Older Books as Story Idea Generators
Are your usual sources of story ideas tapped out? Is your publisher pressuring you for details on what your next novel is going to be about? This article will proffer older book resources that might help you discover story ideas.
Libraries and used bookshops are full of older books with buried-treasure content: some without indexes, many cataloged by libraries in the days when catalog cards were still typed by hand on a manual typewriter, without enough space on the cards for a table of contents. Since it takes time and money even in the computer age to retrospectively go back and add tables of contents to older book catalog records, their content can remain hidden to researchers. Next time you are browsing the history sections of a library or bookshop, be aware that a book with an unpromising title may contain hidden nuggets of information.
Here are some examples of these kinds of books from my local library that contain germs of story ideas for plotting historical fiction. I must apologize for not including Canadian or Australian works; these mostly British- and American-centric books are what our small-town library had available.
Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683, edited by Alan MacFarlane. London: British Academy/Oxford, 1976. (a version is also available online)
Josselin was an Essex vicar between 1640 and 1683. His diary is another source besides Pepys’ that provides material on life in 17th-century England. Josselin records mundane yet essential details for a novelist, on topics like the price he paid for two cows. The September 1666 entries record a provincial’s reaction to news of the Great Fire of London. If you are working on a novel set in the 17th century and need to create scenes of illness, you may be inspired by Josselin, who was rather meticulous in recording all the details of his bodily functions when he felt ill.
Social England Illustrated, a collection of XVIIth Century Tracts. New York: Cooper Square, 1964. (also published in London in 1903 by A. Constable)
This is another source of ideas for books set in 17th-century England, one which reprints period tracts. Included is a tract on “The secrets of angling,” telling how to make fishing gear: the line should be a hair from a horse, not a mare or gelding, not black in color. The rod should be made of a hazel twig. The author advises aspiring anglers to wear dark clothing, as bright-colored garments may scare the fish. Another tract discusses the uses of leather in the period, and lamenting abuses in the trade. Yet another tract details rations given to soldiers during the reign of Elizabeth I, listing how much the provisions cost, and where the raw ingredients were purchased. Publisher’s note: “The texts contained in the present volume are reprinted…from the English Garner issued in eight volumes, 1877-1890 by Professor Arber…”.
The New Look: a Social History of the Forties and Fifties in Britain, by Harry Hopkins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. (also published in London by Secker and Warburg, 1963)
If you are setting a novel in postwar Britain, à la Call the Midwife, this volume can provide both reference information and story ideas. Soldiers are demobbed into Civvy Street. Britons suffer the fuel crisis of 1947, eating cold breakfasts, navigating London with no street lights, and working at the office in coat and gloves to stay warm. Hopkins describes how Dior’s New Look fashions were received, the impact of the Kinsey report on people’s sex lives, and the effect of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation-related events on public life.
Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1962. (also published in London by Allen & Unwin, 1962)
Gernet bases his book on Chinese texts, and presents a picture of life in the city of Hangzhou in the 13th century. If you are searching for a period to set a novel in China, Gernet points out that “thirteenth century China is striking for its modernism: for its exclusively monetary economy, its paper money…its highly-developed enterprises in tea and in salt…” As the title promises, the book offers details of daily life in the period: bathing customs, clothing, the discipline of children. Gate gods were depicted on a private home’s entrance, to keep out evil spirits. Births were attended by pails of water, in which some families would immediately drown the fourth daughter, or babies born after an inheritance was already divided.
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, by E. & M. A. Radford. Hutchinson of London, 1961.
You might not think of this kind of reference book as a source of ideas, but some of the entries sparked story ideas in my mind. The foreword states that the superstitions listed are from the British Isles. The humble parsley plant was associated with death. How about having a character in an historical mystery be horrified at a bad omen of finding parsley on their pillow? Riding on a donkey, especially facing the tail, was supposed to cure a variety of ills. Have a rural character attempt this method to treat a suffering family member? Meeting a chimney sweep was lucky, but only if he was still grimy from his work, and only if he was coming towards you. What would happen if your character in dire need of luck meets a sweep from the wrong direction? I had never heard of a sin-eater before encountering one in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. The Radfords explain how sin-eating was supposed to work, where food either touches or is handed across the corpse to a man who symbolically takes away the sins of the deceased by eating the food.
Things in the Driver’s Seat: Readings in Popular Culture, by Harry Russell Huebel. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972.
Driver’s Seat has a chapter full of examples of common American expressions used in the 1950s, so if you are thinking of setting a book in that period, this would be a gold mine when writing dialogue. A chapter on the popular radio program “The Shadow” discusses its importance in popular culture of America, useful if your mid-century character loves listening to crime-fighting stories on the radio. Do you have a character in your novel who is a fan of jazz? This book has a chapter of reminiscences of a Bebop fan in New York in the postwar 1940s. You could get ideas for real jazz clubs that your period character might visit. Will your novel have scenes that take place on a location film set in the 1960s? Larry McMurtry, of Lonesome Dove fame, has a chapter in this book describing what it was like to be the author of a novel being turned into a movie, Hud, during location shooting in Texas in 1962. He discusses the difficulties of attracting wild buzzards needed in a scene, how the stars had to fend off women intent on crawling into bed with them, and even the kind of food provided by the catering service.
Inheritors: a Study of America’s Great Fortunes and What Happened to Them, by John Tebbel. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962.
Are you thinking of setting a novel among the wealthy of the 19th or 20th century? The famous families profiled here (Du Ponts, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, Guggenheims, etc.) could generate ideas for stories about life among the American super-rich. Many books have been written about the individual families, but this one presents many families in one volume, making it easier for the reader to compare their stories. Tebbel also includes a chapter on some of the families’ philosophies of giving, if you need insight on how the wealthy gave their money away after they acquired it.
Sod-House Days: Letters from a Kansas Homesteader, 1877-78, by Howard Ruede, edited by John Ise. New York: Cooper Square, 1966.
Ruede was born in Pennsylvania and emigrated to Kansas in 1877, in the days after the buffalo and Native Americans were gone from the area. Editor Ise says life for settlers in the period was not romantic, but “hard, dreary, [and] monotonous.” Ruede’s letters provide daily details of prairie life that would not be easy to find in other sources. An early letter tells which supplies he needed to purchase to start to build his sod house. In another, he marvels that a good meal only cost him 5 cents for half a pound of ham and 3/8 of a cent for an ounce of beans. Later, he mentions that the nearest doctor was 7 miles away, and comments on how scarce clocks were on the frontier. Anyone contemplating writing a prairie-set novel will find story ideas in Ruede’s letters, as well as reference material, like a list of items an immigrant from the East should bring with them to Kansas.
Good Times, an Oral History of America in the Nineteen Sixties, by Peter Joseph. New York: Charterhouse, 1973.
The book originated as the author’s senior thesis while at Princeton University. Inspired by Studs Terkel’s oral history compilations, Joseph interviewed the famous and not-so-famous. Jerry Garcia records his opinion of the Beatles and what it was like to perform at Woodstock. Astronaut’s daughter Julie Shepard tells what the space race was like from a child’s point of view, and H. Edward Smith discusses being a NASA engineer during the Apollo moon missions. Frank Castora talks about being a Marine Guard on duty receiving John F. Kennedy’s casket as it was flown back to Washington. A pseudonymous speaker tells what life was like in Haight-Ashbury during the height of the hippie movement. If you are setting a novel in the ’60s in America, browsing through this book should provide lots of ideas.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.