Though not the height of fashion, a white cotton shirtwaist was the unofficial uniform of schoolteachers in the Edwardian Philippines. Having used a chalkboard for a good part of my own teaching career, I can attest that having your sleeves already be white is extremely practical. Two of my previous heroines, Georgina and Allegra, thought so too.
According to the Indianapolis Journal on January 1, 1900: “The shirtwaist will be with us more than ever this summer. Women are wearing shirtwaists because they are comfortable, because they can be made to fit any form, and because they are mannish.” Fashion historian Catherine Gourley explains that “it was similar to a man’s shirt. It had a stiff, high-necked collar and buttons down the front. Women often wore one with a floppy bow or tie. Some pinned a brooch to the collar.”
In contrast, high fashion in the first decade of the 1900s was a structured Gibson Girl silhouette that looked a lot like that of the previous century, particularly the painfully small waist. The badly named “health” corset “pushed the bust forward and the hips back in an attempt to avoid pressure on the abdomen,” according to the timeline of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) of the State University of New York. The shape was top-heavy with dramatic sleeves, “enhanced with petticoats that had full backs and smooth fronts” (FIT).
Dresses did not loosen until around 1910 or so, but fortunately Sugar Communion is quite epic in scope so I can explore new fashion templates that look far more comfortable. I was surprised by how 1920s-esque they looked, and then I found that FIT agreed with me: “While changes in women’s fashion that manifested in the 1920s are often attributed to changes due to World War I, many of the popular styles of the twenties actually evolved from styles popular before the war and as early as the beginning of the decade.”
I paged through only a few of the plates at the Costume Institute Collections at The Met to get an idea of what I would like to see Liddy wear, when she gets the chance—when she is not tending to patients in a practical shirtwaist, that is.
I think the geometric patterns on the above skirt would appeal, though Liddy is not likely to be seen at entertainments like horse races, nor would she approve, probably.
See what I mean by the roaring twenties vibe? Ignore the hat on the right, which seems to be an inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s cat. Both of these dresses seem so elegant. The one on the left I can see Miss Fisher wearing while she solves a murder mystery.
I do not understand the knotted kerchief hanging off the belt on the right illustration above, but that blouse and skirt is otherwise very modern. Also, women began to dare to show some ankle—racy, I know!—though not bare skin. My heroine Liddy does not have the time nor inclination for hose, so socks and boots are her daily wear.
I think that back in the 1980s I had a blouse like the one above on the left. No feathered hats for me or Liddy, though.
These plates tell me that clothing was starting to become more comfortable, and even high fashion followers did not want to be dependent on a maid to dress them all the time.
Can you imagine having a ladies’ valet in 2020? “The yoga pants again, ma’am?”
In addition to the research guidance that I offer in my Micro-History Workshop, I have collected a slew of tools that I use regularly to enhance my character and setting development.
Do you need to name a hero or heroine? Plan a heroine’s pregnancy? Determine the (likely) color of a child’s eyes? Get some dos and don’ts in describing skin color? Follow this link to learn more.
Do you want to view the same sky as your characters? Make a best guess at future weather, with or without a farmer’s almanac? Find a historical map of your chosen city—or make your own? Find out what plants or animals are indigenous to the region? Follow this link to learn more.
In another post, I showed you amazing free sites online that can help with character development. For some books, though, the physical environment is a character itself, and it needs to be developed just as thoroughly—but differently.
Here are some tools for where (and when) your story might take place:
On my character development page, I talk about the usefulness of Timeanddate.com for moon phases, but—oh my—move over T&D because there’s a new web technology in the house, and it’s awesome, in the traditional grand scope of that word. Meet the Stellarium online star map.
First, choose your setting: click on the left corner rectangle that probably starts with “unknown” or maybe your current location. You can add in an address, or even just a city, and move the pointer exactly where you want it. Below is the location for my fictional San Honorato chapel.
Then choose your date and time with the controls that pop out of the bottom right corner. The slider shows you how the sky changes over the course of the evening.
And then, wow. You’re there. Just like your characters. Amazing! You can ask the program to draw constellations for you, to represent them artistically, or even to take the ground away altogether.
I have just barely scratched the surface, and no doubt there are many other amazing features. For example, if you want to take this outside to use for your night sky, choose the night view button that makes the screen red and black to help your eyes stay adjusted and avoid light pollution for gazing. Go play.
Tides4Fishing will give you detailed information on the rising and setting of the sun, solunar activity, moon phase, and astronomical observation data. However, it is best used for tidal data like the name suggests. How many beach-set books forget to talk about high tide or low tide? Yet it is the first thing you notice when you are actually on a beach because it determines how much sand you have right in front of you.
This site only has historical data back a few years, but I find that if you generally get the right time of year and the right moon phase, it works well enough.
I have found no better weather site than WeatherSpark.com—not for your immediate forecast, but for average historical data? You bet. (You can also check out the Farmer’s Almanac website here.)
The diagram above has a little of everything they offer: from clouds in the sky to precipitation, humidity, temperature, and “beach/pool score” (defined as the number of “clear, rainless days with perceived temperatures between 75°F and 90°F”). Honestly, it is also useful for vacation planning.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “How likely would it precipitate on such-and-such a date?” Now you can snow in your couple at a lovely cabin in Aspen over Thanksgiving, assured that this plot device is totally plausible. I love forced proximity romances, by the way, so gimme.
If you are in the United States or its territories (or former territories), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows you to search historic weather data. Great stuff!
Everyone uses Google Maps, and so do I. But for authorly things I often prefer Mapcarta. This free service uses OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia, but this is one of the clearest topographic maps I have found, especially as the topography can be laid directly over a street map.
Or . . . what if you do not know exactly where you want to locate your story? You need someone to lay photos over the map, like VH1s old Pop-Up Video, so you can choose a location. Mapcarta has done exactly that but (sadly?) without the 80s music. As you linger over one of the circles, the site will enlarge it and even give you a big close-up.
Don’t forget the obvious. YouTube is owned by Google, which is why I recommend using the Google Video search bar. This gives you more tools to limit your results, though beware that date refers to date uploaded. I searched “New York 1900” and look what I found:
Another quick tip: use social media like Instagram and Facebook to search places for user photos too!
For historical authors, detailed maps of how cities used to look are essential. For example, Locating London’s Past, with GIS-compliant data-rich maps is a great resource for those setting their book there. For other cities, a specific Google search may be your first stop. Your second stop? Your target city’s library and any digital map collections they might have.
But where next? Try the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. They have maps from all over the world, on topics from population to transportation to history. You can start by browsing their curated collections:
Or you can search for a particular country and look at everything they have. This is the current collection of historical maps on the Philippines:
Most of these maps are government publications, which means they were never in copyright and can be used in commercial publications.
If you want privately published maps—many of which are out of copyright and may be downloaded in high-resolution files—check out David Rumsey‘s collection. Most of the downloads are free, but you can purchase prints, even framed prints, directly from the site. With maps like this one from Time, I can see the appeal.
I found excellent historical maps of Boston in this collection, and I used these to help construct the backstory of my first heroine, Georgina Potter. I knew her address before the story began, though it never once came up in the book itself. Does anyone else go a little too deep into their characters’ backstories, even if just in their heads? Okay, maybe it’s just me.
And if you are not writing historicals? What about science fiction. This site has interactive planetary maps, too, like this one of Venus.
What if you don’t want to use a map but make a map? Stamen is a “data visualization and cartography design studio” that has worked for pretty much every major museum and Fortune 500 company. For the rest of us, they have made some great tools for downloading open-source maps for our own illustrations. First, choose among many different options, three of which you can see below:
Then, enter the place you want—and, yes, it has to be a real place. This is Columbus, Ohio, my own hometown, and the origin of my next heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shepherd.
Click on <image> and you are given options for downloading a portion of the map. Check out the watercolor base for my Sugar Sun series map of Bais:
Amazing, right? It’s actually even prettier in the download. Here’s what I whipped up for my readers:
Do you want to disappear down a museum rabbit hole? Google’s got that. They have digitized collections from over 100 global museums and cultural sites, particularly useful for the budget (or pandemic) constrained.
While nothing here can be downloaded, obviously screen grabs work pretty well.
I particularly appreciate Google’s work with non-profit and academic institutions to bring ancient sites to life. I plan to use these in my teaching.
And, of course, they have both world wars pretty much covered:
I have just scratched the surface here. Go lose yourself.
One of the most important aspects of setting is what flowers you smell or what animals you see crossing the road. Whether flora or fauna, the GBIF database is incredibly powerful. If you know the species name of what you want, this site will show you where and when it has been sampled or observed. It will also give you a lot of data that I cannot really explain what to do with, but maybe you will figure it out. (The lack of science in my post-secondary education is obvious.)
In order to find the record of any particular specimen, you cannot just click on the dot, which is not the greatest user interface. But if you use the limit tool underneath the zoom out button, you can find the information you want.
There is one other important type of map, and there is only one person making them: sensory maps. You got it: what does your scene smell like?
You can read more about artist Kate McLean and her project on Atlas Obscura. If you want the maps themselves, you have to go to her own website, SensoryMaps.com. There you can find illustrations that ask questions like, “What did ancient Rome smell like?”
Smell is the sense too often forgotten in writing. See if Kate McLean can help you fix that.
Thank you for checking out this blog post. I hope the tools I have found are helpful to you, and feel free to contact me if you have other suggestions. Thank you for visiting!
NECRWA 2013 in Burlington, Massachusetts, was the first romance writing conference I ever attended, and I will not lie: it was scary at first. I really did not have any friends yet, I was new to the industry, and I had to learn some difficult truths—primarily that the Big Five were not interested in historical romance set in the Gilded Age Philippines. At all. No matter how much they liked my writing, either, as one agent and one editor told me after marking up my pages. Would I be interested in writing a Regency duke for them?
And yet I have come to realize that meeting with an editor or agent is a great way to get a pulse on the market. I no longer pin my hopes and dreams on traditional publication, and yet I still take advantage of traditional A&E appointments. I put together genuine pitches for what I hope to work on next, and I get ten minutes of helpful feedback. If the agent or editor wants to see a partial or full, I absolutely follow through to see where it goes. Take your ten minutes! And check out who’s coming this year:
(For total transparency’s sake: I am the 2019 Agent and Editor chair of the conference. You’ve been warned.)
But back to my 2013 story: do you know who got me through my initial tearful disappointment? The wonderful friends I made at #NECRWA13! Many of them had never met me before that day, but they sat with me and helped to soften the blow when the very real anvil of publishing flattened me on the pavement. In my six years of conference going, my conclusion has not changed: NECRWA is one of the friendliest regional conferences around.
NECRWA has also become more inclusive, especially in the last three years—whether inclusion means indie versus trad writers, smaller subgenres, or diverse fiction and specifically #ownvoices. Check out the workshops below:
Finally, we have a banging book event. It’s called the T.G.I.For Literacy Book Signing, and for the low, low price of $20 per author, half of which goes to a literacy charity, you can join too! It is free to the public, and there is no book fair with a longer table of gift baskets. At least, I don’t think so. I was the emcee for this event last year, and I think we had over 60. Sixty baskets. That’s a lot of free books.
Are you sold yet? You should be! Please come join us next month. Find the registration links on the NECRWA homepage. And come introduce yourself to me in person—I’ll be one of the conference committee wearing a tiara. (Haha, if you know me, you know how funny that is. I coach American football FFS.)