How many of us have remarked that we wished for a time machine. We have to see and experience things ourselves to truly understand them. But since that’s not possible, we can do the next best thing (something I always try to do when writing historical fiction) and read the words and thoughts of those who lived before us. There are a few ways to accomplish this.
Read Their Words
There is nothing like a diary or journal to get into the mindset of the people of the past. Did you know John Adams kept a diary? Here is a fascinating list of online historical diaries. There are slave narratives (audio believe it or not) on the National Archives web site.
You can find more at local historical societies and libraries. Sometimes they are hard to read but worth the effort. My husband found a hand-written genealogy written in 1888 by one of his relatives. It’s not just a genealogy, though. It has memories and stories that relatives told as well, including one man who was a chaplain in the Union army and accompanied the troops on Sherman’s march to the sea. It has remembrances about how one man’s mother was distressed when he joined a different church until a pastor set the mother straight, and even one interesting story about a trip to a fortune teller.
Live in Their Society
Nothing beats contemporary newspapers for learning about the world our ancestors lived in. Of course you can look for names and dates, but to get a feel for how they lived their lives and what events influenced them, read newspapers and magazines. The magazines often contained serial fiction that later was put into books that you’ve probably heard of. In my novel Annie’s Stories I talk about Harper’s doing this, and you can even read some issues online here. For historical newspapers look here.
There are many sites where you can find old photographs, and just doing a Google search will bring up many. If you’ve ever seen photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island, you’ve probably seen Augustus Sherman’s photographs. He makes a cameo appearance in my novel Grace’s Pictures. I love to study the expressions, but you can also learn a lot from the clothing (were they rich or poor?) and even from the setting (in a studio, at home, outside?) Those Ellis Island photographs often depict people in their native garb, something they may have quickly discarded once they stepped foot in Battery Park when relatives met them with more American clothing (so they wouldn’t stand out.)
These are just a few things that help me go back in time. What other ideas do you have?