Farrago of Research: Story Ideas for Historical Novels


“Farrago” means assortment or medley, and that’s my offering of research resources this quarter. Instead of a unified theme of sources on a similar topic, this time I’m presenting a mixed bag of websites and books that provide story ideas and primary source material. (My thanks to jay Dixon for pointing me to some of the websites.)




Chawton House. Reproduced with permission from Chawton House staff

A good way to prepare yourself to write a novel about another era is to read a novel actually written in that era. The Chawton House Library, which “foster[s] research and understanding of early women writers,” has made full text transcriptions of some of the rare novels in its library, ranging from 1600-1830, accessible for free. Authors include Aphra Behn, Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson, Penelope Aubin, and a range of anonymous works. The books “explore such broad-ranging themes as satire, slavery, marriage, witchcraft and piracy.” The intent is to expose the books to a wider audience and to make scholarly study easier. Chawton House has a close association with Jane Austen, whose elder brother Edward inherited the property.



Trinity College’s Wren Library has begun digitizing important works from its collections and making them available online. Brush up on your Latin to read some of the over 570 medieval manuscripts now available. Even if you can’t read Latin, some of them have beautiful illuminations, which may inspire a novel you are setting in medieval times. There is a small collection of more modern printed books, such as a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and a copy of Shakespeare’s poem Rape of Lucrece published in his lifetime. The website says work is continuing to expand the offerings of modern manuscripts and printed books, so it will be worth checking back on this website at a later date to see what has been added.



Signed photograph of Dante Gabriel Rossetti on card. Credit: Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas offers digitized letters and manuscripts from the Rossetti family, a “British family of Italian descent whose members influenced art and literature during the second half of the 19th century. Principal correspondents include painter, poet, and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882); poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894); and critic and biographer William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919).” The website offers a useful “category pages” section, where the authors, subjects, and locations of the documents are sorted together and easily clickable, without the researcher having to seek out the individual documents on a person or topic one by one. If you are setting a novel in arts and literature circles of Victorian England, this site would provide primary source material for your research.






The book included here were published a few decades ago, so you may have to go to your local library or buy secondhand copies, but they still offer valuable information for today’s researchers. If your local library does not own an older book, its staff can probably get the book for you via interlibrary loan.



If you want to set a novel during the westward trek of Easterners to the California gold fields, this journal transcription provides primary source information. An entry for June 1849 describes how the travelers used lassos to obtain firewood from trees, and the entry for July 31 tells of finding a quarter inch of ice on their water buckets, despite it being midsummer. When the train starts across the desert, they count 70 dead animals within one 25 mile stretch. If your book is set during the U.S. Gold Rush, this would be a (pardon the pun) mine of information.


PROSPECTING FOR GOLD: FROM DOGTOWN TO VIRGINIA CITY, 1852-1864, by Granville Stuart. University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

“Miners Prospecting” by Remington. Credit: Library of Congress cph 3g02483


Here’s another journal from the U.S. Gold Rush era. Stuart prospected in both California’s and the lesser-known Montana gold rush, and ended up settling in the latter state. Stuart tells of the Montana Native Americans’ love of practical jokes, of being tormented by mosquitoes and gnats to exhaustion on the journey, and buying a mare in the gold fields for $70 and two mules for $130. Any author writing Westerns set in the Gold Rush era will find material in this book.



CALIFORNIA EMIGRANT LETTERS, edited by Walker D. Wyman. Bookman Associates, 1952.

Yet another primary source for California and Gold Rush history, this book reprints letters that emigrants from the Missouri River areas sent home, which were then printed in Eastern newspapers. Most of the letters in the book credit author, date, and name of newspaper where it originally appeared. One writer claimed to have mined $16,000 in 8 days, but another letter, written within 2 weeks of the first, contradicts, “I don’t advise any man to come to California that is making a good living in Missouri…” A letter writer in March 1849 reports that in San Francisco, good boots cost an ounce of gold per pair, and a Colt revolver, $200-300.  A letter from 1850 advises those back home not to come, but if they insist, gives lengthy advice on how many oxen to bring, how much food per man, what kind of hams and bacon to acquire, and how to avoid scurvy. Letters like this could really spark some story ideas: a family sets off across the Plains without enough food, perhaps, or a man in the gold fields needs to guard his claim but can’t afford a gun.


EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR, 1830-1860, by Robert Lacour-Gayet. Frederick Ungar, 1969.

If you haven’t yet begun research on your book set in antebellum America, this work could be a good place to start. Chapters include “Dress and Fashions,” “Food and Beverages,” and “Manners and Etiquette.” The chapter on hygiene states that a spider worn on a necklace was a protection against malaria, and that eating fried rattlesnake was thought to protect the eater from tuberculosis. The chapter on religion gives a survey of the most important period sects you may want to associate your main character with. A bibliography lists additional sources.


THE SALT BOOK, edited by Pamela Wood. Anchor/Doubleday, 1977.

“Drying the Sails” by Wentworth, showing lobster traps piled on shore. Library of Congress control number: 2012646420

If you are setting a book in Maine, this work could provide a lot of material. It’s similar to the Foxfire books, where high school students collected oral histories from locals, and published their cumulated folk wisdom. The Salt Book contains interviews with people living on the southern coast of Maine. Chapters present information on how to build a lobster trap, how rum-running was done during Prohibition, what it was like to be a lighthouse keeper, how to build a stone wall, and how to make snowshoes. Authors could glean a lot of everyday life detail for their “down-easter” novels from this book.


AMERICAN SURNAMES, by Elsdon C. Smith. Chilton, 1969.

This volume discusses American surnames, limiting itself to the most common names at time of publication. It’s organized into chapters with themes, such as “from father’s name,” “from occupation or office,” “from places.” It would be a good source if you needed to look up the meaning of a character’s surname. The book says that “Sedlacek,” the closest I could find to my own name, denoted farmers in the Czech/Slovak region. If my ancestors had been German, the book says our name might have been the equivalent “Bauer.” Since it was written nearly 50 years ago, Smith’s work won’t cover names of people from the most recent waves of U.S. immigrants, but is still good for historical research, and offers ideas if you are stuck for an interesting character surname.


DOWN THE SANTA FE TRAIL AND INTO MEXICO: THE DIARY OF SUSAN SHELBY MAGOFFIN, 1846-1847, edited by Stella M. Drumm.  Yale University Press, 1962.

Replica of Bent’s Fort in Colorado, an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Library of Congress control number: 2015632521

How overland travelers conducted a burial: “The corpse is rolled in a blanket—lowered and stones put on it. The earth is then thrown in, the sod replaced and it is well beat down.” Magoffin’s journal is an important primary source for Southwestern history, since the author traveled through the region where the Mexican War was being fought, journeying from Missouri into Mexico, and “in all likelihood she was the first American white woman ever to go over the rude train of the Santa Fe traders” (foreword). The author’s comments on encountering Mexican food for the first time are interesting; also her amazement at the poise and politeness of a 6-year-old market girl who sold her some green peas. I saw a wealth of Southwestern history story ideas in this diary.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

Posted by Claire Morris

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