Tools of the Trade

Guest Post by Amanda Cabot –

Carpenters need saws and hammers; portrait painters use brushes and palettes; chefs rely on whisks and saucepans. Those are all tools of their trades. What tools does an author of historical novels have? I don’t pretend to answer for everyone, but I’d like to share my favorite tools with you.

Children’s Section of the Library – I remember being surprised when another author suggested this during a workshop, but once I tried her approach, I realized how valuable it was. History books in the children’s section focus on the key aspects of what happened “once upon a time” and give me the basics of who, what, where, when, and why. Using them helps me choose the historical events that will play a part in my book but prevents me from getting bogged down in details I might never need. Bottom line: the simplified history saves me untold hours of research. I use adult history books once I’ve finished the first draft of my book and have specific questions. By waiting until then, I can focus on finding exactly what I need.

Diaries and Biographies – There’s nothing quite like a first-person account to bring a historical period to life. Diaries of people who lived during the time when my books take place aren’t always available, but I snatch them up whenever I can find them because they give me insights into real life. Even more importantly, they provide details that add authenticity to my stories. If I hadn’t read Indians, Infants and Infantry, which includes excerpts from Elizabeth Burt’s diaries, when I was writing Summer of Promise, I wouldn’t have known how much army wives hated serving their families the tasteless dried and pressed potatoes that were one of their wintertime staples.

Costume Books – Few things distract the knowledgeable historical fiction reader more than inaccuracies in the characters’ clothing. That’s why I rely on Lucy Barton’s Historic Costume for the Stage. (It’s out of print now, but used copies are available.) As you probably guessed from the title, the book is designed for actors, but it’s also invaluable for authors because, in addition to providing drawings of garments that would have been worn during various historic periods, it describes everything from hairstyles and hats to shoes and stockings, including the fabrics that would have been used for each. As a bonus, at the beginning of each section, there’s a chart showing important events and key people who lived in each of the major countries during that era.

Picture Books – This time I’m not talking about something you’d find in the children’s section of the library. Instead, I’m referring to the Images of America series of books with historic photographs of many cities, towns, and locations in the U.S. The adage of a picture being worth a thousand words is true, and the photos and captions in the Images books help bring places to life for me and keep me from making mistakes in my descriptions. This series was particularly helpful to me when I was setting stories in Cheyenne and Fort Laramie, but even when I’ve created fictional locations, I’ve used books from the part of the country where my story was set to help me visualize “my” town. 

Recipe Books – If your characters cook or eat in your stories (and whose don’t?), I recommend searching for cookbooks from that period. In addition to explaining techniques that cooks of the era would have used, they also indicate which foods were readily available and help you avoid errors. Sidenote: although it’s not the primary reason I consulted them, I found some of that information in the Images of America series.

Dictionary with Date of First Usage – Few things annoy me more as an avid reader of historical fiction than anachronisms. When I reached the page in a medieval romance that mentioned Teflon, I immediately stopped reading because the author had lost all credibility with me. Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but what about a nineteenth-century character who talks about camouflage or eye contact? Neither term was in common usage until the twentieth century (1917 for “camouflage” and 1955 for “eye contact”). How did I know that? My Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. If I had a penny for every time I’ve consulted it to determine the date of first usage of a word or phrase, I’d be wealthy. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this particular tool.

You’ve probably noticed a glaring omission in my list of tools: the Internet. Yes, I use it. In fact, I use it frequently, but only when I can’t find information elsewhere, and even then I’m careful and try to validate anything I’ve found by checking multiple sources and relying on sites with “edu” extensions. It’s a case of caveat emptor or, in this case, caveat searcher, because I want my books to be as error-free as possible, and it’s hardly a secret that there’s a lot of misinformation on the Net.

As writers of historical novels, we strive for accuracy in our stories. We want readers to feel as if they were transported to a different time and place, one that rings true to them. I hope my tools of the trade will help you achieve those goals.

Amanda Cabot is the bestselling author of The Spark of Love, Out of the Embers, and Dreams Rekindled, as well as the Cimarron Creek Trilogy and the Texas Crossroads, Texas Dreams, and Westward Winds series. Her books have received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and have been finalists for the ACFW Carol Awards, the HOLT Medallion, and the Booksellers’ Best. Learn more at

3 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade”

  1. Amanda, no wonder your novels transport the reader into a different era. Research! Thank you for going the extra mile and incorporating true historical details in your novels. I love your books. Gretchen Carlson

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top