. Still, it was exciting to find a picture of the exact house in The Vintage House Book: Classic American Homes 1880-1980 (Tad Burness, Krause Publications 2003). The credit for much of the previously-shared information goes to Mr. Burness and his well-researched, heavily-illustrated volume which I would recommend to writers of tales from by-gone days. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a ‘must’ on your writing bookshelf.
It’s not enough to ‘set’ a story in a previous time. Readers must be able to ‘see’ places through interspersed (though not belabored) description. They want to feel a part of the time and place, as if they, too, were living in that Dutch Colonial or English cottage. If I soak up the atmosphere of these long-ago homes, either by visits or vicariously through books, I’m better able to create it for my readers.
For a list of resources for information on various aspects of the past (characters, settings, etc.) visit the Resources for Writers page at my website I try to update it as I get new ideas, and I’d love for you to share your own resources to be posted there. Use the ‘contact me’ box on the home page.
Blurb: Despite over thirty years in a faithless marriage to wealthy investment broker Rand Kingston, Jean is shocked when he asks for a divorce. Encouraged by her former housekeeper-turned-best-friend, she determines to rediscover herself as an independent woman and move on with her life. Nick Cameron, prominent attorney and long-time widower, would like to figure in her plans. The opposition of their adult children surprises them. Then, a series of chilling near misses makes them wonder who really is determined to keep them apart—and why.