Historical people are fun to research–if you know how. It’s one thing to look them up on the census or visit their graves. Even reading about them in a biography gives only a one-dimensional view of them. It’s another thing altogether to get a sense of their manner of speaking, temperament, and habits.
Historical research since 1992
For 30 years, I’ve had a great time learning about historical people who lived 150 years ago–Susan B. Anthony, her brother Daniel, and his wife Annie. Though I’ve never met them, I have a strong sense of what interested them, where they spent time, and what kept them up at night.
A couple of times I’ve been especially satisfied when I’ve created a fictional interest and later found out it really did characterize them. This happened as I was writing about Annie in my first book when I portrayed her as loving to sing. After it was published, I found evidence that her family owned one of the first pianos on Martha’s Vineyard and that she performed songs at soirees with her friends.
Three of my favorite techniques
Watch this space for my upcoming three-part series on how to research historical people. In it, I’ll cover some of my favorite techniques, including:
- Walking in their footsteps–I’ve visited the home where Susan and Daniel were born, Susan’s adult home, and the house that Daniel and Annie built. More than that, though, I’ve walked the halls and lingered in the front yards of their many friends and acquaintances.
- Making a timeline–I’ll show you portions of my Anthony timeline ranging from the late 1700s to 1930. It contains historical events of general interest (i.e. the Civil War) as well as new technologies, births, deaths, and other items of particular interest to the Anthony family
- Using newspapers of their time and place–Because Daniel and Susan were both well-known, it’s easy to find new stories about them. In addition, Daniel published the Leavenworth Times in Kansas, which he vowed to make the most radical newspaper in town. Wait till I share snippets of some articles by and about him!