Posting to a timeline for historical fiction

photograph of timeline

Posting to a timeline is one of my most useful tools in writing historical fiction. Have a peek at my five-foot-long timeline of the Anthony-Osborn family, beginning in the 1700s and ending in 1930. On it, I have recorded not only events that were significant to the Anthonys but to the United States in general. So we have a mix of births, deaths, and marriages alongside events of the Civil War, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dates of military service, arrests, and acts of civil or military disobedience.

My chronology of the Anthony family shows me where their lives intersected with each other or with important historic events. For example, a newspaper snippet mentioned that Daniel and Annie attended the nation’s centennial in July 1876. Posting it to my timeline reminded me that Susan was there for that nation’s birthday, too. She and her friends deemed the women’s pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition too apolitical for their taste and created their own headquarters.

While they were all in Philadelphia for the celebration, Daniel set Susan up to take control of the formal celebration of the Declaration of Independence proceedings and read the Women’s Declaration of Rights. He must’ve been grinning from ear to ear. Do you suppose that Annie chewed her cheek raw with anxiety until the whole demonstration was over? Or did she, too, cheer Susan on?

photo of baby dressed in white christening gown
Daniel and Annie named a daughter after
Susan B. Anthony

Here’s another thing I’m pondering. In September 1872, Daniel and Annie named a newborn daughter Susan B. Anthony II. Two months later, in November 1872, the elder Susan registered to vote and was subsequently arrested and convicted. This coincidence made me wonder: After Susan’s conviction, how did Annie and Daniel feel about naming their baby after Susan? We’ll likely never know the answer to this question, but they could certainly lead to an interesting fictional chapter.

Finally, I came across this surprising fact as I studied my timeline. n 1875, Daniel sustained a near-fatal gunshot wound that required him to stay immobile in bed with compression on his neck for three months. During that period, he lost a lot of weight. Yet my timeline reveals that he and Annie traveled to Rochester, a trip of 1,000 miles, almost as soon as he was allowed to get up. If this isn’t a testament to his heartiness, I don’t know what is!

The Anthonys were real people who responded to current events and sometimes fretted over each other’s choices. I hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as I do.

Using historical newspapers to write fiction

I discovered the value of historical newspapers on my second visit to Kansas to research Daniel Read Anthony and his family.

An eloquent packet

While at the Spencer Library, University of Kansas, I found a packet of news clippings neatly folded and tied with a black grosgrain ribbon. My breath caught in my throat as I gently untied it. There I found a couple of newspaper articles recalling how, in February 1889, Susie Anthony (named after Susan B.), had died by drowning in a pond while skating with friends. This little packet spoke as nothing else could of Daniel and Annie’s grief at losing their daughter..

Wax and wane of Daniel’s strength

Here’s another important detail I learned from historical newspapers. This one is dated several years before Susie’s death. It appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY, which was Daniel’s home in his 20s.

I sat up and took notice. Here’s why:

  • This clipping describes D.R. as “incompetent to defend himself” owing to the impairment of his right arm. In his younger years, people feared and admired him for his daring and physical strength. But apparently that changed ten years before this news clipping, when a bullet to the right side of his neck nearly killed him. At the time I read about his wound, I wondered whether he sustained a permanent injury from that episode. This article strongly suggests that he did.
  • Also, although he couldn’t use his arm to protect himself, he still didn’t pull any punches with words. The same belligerent attitude that got him shot in the first place prevailed even when he could no longer defend himself physically.

This concludes my three-part series on ways to learn about historical people. Biographies, census records, and family trees can help us glimpse the skeleton of a person. But to discover their thoughts and feelings, their temperament, and how they responded to their place and time requires considerable more digging.

Plotting events on a timeline, reading newspaper articles about them, and visiting places that historical people frequented, give further details that put flesh and blood on the skeleton and present a much more satisfying account.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the toolkit of a historical researcher. BTW, here’s a link to Newspapers.com, where you can subscribe to hundreds of old newspapers. Enjoy!

Historical fiction: when the research trail goes cold

Last time we discussed two kinds of historical fiction:

  • historical-era fiction that uses a few props from a previous timeframe as a general backdrop for fictional characters, and
  • fact-based historical fiction that contains authentic details from books, newspapers, and artifacts that reference real people who lived and breathed. This type of writing also brings in popular social movements, architecture, music, literature, technology, and fashion. Moving beyond the available printed materials, I also love to walk the actual streets where my characters spent their days.

Balancing truth and imagination in historical fiction

Once I’ve done the research and mapped out the known events, it’s time to weave in some imaginary details. Here are two examples of when I fictionalize:

  • The trail goes dry and I am left with gaps. I know that a character arrived at a certain place and time–for example, D.R. Anthony married Anna Osborn on Martha’s Vineyard in 1864– but have no idea how or why. So I fashion a courtship that is plausible, based on what I know of his character, preferences, current interests, and financial situation.
  • The factual record gives too many examples of certain activities in a character’s life and none of other, important aspects. For example, although D.R. Anthony was involved in several major fires and numerous shootouts, I do not report every one of those episodes. If I did, there would be no room to develop his life as a family man or strong supporter of his sister Susan’s activities. (She frequently used his home as a base to campaign for woman suffrage.) To round out the picture of the man’s everyday, private life, it behooves me to fill in the cracks of reported events with snippets of pure fiction. However, even in these most creative moments, I try to match documented thought and speech patterns.

For another take on this fascinating genre of literature, click here.