Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Messages From the Past: Archives as Sources of Authentic Voices for Characters in Historical Fiction

This is the first in a four-part series. Published with permission of the original site

By Teddy Jones

Years ago an article in an electric co-op’s publication caught my interest. It told of a group of women known colloquially in Bell County, Texas, around 1868, as the Sanctified Sisters. It ended up in my “ideas” file.

Later, I drafted a novel in which the protagonist was a granddaughter of a fictional member of the Sanctified Sisters. The protagonist, in 1929, finds a journal written by her grandmother between 1880-1910. As I wrote the journal entries, I had experienced the feeling I was taking dictation. The grandmother’s diction and the content came to me as clearly as if she were speaking. Only after having drafted the entire novel did it occur to me I might have written an inauthentic voice.
In the years between my initial awareness of the Sisters and development of the novel, I read several books, including three academic studies in which the group was mentioned or was the prime focus. I later recalled that the researcher had cited an archive. That’s when my first experience with archives as a source for authentic historical character voice began.

Approaches to creating authentic diction for fictional historical characters might be thought of as points along a continuum. At one extreme is the “spice the dialogue with occasional words or phrases from the time” approach, the writer’s making little effort to capitalize on diction as an aspect of character development. Near the continuum’s center—more work, more benefit to the fiction—is reading, listening, or viewing performances about the period, found in historical research and/or in fiction or other art. The other extreme—requiring more work with potentially greater benefit—is reading, viewing and/or listening to the diction from the time, from primary sources.

Continuum of Actions Seeking Authentic Character Voices for Historical Fiction
I                                                                                                                                                         I
Search for word or phrases; use like seasoning       Read/listen/view about the period                               Read/listen/view from the period
Potential benefit for character voice

As effort increases along the continuum, likely location of and type of the writer’s source material changes. For example, the research needed to expend the least effort can be accomplished using Internet search engines. The writer accesses sources compiled by others about the historical period, mainly seeking words and phrases commonly used in the character’s time and location.

Near the center of the continuum, requiring more effort from the writer, sources typically include materials held by libraries and museums such as exhibits, movies or documentaries, music, and print resources available on site or online. The breadth of material reviewed is widened. The materials have been compiled and/or produced about the time and place the character inhabits.

The opposite end of the continuum depicts searching for not only secondary sources such as articles, books, and visual presentations produced during the period, but also primary source materials such as diaries, letters, and other personal writings; recordings of recollections by people living in the period; and other items produced during the time. The writer is likely to find those treasures in archives.

Please read the second part of this article tomorrow.

Teddy Jones lives and writes in West Texas. Her first novel, Halfwide was published in September, 2012 and her second, from MidTown Publishing, Jackson’s Pond, Texas in 2013. Well Tended, her third, also from MidTown, will be released in December, 2014. Her short fiction has been published in 94 Creations, RealSouth Magazine, and Persimmon Tree and was short-listed for finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and named finalist in 2014. Jackson’s Pond, Texas was a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in contemporary fiction. She holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University.  Find more on Teddy Jones at


historywriter said...

I absolutely use archives to find letters, journals, public records and photo albums to increase my understanding people and their time. I used the 1933 forest ranger's report on the work projects done by the CCCs to bring factual history into my story. The photographs, official letters, lists has also given me the knowledge to present public programs on my novel's background.

Teddy Jones said...

HI, I'm glad to know I'm in good company as a fan of archives. Thanks for reading these posts and encouraging others to. My best, Teddy

Carmen Peone said...

This is such a useful post. I write Native American, but live on the Reservation as my husband is a Colville Tribal Member. Everything has been handed to me by elders so I've never had to do research off the reservation. I"m sure this won't be the case forever and I need to learn how to research off res for future books. I appreciate your willingness to share. ~Carmen