Backstory: Putting your world in context

Context gives us clues to the meaning of an unfamiliar word, the emotion behind a friend’s reaction, the point of a political slogan.

  • The word “flag” can call several images to mind. But even if we’ve never used it this way ourselves, we can sense the meaning through context of a sentence like, “My energy level flags at the end of the day.”
  • When everyone else cheers for your child’s successful stage debut, you completely understand the context of your friend’s tears –her budding actress daughter just died of leukemia.
  • Without context, you might be confused by a cartoon I saw recently that put a Stephen King byline on “The Path to Prosperity” (the congressional budget).

World-building, or context, makes a plot richer, characters more complex, and setting more accessible. It makes the fictional story world believable.

Common sources for story context

  • Your characters’ backgrounds (backstory that often explains motivations and desires)
  • Their social setting (friends or the lack of them, marriage, courtship, and the activities associated with sustaining relationships)
  • The work/school part of their lives (jobs, classes, employers, coworkers, competitors, worry/anxiety)
  • The sociopolitical milieu (what’s happening in the world, near and far, that impacts your characters)

How to use these sources to create rich story context

Look around you, this very minute. Is there a photo of a family member or friend visible? Do you love or hate the room you’re in? Do you enjoy/fear/anticipate/loathe the activity you are supposed to be doing right now? Are you comfortable, hot, or cold? Is the lighting too bright or too dim? Have you just learned that people you know are in danger somewhere in the world? Are you ill or in pain? Have you just won the lottery or learned you’re pregnant?

This is your immediate context, the background that gives meaning to the next thing you do or say. Now you absolutely don’t want to write a scene in which the reader knows the answer to every one of those questions, but you do want the reader to know enough to understand the emotional and physical state you are in when you say or do that next thing.

A main character who gets surly after a couple of drinks and pours a beer on another man at a bar, may be assumed to be uncouth, a drunk, or a bully. But a main character who is fearful and anxious about being sent off to fight a war is understandably unsympathetic to a bar patron who complains his beer isn’t cold enough. How do you “show” the character’s fear and anxiety so the reader isn’t turned off by the character’s scorn? You reveal the context of the immediate situation. Look around the character; look around his world. Is he wearing fatigues? Does he fidget with dogtags? Is he glued to a TV in the bar showing scenes of the war? Does he have three empty bottles in front of him already? Does he fail to notice someone bump into him, or call his name? Does he drum on the table incessantly?

Take this same care to reveal context whenever you want your reader to understand a character’s actions. You don’t always have to use description, though. Conversation and interior thoughts can be just as revealing. Does the guy at the bar mutter curses at what he sees on the TV? Does he answer abruptly, or with a grunt, when someone asks if he’s in the army? While he watches the screen, is he thinking about his fiancée? Is he remembering a friend who returned home with only one leg?

Many writers who are just learning the craft will create detailed biographies of their characters, and then write a story that doesn’t use any of that material. Others cram pages of backstory into their early chapters, slowing the story down to a crawl. Character backgrounds are invaluable sources of context, helping readers understand the actions/reactions of characters. But an info-dump isn’t entertaining. Ease into context by leaving clues. Not too many, just enough.

How to ease into context

Mentioning, once, that a character’s bedroom is lined with shelves of shabby, second-hand books speaks volumes (no pun intended) about the character’s intellectual life and economic status. You don’t have to beat the subject to death by having the character wish they could afford new bestsellers, and gaze longingly in the window of a bookstore, and sigh about the lack of money for luxuries… dribbling the context into chapter after chapter. If you provide the context, and then always have the character act consistently within that context, your reader will understand the motivations that arise from it.

Historical context requires a bit more frequent maintenance. The reader needs to stay firmly in the period, so most scenes will need to have some reminder of the milieu. This could be as simple as a phrase that period-specific, a description of a hairdo or ornament, a reference to a familiar person living during that time, or a social custom. But you don’t want to slow the pace of the story with lengthy descriptions of room contents, architecture, or obscure language. If the hero is fighting the villain, a quick sentence about ripping off a cravat might do to remind the reader he shouldn’t expect a modern forensics team to clean up the scene.

Fantasy and science fiction share a common perception that their worlds are “made up.” But within the context of both, the world needs to have consistency and familiarity. Creating worlds in which nothing is familiar will slow down the reader who has to adapt to every single new thing. Again, look around your “made up” world and really see it, feel it, taste and smell it. What is the same? What is almost the same? What has the same function but a different name, and what has the same name but an enhanced function? You can ground (pun intended this time) a weightless or flying scene by having a familiar stationary landscape, or characters who are as clumsy in the air as they are on the ground, or a feeling of nausea that is similar to what a character experienced after eating bad fish. The reader who can identify with part of the scene can be carried along to the unfamiliar parts.

Next week: Using real and created timelines.

Courtship and Marriage – Regency Style (Part II)

A bit late (unexpected hospital visit by hubby)– Here is Part II of author Cheryl Bolen‘s blog about Regency Weddings. Cheryl is a former journalist and English teacher who admits to a fascination with dead English women. She is a contributor to The Regency Reader, The Quizzing Glass, and The Regency Plume. Her articles on Regency England can be found on her website, (Part One appeared here on May 9, 2011.)

The Regency Wedding

by Cheryl Bolen

Bridal couple, plate #15, Le Journal des Dames et Des Modes (Costumes Parisien) 1826

Few current Regency writers get weddings right. Formal wedding invitations were not sent out. Seldom was a church filled with well-wishers or strewn with flower arrangements because weddings were family affairs.  Neither bride nor groom was surrounded by attendants dressed alike in special attire.

In most instances, very few family members attended weddings. It was not the custom for out-of-town relatives to come for a wedding.

When Lady Georgiana Spencer, daughter of the enormously wealthy 1st Earl Spencer, married the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who was probably the richest peer in the realm and indisputably the biggest matrimonial catch, only five people attended the wedding. Georgiana’s parents feared a mob; therefore, the simple ceremony at a village church in Wimbledon was attended by the duke’s two siblings and Georgiana’s parents and grandmother.

The Prince of Wales himself (before he became Regent) was not married at Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s but at St. James Palace in a simple ceremony with just a handful of people present.

Lord Palmerston, the 2nd Viscount and father of the future Prime Minister, married Miss Frances Poole in an extremely simple ceremony when he was 28 years of age. Here is the announcement he sent to his mother: I should have wrote to you a little sooner but could not have given you any certain notice of the time of my being married, but have the pleasure to tell you that before you read this, you will in all probability have a most amiable daughter-in-law, as I believe we shall be married tomorrow.

The 1754 Marriage Act established that brides or grooms under the age of 21 could not marry without parental consent. The act also stipulated that all marriages had to be performed in an Anglican church between 8 a.m. and noon by an Anglican clergyman, unless the couple belonged to the Jewish or Quaker faith.

The wealthy purchased a special license that would allow them to marry speedily and to marry at any time or place. Many aristocratic daughters married at home, as did Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily, who married Lord Cowper at Melbourne House in 1805. A favorite church for aristocratic weddings in the Regency was St. George’s Hanover Square.

The bride’s father did give away his daughter, and the groom placed a wedding ring on the bride’s hand during the ceremony. Five people had to sign the marriage register at the church: the bride, groom, clergyman, and two witnesses.

The Wedding Dress

            Wearing a specially made white wedding gown with veil did not come into fashion until the Victorian era.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

Most Regency brides married in their best Sunday dress, with a bonnet or turban adorning their heads. White or another pastel was typically chosen for the gown. The wealthy, however, might get a special dress made for the wedding day. Lady Caroline (Ponsonby) Lamb’s was made of the softest muslin, with lace sleeves.

Bridal attendants were free to wear whatever they chose.

While Regency weddings were low key, an exception occurred when the Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, married in 1816. The public clamored for details of the Princess of Wales’ wedding. Her elaborate wedding dress was made of silver threads.

Regency wedding dresses would not be put away with moth balls after the ceremony; they would be much worn thereafter.  As Jane Austen might say, very sensible.

Cheryl Bolen

whose articles on Regency England can be read on her website,

Courtship and Marriage – Regency Style

This week and next, I’m super pleased to welcome guest blogger CHERYL BOLEN.

In addition to being extraordinarily active in two Houston-area chapters of Romance Writers of America, Cheryl is the acclaimed author of eight Regency-set historical novels published by Harlequin Historical and Zebra. Her books have placed in several writing contests, including the Daphne du Maurier, and have been translated into 11 languages. She was named Notable New Author in 1999, and in 2006 she won the Holt Medallion for Best Historical Novel.

CHERYL BOLEN‘s Regency-based romances are filled with the everyday details that immerse the reader in her world. Regency readers are very picky; they know their period and don’t hesitate to let authors know if they’ve gotten the costumes, the food, or the cussing wrong. As a reader, Cheryl has loved the period and its major chroniclers for a long time. As a dedicated writer, she’s researched her world thoroughly. Now her readers – and her awards – say she’s got it just right!

And now, as promised, CHERYL BOLEN discusses courtship, both royal and common, during the Regency period. Next Monday, she’ll conclude with details of Regency weddings. Enjoy!

Courting and Marriage in the Regency

by Cheryl Bolen

Engagements and marriages in the Regency were so vastly different than they are today that when an author “modernizes” these customs, it makes her book a wallbanger (as in throwing at the wall) to me.

The Regency was not the era of arranged marriages, unless these pertained to members of the Royal Family.  However, royals whose marriages were arranged—as was the Prince Regent’s— participated in the selection and rejection of proposed suitors. English royals typically married those born to other Protestant European royal families.

In the Regent’s case, he had never met the cousin he wed until the actual wedding ceremony. He was not happy when he saw her. He turned to the peer who had brought her from Germany and said, “Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy.”

Love matches were definitely the norm in the Regency but were not the same as today’s. A significant difference in so-called love matches was that the upper class had to pick potential spouses from a select pool. Aristocrats wed other aristocrats or persons who shared their social sphere.

A title holder could (but rarely did) marry beneath him. In 1812 the lecherous 42-year-old Lord Berwick married the 15-year-old courtesan who was sister to the famed courtesan Harriette Wilson. And the Duke of St. Albans married a former actress in 1827. Younger aristocratic sons, however, could be cut off completely if they married a woman from the lower classes.

Genteel young ladies almost never engaged in premarital sex. They were shielded from sex and not permitted to be alone with gentlemen. Even Lady Caroline Lamb, who later became famous for her adultery with Lord Byron (and others), was a complete innocent when she married William Lamb (later Prime Minister Lord Melbourne) at age 19. She was shocked and unhappy over the action that robbed her virginity, and it took her some time to recover.

Marrying Relatives

It was also extremely common to marry first cousins. When Lady Caroline Ponsonby fell in love with William Lamb and agreed to marry him, it caused much consternation in her mother’s family. Her first cousin, who would become the 6th Duke of Devonshire, became hysterical when he learned Caroline would marry because he had always thought to marry her himself, even though she was four years his senior. And her uncle, Earl Spencer, was furious because he’d always wanted Caroline to wed his heir.

Slightly later than the Regency, Queen Victoria married her first cousin. The Regent’s daughter had wed the brother of Queen Victoria’s mother.

In some quarters, uncles could even wed their nieces. In 1824, the powerful banking magnate James Rothschild, age 32, married the 19-year-old daughter of his brother. This may have been practiced only within the Jewish faith.

It was unlawful in England for a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother, or for a man to marry his diseased wife’s sister.

So-Called Love

Sheltered young brides-to-be from Britain’s “Upper Ten Thousand” often thought themselves in love with gentlemen they scarcely knew. Men, too, were known to become besotted over ladies with whom they had barely spoken.

Since there was little opportunity for intimacies, these lovelorn couples had to proclaim their marital intentions before being accorded the opportunity to initiate any intimacies.

A gentleman would lose his honor were he to “cry off” a prospective marriage. A man’s honor, in those days, was valued above everything—even happiness.

The Duke of Wellington suffered a miserable marriage to a woman he loathed rather than cry off. Arthur Wellesley (later Wellington), a career soldier, had little exposure to well-born ladies. When he met Kitty Packenham he immediately fancied himself in love with the 27-year-old. But since he was a younger son with no financial prospects, her parents would not consent to the marriage.

In the next ten years he made a fortune while soldiering in India, and his continued interest in Miss Packenham (whom he had not seen) was communicated to her. Her family then deemed him acceptable for their now 37-year-old maiden daughter. He, therefore, fled to her but was repulsed at what he saw. “She has grown ugly, by Jove!” he announced to his brother, but he was honor bound to marry her. Once they were wed, he came to know that she was also stupid and irritating to be around.

One man who did cry off was wealthy gentleman land owner Edward Turner, who jilted one of the most widely read authors in the Regency, Hannah More (1745-1833). Interestingly, neither of them ever married, and he always revered her. He just had a deep aversion to marriage. As was a custom of the day, Turner bestowed on More “pecuniary heart balm” in the form of a £200 annuity (roughly equivalent to $60,000 in today’s dollars) she would receive for the rest of her life.


Did a gentleman declare himself to the lady first or to her father? Sometimes a gentleman asked a maiden’s father for permission to court the daughter; sometimes the gentlemen declared himself first to the girl, then upon receiving encouragement, would seek out the father.

Once consent was reached and the father involved, the legal documents would be drawn. Most often the girl would bring a dowry. The 5th Duke of Devonshire, one of the richest men in the kingdom, bestowed an enormous dowry of £30,000 on his eldest legitimate daughter and the same sum on his illegitimate daughter but only £10,000 to his second legitimate daughter. (When her brother succeeded, he gave her £20,000 more to make amends for their father’s slight.) Lord Byron received a marriage settlement of £20,000 from the parents of Annabella Milbanke, who wasn’t as much of an heiress as he needed to wed. His lavish lifestyle had put him in debt more than £20,000—which is almost $6 million today.

The marriage agreements would also specify how much “pin money” the bride would receive annually from her husband. In Lady Caroline Ponsonby’s case, the Melbournes agreed to give their son’s wife £400 a year.

Provisions in the marriage contract would also be made for the wife in the event of her husband’s death.

Regency brides did not receive engagement rings.

Once the settlements were reached, the bride and her mother would busy themselves purchasing a trousseau. It was customary to send off a daughter with new clothing, gloves, shoes, and other items of apparel (more on wedding wear later).

I have never seen an example of an official engagement or wedding announcement in an extant newspaper, but it’s possible they may have appeared. Certainly, rumors of nuptials would be printed as well as caricatured in the press. (And many of us Regency writers have certainly used the device of bridal announcements in newspapers.)

The Church of England required the reading of marriage banns for three consecutive Sundays, but this could be circumvented by getting a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, a procedure which men of means usually followed. This could be obtained at some considerable expense at the archbishop’s office in Doctors’ Commons in London.

Compared to engagements of today, Regency engagements were typically quite short. Often, a wedding would take place within a month of the couple’s initial declaration.

Weddings  [To be continued on Monday, May 16…]


The most important attribute of a character may be his or her name. You, the author, have the power to make readers like or dislike your characters when they are first introduced through your choice of names. At the very least, you can tell the reader about their family backgrounds, what their closest friends call them, their parent’s sense of humor, and much much more.

“Real World” Names

There are a great many resources available for picking character names for “real world” works of fiction.  If the characters have a known ethnicity in their makeup, you can go to Google and easily search for those specific names and surnames (e.g., German names male or French surnames). Most sites will remind you if there are unique grammatical nuances you should know about, such as putting the surname before the given name, adding the mother’s surname after the father’s, or changing the final vowel to indicate gender. If your characters are multi-ethnic, or have lived in the United States or Canada for a long time, it’s possible their names are a mishmash of Anglicized foreign surnames and given names that may be completely made up or transformed into nicknames.

You can look up the most popular male and female names for many years in the lists maintained by the U.S. Social Security Administration (see A Wikipedia site ( offers currently popular names for other countries around the world. A list of patron saints, in order of their causes, can be found at

“Created World” Names

But if you are creating new creatures, new countries, new worlds, or new dimensions, you may need to invent an entirely new naming system for your story. Here are some questions that might help you structure your protocol:

  1. Is there a modern language (or two) whose rules you could modify for your world? For instance, many Spanish names for women end in the letter A, and the names for men often end in the letter O. Would a similar rule work for you?
  2. What titles and forms of address will be needed in your new world? For instance, the highest elected official in the U.S. is addressed as Mr. President, and a judge is addressed as Your Honor, whereas an English man who has been knighted is addressed as Sir plus their last name.  Is there an existing “real world” hierarchy you could alter to fit your needs?
  3. Is there a generic label such as Mr., Mrs. and Miss to use in polite conversation? Is age a factor in the use of such labels?
  4. If your names have meanings (e.g., in Latin, Donna means lady), what are they and how/when are they selected for a person – at birth, at puberty, after some event or feat?
  5. How are family names passed on – through the mother or the father? Or are surnames something that is either earned or selected by the individual?
  6. If names are spelled in a special way to indicate an ethnicity in your special world, what are the rules? Will your readers be able to easily recognize and pronounce these names?

Last Thoughts

A general rule often mentioned in writing workshops is to make each character’s name begin with a different letter (or at least a different sound). Andrea and Angela are too close in length and spelling for a fast read.

I would add to that a rule that is just for made-up worlds: Don’t make your character names so exotic that the reader is either annoyed or confused and ends up skipping over a lot of them because they have no idea how to pronounce them. (If you have to put a pronunciation guide in the back of the book, you’re probably getting way too exotic.)

Ingredients and Recipes for Story Worlds

A few days ago, I attended my local RWA (Romance Writers of America) meeting. One of our chapter members, published author Kimberly Frost, spoke on “Description and Dialogue”.

Kimberly is a funny, witty writer who speaks faster than humanly possible. But she left us with a lot of great nuggets of wisdom, one of which got me to thinking about the ingredients of what we call STORY.

One of those ingredients is description. Kimberly said a workshop instructor had once likened description to the trappings of a beautiful, exquisitely furnished stage for a play. Everything is there behind the curtain, down to the minutiae of everyday living. You couldn’t ask for more detail.  But people don’t pay money to sit and stare at a stage for 90 minutes! A play with only a setting is missing a lot, including its major ingredient—the cast. A play is about what happens to characters, not what happens to the couch. There doesn’t even have to be much action. In fact, there have been stage plays (and, of course, radio shows) performed by actors who never move, but only stand or sit while they say their lines. Imagination fills in the scenery.

On the other hand, as Kimberly noted, people fight for tickets to the Montel Williams Show, which has almost no set. Why? You might say they’re paying big bucks to watch characters interact—but that’s only partly true. They have specific expectations of these characters; they want to see people raucously live out a stressful part of their lives on that bare set. What do they get for their money? Anger, confrontation, threats, passion, lying, cheating, stealing, angst, even physical fights. In other words, an ingredient writers call conflict. Sometimes, they even get happily ever after, but not always. So for this show, the prime ingredient is conflict, with a heavy dose of quirky characters and virtually nothing in the way of a setting.

Other genres demand different ingredients, mixed together in different proportions. The exact recipe depends on what you’ve promised your reader—what kind of literary cake you’re selling.


If you’re writing a thriller, then the batter has to be heavy on the tension and action, maybe even equal parts. But any external tension has to migrate into high emotions (fear, anticipation, distrust, etc.) in your main characters, so the ingredient that goes next on the list is characters we care about. You may not need a large spotlight on dialog with all those bombs going off, and you definitely don’t need to know the architectural style of the building going up in smoke.

Thriller Chillers

  • 1 heaping load of trouble heading toward the main characters
  • 1 crowded agenda of things that have to be done to evade, confront, or pursue the trouble
  • A substantial cast of characters emotionally impacted by the trouble
  • A dash of fast-paced dialog that keeps the cast together or threatens to divide them.
  • A pinch of evocative description that uses words’ emotional connotations to good effect.

Subject all ingredients to various implements of torture. Continue baking against an impossible deadline. When the beeper goes off, make sure everybody jumps!


On the other hand, if you’re writing a character study, perhaps a sweet coming-of-age story, you may need to turn the previous recipe upside down. A believable character with deep feelings is going to make or break this kind of book. You’ll be using external action mostly to trigger internal conflict and change. Emotional reactions will season every single scene, from solitary daydreams to coping with extraordinary events. Description can actually be very useful in a character study, as what and how your main character views the world should change during the course of the plot.

Roasted Life Under Glass

  • 1 small, intimate cast of main characters (as few as one or two), each of whom has a serious flaw or lack of experience
  • 1 truckload of opportunities or encounters, graduated in scope or importance, each one forcing toward an epiphany
  • 1 trunk of obstacles, bad decisions, and poor advice
  • A heaping dose of dialog, both internal and external; use to clarify, increase heat, or simmer.
  • A judicious helping of description, as needed to provide literary leavening

Combine all ingredients and strain, hard. Stew slowly, agitating often, until transformation occurs.


OK, all this talk about recipes is making me hungry. Here’s my personal favorite to whip up with leftover chicken, pork or tofu. It’s a general sort of recipe that can be customized to fit the audience. Substitute mandarin oranges for peaches, add zucchini or broccoli if you like. Ad lib!

Sweet and Sour [name your protein] with Savory Peach Rice

Serves: 2 or 3

  • 1 Tbsp light olive oil (or other vegetable oil)
  • ½ Large onion, roughly chopped
  • ½ Green bell pepper, roughly chopped
  • 6-10 Baby carrots, sliced
  • 3-4 Button mushrooms, sliced, optional
  • Handfull of frozen peas, thawed or not, optional
  • Handfull of frozen corn, thawed or not, optional
  • 1/8 Cup commercial Sweet and Sour Sauce
  • Leftover chicken, pork or tofu—cooked
  • 1 Cup rice
  • 1 Can sliced peaches in their own juice, drained and cut into ½-inch pieces (reserve the juice in two separate batches)
  • ½ Stick cinnamon
  • 1 Piece of candied ginger

In a small container, mix the Sweet and Sour Sauce with enough of the reserved peach juice to make ¼ cup sauce. In a measuring cup, combine the rest of the juice with water to make 1-1/2 cups of liquid. Add this liquid to the rice in a saucepan, along with half of the peach pieces. Put the cinnamon and ginger in a tea strainer hung from the side of the saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover and cook for 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

In a skillet, sauté the onion, peppers and carrots until soft. Add all the other solid ingredients, including the remaining peach pieces, and cook for one minute. Add the sauce-juice mixture. Cover the skillet and turn down the heat. Let simmer until rice is ready. Remove tea strainer from rice and fluff. Serve. Enjoy!

Writers Guides to Everyday Life in the Past

Perhaps you’ve never considered writing a novel based in the “real” past. If so, these books could change your mind…

Did the early Americans eat cranberry sauce with their turkey? How did Henry VIII’s wives stay warm in the winter? What kind of fabrics did pioneer fashionistas have access to in the Wild West? Which religious feasts were observed as a day off work in Medieval England? What is an “ague” and how do you make it go away?

These are questions every writer asks. Well, maybe only the ones who plan to write about 17th century America, drafty castles in London, a little house on a prairie, the life of a serf, or the ills of the idle gentry. But they’re good questions and can be really important to a writer who wants to paint an accurate portrait of the past.

Researching the answers doesn’t have to be difficult, or deadly dull, either. My bookshelves are jammed with books that present facts in an easy-to-find way. Books that I actually enjoy reading for pleasure. Let me tell you about some of them.

(Note: all of these books are available through booksellers such as Barnes and Noble and Borders, as well as many independent bookstores.  I have also provided links to an information/order page that lists all the titles in this blog.

Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life (published by Writers Digest)

These are both highly entertaining and very helpful. They cover everything from what the servants wore to what physicians used to cure disease. Well organized for the person who just needs one fact, they are so delightful you’ll want to read them from cover to cover. Sample chapter titles (from different books): Government, Law and Politics; Professions; Slang and Everyday Speech; Money and Coinage; Courtship and Marriage; Wars, Weapons and Treaties; Medicine; Wages, Currency, Clothing and Dry Goods; Food and Diet; Life in City, Town and Country; Architecture; Marriage and Family; Furnishing a House. Each of these nine volumes has an excellent index at the back, too.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon

Hardcover, ISBN-10: 0898795419

Few reference books include as many fascinating, informative facts as this one does! Packed with details of nineteenth-century [American] life, Marc McCutcheon leaves no stone unturned. This dictionary-style reference guide includes details of every facet of life– fashion and clothing, courtship and marriage rituals, slang terms, popular foods, common occupations, health and medicine, and much more. Of particular interest are the sections on the Civil War and life on the range. There is also a special section on types of crime, crime terms and criminal statistics. Mr. McCutcheon even includes helpful chronologies of noted books, magazines, innovations, popular songs and special events. Never again will you worry about what song your heroine should be singing in 1869! (Little Brown Jug is a good choice.) Each chapter includes numerous quotes from magazines and novels of the era, illustrating proper word usage. Although the novice writer will find this book particularly helpful, seasoned professionals will also find numerous bits of trivia that may be new to them. .. Though it is not intended to replace other historical references, it will be a welcome addition to any writer’s research library. If you have ever been frustrated and unable to find an obscure fact, this is the place to look! Fascinating and comprehensive! Kristina Wright — From Literary Times

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811 to 1901 by Kristine Hughes

Paperback, ISBN-10: 158297280X

Respected author and historian Kristine Hughes illuminates every aspect of life, love and society that characterized this fascinating era. Writers will save hours of valuable research time and achieve historical accuracy as they reference slice-of-life facts, anecdotes, first-hand accounts and timelines.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840 to 1900 by Candy Moulton

Paperback, ISBN-10: 1582972117

Everyday Life in the Wild West shows you firsthand what it was like to tame the praries, fight the battles and build the boomtowns. From the vittles people ate (including boudins and buffalo humps) to what they wore (such as linsey-woolsey, caliso and duck), this book is packed with historical accounts, maps and photographs to give you a complete perspective of this fascinating era.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition to World War II by Marc McCutcheon

Hardcover, ISBN-10: 0898796970

Similar in design and content to McCutcheon’s Life in the 1800s.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England from 1485 to 1649 by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Hardcover, ISBN-10: 0898797527 (Kindle edition also available)

Feeling a bit “elf-shot” these days? Perusing this recent addition to the Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Guide history series will take your mind off such troubles. It has information on everything from Shakespearean-era postal systems to waterways to holidays to diets; it also defines contemporaneous lingo like the aforementioned supernatural malady. It’s the next best thing to a time machine. ( review)

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles from 500 to 1500 by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Paperback, ISBN-10: 1582970017

Reviews on this are mixed. Use it as a jumping-off spot.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, 1607-1783 by Dale Taylor

Paperback, ISBN-10: 1582971773

Readers will understand all the events- from the seemingly inconsequential to the major- that framed Colonial American life. Includes sections on family life, fashion, earning a living, what colonists ate, climate, geography, trade, and much more.

Everyday Life during the Civil War (Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series) by Michael J. Varhola

Paperback (1999), ISBN-10: 0898799228

CAREFUL! This must be really exceptional because Amazon has NEW copies of this for $150; used from $9.99 (the new price could possibly be a misprint?).

Everyday Life Among the American Indians: 1800 to 1900 (Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series) by Candy Moulton

Paperback (2001), ISBN-10: 0898799961

The lives of American Indians and the vital role they played in American history has been riddled with stereotypes and falsehoods. Everyday Life Among the American Indians corrects decades of misinformation with insightful, accurate scholarship that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in reading–or writing–the real story. Covering more than 500 tribes and utilizing maps, illustrations, chronologies, and detailed overviews of day-to-day life, this invaluable reference for writers, researchers and students is at once comprehensive yet strikingly accessible. From the Louisiana Purchase to the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee and beyond, author Candy Moulton vividly portrays the disappearing cultures of 19th century American Indians with dignity and dynamic detail

Of course, there are lots more highly readable and entertaining books about everyday life in the past. Here are just a few to consider adding to your bookshelf:

Everyday Life in Early America by David Freeman Hawke

Paperback, Young Adult, ISBN-10: 0060912510

In this clearly written volume, Hawke provides enlightening and colorful descriptions of early Colonial Americans and debunks many widely held assumptions about 17th century settlers. He argues that most pioneers were not young and that their families weren’t much larger than present-day households. In addition, he states that adults lived longer than has been believed and that most early settlers were artisans and craftsmen with little knowledge of farming, although the wilderness soon forced them to adapt. Hawke includes entertaining discussions of what the first white Americans ate (for example, raccoon was served in New York). He also discusses how colonial Americans were punished for crimes and how they treated enslaved blacks and indentured servants. This book is informative but could have been more deeply researched. Publisher’s Weekly

The Regency Companion by Laudermilk & Hamlin.

Hardcover, ISBN-10: 0824022491

This is out of print, but still available from sources such as I don’t have this one, but I’ve heard it’s AMAZING and EXCELLENT and FANTASTIC (and wicked). I’m going to get a copy!

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England by Daniel Pool

This guide to daily life in 19th-centuryEngland is a welcome companion for readers of Austin, the Brontes, Dickens, and Trollope. The first section is a collection of engrossing short chapters on various aspects of British life, including clothing, etiquette, marriage, money, occupations, society, and transportation. For example, customs now lost but very much practiced at the time were primogeniture, which ensured that the great family houses would not be split up, and the avoidance of eating cheese by the middle class, who considered it a food for the poor. The second part of the book is a glossary of commonly used words or phrases that may be unfamiliar to the modern reader; for instance, tar was a colloquial name for a sailor. Although there are many books on the social history of 19th-century Britain (including several companions to Victorian fiction), this volume is useful because of its concise chapters and lengthy glossary. Recommended for general literature collections.
– Caroline Mitchell, Washington, D.C.,  Library Journal

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray

History buffs, Anglophiles and perhaps even fans of Regency romances will enjoy this survey of the notoriously flamboyant English Regency period (here covering the years 1780-1830). In 13 well-researched chapters studded with excerpts from letters, diaries, journals and memoirs, Murray offers a lively portrait of upper-class life during a time marked by “elegance and style which are unique in the history of English culture.” The influx of thousands of aristocratic refugees from the French Revolution spurred a frenzied embrace of French fashions, as well as the Prince Regent’s ostentatious style, and transformed England during those 50 tumultuous years. Meanwhile, support of the Napoleonic war and the effects of the Industrial Revolution led to economic chaos: “in some cases rents were increased five-fold between 1790 and 1830.” As the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, the vicious Luddite riots protested the unemployment caused by the introduction of new machinery. Despite endemic violence, there was no organized police force. Murray does a wonderful job of bringing to life the era’s notablesAincluding Beau Brummel, Jane Austin, Wellington, Mrs. Fitzherbert and Lady Caroline LambAand observing the profligate spending habits and social inanities of the upper-crust British in the post-Waterloo era. Publishers Weekly

Welcome, worlds!

What world do you live in?

For avid readers, that’s an easy question to answer: we live in the world inside the story. Here on this blog, we’re going to talk about the process of creating those worlds. Topics may include research, creatures, imagination, culture, science, magic, using real historical figures, mythology, the laws of a new world, the pitfalls and the sheer FUN of creation!

Join me and my writer friends as we explore all the different ways you can make a world.

Regular posting will begin in March, 2011. Don’t worry, I’ll make the announcement BIG!