Monthly Archives: September 2017

Research Your Historical Novel

by Mark H. Phillips

So you want to write a historical novel. Then it would be useful for you to know some history. Not just the kind of history you learned in school concerning who was the king of England during the American Revolutionary War or who was the Union General at the Battle of Vicksburg but the everyday level history like describing the posser your Victorian Era maid used on laundry day or how often a London homeowner would have to hire a gongfermor.

Getting details wrong is simply embarrassing and will throw your knowledgeable reader out of the story. Have your Victorian gentleman using a zipper on his pants is anachronistic. Although invented in 1893, the first practical marketing of the zipper didn’t occur until 1906 and it wasn’t called a “zipper” until 1923. In the movie Django Unchained dynamite is used in 1859 though it wasn’t invented until 1867.

The easiest way for a British Victorian writer to show vulgarity and boorishness in a character was to have them mis-use a title or screw up a mode of address. A man would never address the eldest daughter of an acquaintance the same way as the next eldest. Nor would a son address his father in the same way as a daughter would. A medical doctor is addressed as “Doctor” but a surgeon only by “Mister.” Do you know the difference between a parish priest, a curate, a rector, and a vicar? A modern writer, especially one not native to Britain, would have to do considerable research in order not to look foolish navigating their characters through the maze of Victorian class-based etiquette.

The kind of historical research necessary to bring your story alive is just plain fun. The housewife in 1920 Springfield, Illinois gets up in the morning and puts in her front window a colorful square of cardboard labelled in each quadrant with a different number. This particular day she makes sure the number 25 is in the uppermost position. Why? So that later that morning when the iceman knocks at her back kitchen door he will have the twenty-five pounds of ice for her ice box. Or in some locales there was a hatch in the wall behind the inbuilt ice box so the iceman could load in the ice without disturbing the homeowner at all.

In the same home late one evening a thug sneaks up behind the lady of the house as she is reading a book in her easy chair. He reaches from behind and begins to choke her. Defending herself, she stabs backwards with the knife she was holding, wounding him and driving him away. Why was she holding the knife? To slice open the pages of her book, of course.

A public library in 1920 Springfield would have been a quiet place. The Library of Alexandria in the ancient world was a horribly loud place because hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read silently. To read was automatically to read aloud.

Many details of the modern world are only explicable by reference to historical conditions that no longer exist. Why do women’s blouses button opposite from men’s shirts? Because a century and a half ago a lady’s maid would’ve been buttoning up her mistress’ blouse and the buttons weren’t backwards for the maid. Right handed women who dress themselves have been fumbling with buttons ever since because rich women used to use lady’s maids. Why are the letters on your computer’s keyboard arranged in the particular order they are? So that common letter combinations were as far apart as possible to keep efficient typists from tangling the keybars and jamming the machines. Now, after generations of touch typists have been trained on those deliberately inefficient keyboards, it’s impractical to change.

Fortunately there have been some excellent books on the history of everyday living published in recent years. Here are a few that I have found useful:

  • Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and How to Be a Victorian
  • Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
  • Robert Garland’s Ancient Greece
  • John Strausbaugh’s The Village
  • Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday, and Napoleon’s Privates
  • Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
  • Michael Olmert’s Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella
  • Particularly excellent examples of well researched historical fiction are George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (along with Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), Against the Day, and Mason and Dixon, and Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory.

The meticulous research that supports the writing of historical fiction is hard work and great fun. Bring your fiction alive with accurate detail that is evocative of place and time and that grounds the reader in the everyday lives of your characters.






Filed under Writing Craft

Suicide Prevention Week

Sept 10-16, 2017

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call. If you believe someone you know needs help, call. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for all.

Because September 10-16 is national suicide prevention week, I was asked to write a blog on the topic. I assure you, I am not an expert; in fact, I have zero qualifications to discuss this topic. But I do have research skills and what I found was chilling.

Do you think this tragedy can’t happen you your family? Think again. Here are a few statistics on suicide in the United States:

  • In the US, we average 121 suicide deaths PER DAY
  • 44,193 fellow Americans die each year by suicide; it is the 10th leading cause of death in our nation and it is 100% preventable
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for our 15-24 year olds
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those who are 15-34 years old
  • Since 1999, the rate of suicide in the US has increased 24% to more than 13/100,000 deaths – the highest rate in 28 years
  • Women attempt suicide three times more often than males, but males are more successful and die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle age
  • ~70% of suicide victims are white males

Many people associate suicide with those on the fringes of our society, but that is a false and dangerous impression. By profession the highest rate of suicide is from physicians. The ten professions with the highest suicide rates in the nation:

  1. Physicians
  2. Dentists
  3. Financial Industry Employees
  4. Lawyers
  5. Law Enforcement
  6. Real Estate Agents
  7. Electricians
  8. Agriculture workers
  9. Pharmacists
  10. Scientists

Other groups with particularly troubling stats include:


  • Our veterans die by suicide twice as often as those who have not served
  • During some years of the gulf wars, we lost more active-duty soldiers to suicide than to combat (ex: 2012 – 185 suicides, 176 combat deaths)


  • Attempted rates in this group is three times higher than the national average
  • 1-866-488-7386, The Trevor Lifeline is a 24 hour crisis and suicide prevention helpline specifically for LGBTQ youth;
    • there’s also a chat line available 3PM-10PM eastern time
    • Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200 from 3PM-10PM eastern time
    • Call 1-866-488-7386 anytime, day or night

Rape Survivors

  • 13 time more likely to attempt suicide

Autism/Asperger Syndrome

  • Numbers with this group are not agreed upon, but there have been many studies and in all studies, the group has higher than average stats

By State

Your state is not exempt from the epidemic, but a few – very few – states do have single digit suicide rates. While seven deaths per day is still seven too many – congrats to New Yorkers who have the lowest rate in the nation. Other states in the single digit club include New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut. On the other end of the scale – what the hell is going on in Wyoming (highest suicide rate in the nation), Alaska, and Montana?

Clearly, we have a national crisis on our hands – and the numbers are rising. Find out what you can do to help reverse the trend.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or someone you love needs help, make the call.

If you have other resources for people in crisis, please use the comments section to share that information.


Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The Trevor Project



Filed under History