Beyond the Headlines: 5 Research Takeaways from Periodicals

Guest Post by Jocelyn Green

Newspapers! Magazines! What treasures they hold for the historical novelist, and looking beyond the main articles will yield even more insights for your story. Be sure to pay attention to:

  1. Weather reports. Daily newspapers usually report the weather, which is especially helpful for those of us who write stories set in regions other than our own. Of course, you can take liberties with weather within reason, but you may find a flash food, a heat wave, a dry spell, a blizzard, or unseasonable temperatures that may affect how your characters dress, how the transportation operates, the general atmosphere and mood, or in some cases, even the plot itself.
  2. Entertainment and events. The kind of events that are being advertised or reported on will give you ideas for where your characters can spend their time, interact with others, and pursue their interests. From garden shows to dog shows, debutante balls to movies and concerts, sporting events to county fairs, you’ll find interesting settings for your scenes while layering in local culture. Look for top ten lists of popular music to know what your characters are listening to. On a related note, read editorial columns for opinions about events and trends.
  3. Gossip and advice columns. Truly, it’s research! And, oh, what fun this can be. Gossip columns tell us what raised eyebrows, what made for a scandal, and generally what society felt was worth comment. Even if gossip rags don’t play a role in your story, you can get a valuable sense for what the cultural expectations were—and the cost for breaking them. Advice columns can give us the prevailing mindset for social interactions and norms, as well as common practices for a wide range of topics including creative stain removal, skin care routines, gift-giving etiquette, parenting tips, domestic servant management, and more.
  4. Classifieds. Classified ads give you a sense of what types of jobs were available and what kind of services people were offering. They also include lost and found, pets, and automobiles. You might find a story spark for a character or an entire plot, whether that’s a Regency-era notice looking for a wet nurse or governess, or an Old West ad for a mail-order bride, or something in between. What’s in demand? What are people looking for? How much are these worth?
  5. Advertisements. Display ads for popular products identify what people are wearing, driving, eating, using, and where they are vacationing—and what they cost. Note the target audience to see how it aligns with your characters. The local department store ad in the daily newspaper will cater to a different demographic than a fashion magazine. Also note which household items are being advertised for a good sense of how your characters would live and manage their homes, including cleaning products, appliances, groceries, radios or Victrolas, and furniture trends. What are the top gift ideas being advertised during your season?

Period newspapers and magazines offer a wealth of insight. The headlines are clearly important, but the novelist’s attention should not end with them. When possible, view the entire page and section as opposed to individually transcribed articles that have been snipped from their surrounding context. By noticing weather, entertainment and events, gossip and advice, classifieds and advertisements, we round out our perspective on the era. Choose the right colorful details to include and your historical story will shine.

Jocelyn Green inspires faith and courage as the bestselling author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including the Christy Award-winning The Mark of the King and Drawn by the Current and her On Central Park series.

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