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Writing Historical Female Characters by Jill G. Hall

Guest post by author Jill G. Hall

I’m the author of a dual timeline series about women searching for their place in the world connected by vintage finds. All three novels feature present day artist Anne McFarland and a counterpart female character from the past. I’ve been drawn to time periods undergoing social change for women. The Black Velvet Coat takes place in the early noir 1960s on the cusp of the sexual revolution. The Silver Shoes occurs during the flapper era and into the great depression and The Green Lace Corset during the 1885 Wild West. 

As an intuitive writer I don’t work from an outline, let my characters lead the way and so as not to get overwhelmed and distracted I wait until later in the process to do deep research. However, as I wrote the first drafts in my journal, I imagined what life might have been like for my past era protagonists back then as compared to women’s lives of today. For the second draft I put stickies on worthy journal pages and began to type them in.   

During my third draft I began to intensely research by fact checking and gathering in details to help color in the story. Even though my characters are fiction I was determined to honor women from those eras. Here are some of my favorite research resources.  

My 5 Favorite Research Options 

  1. Google – I love to search the information superhighway. I’ve used Google to find vocabulary word lists such as flapper slang and check when certain words and phrases began being in use. I discovered “having sex” wasn’t used in the 1880s but amorous congress was, a real challenge to put smoothly into a romantic scene. I’ve scanned restaurant menus to determine what might have been served at a 1929 debutante ball or at San Francisco’s Top of the Mark in early 1960s. I even found a film clips of 1920s New York traffic. Did you know they had cars and buses right next to horse and buggies? An old newspaper clipping even described an 1880s robbery that reinforced a scene I’d written.  
  2. Wikipedia – I scoured Wikipedia to confirm when famous buildings and towns were built such as Coit Tower, Grand Central Station and Flagstaff. I searched for dating standards of each era such as did women have access to telephones, need to have chaperones or go to the movies. I read up on how a man in 1885 might wear his hair or shave.   
  3. Pinterest – I perused Pinterest for all things fashion. It’s the best place to find vintage photos of hairstyles, hats, dresses and of course shoes from bygone eras! A green lace corset sparked scenes for my third novel. I even had a costume designer make one made like it that was photographed for my book cover and I wore it to my launch events.    
  4. Magazines and Books – I love pictures, their descriptions and short articles in old magazines such as Arizona Highways and LIFE. In a book about the Wild West, I learned a mercantile didn’t just display dry goods, guns but also coffins. I read novels that take place during those eras and controversial novels and poetry that my characters might have had access to such as Peyton Place and The Leaves of Grass
  5. Postcards, Letters, Diaries – Primary sources touched by a real person who lived in an era can inspire magic. Part of the fun is all in the hunt. I bought a 1927 datebook diary for three dollars at an antique shop. I love to scour for vintage postcards that are a bonus when there was writing on the back. I discovered a box of letters from the 1880s sent by my great grandfather to my great grandmother when he traveled the country before they were married. How dramatic was this line I took from one: I’ll soon be asleep in the arms of Morpheus? Then, there was the resale black velvet coat I bought that got the whole series going and a photo of it is actually on my first book cover.  

Through my research I realized how women from the past were controlled and treated horribly by stringent social mores and the men in their lives. I’m grateful many research options are available to me. But I also learned through the process that I’m especially grateful to the women who paved the way, so my contemporary women like me have much more freedom to live fulfilling lives. 

Jill G. Hall is the author of a dual timeline trilogy about women searching for their place in the world connected by vintage finds. The first of the series, The Black Velvet Coat, was a #1 Amazon Bestseller and an International Book Award Finalist for Best New Fiction. The second, The Silver Shoes, was a Distinguished Favorite in the NYC Big Book Awards. Her poems have appeared in a variety of publications including A Year in Ink, The Avocet, and Wild Women, Wild Voices.

As a visual artist Jill uses found objects to fashion whimsical mosaics, collages and assemblages. She hosts workshops for artists of all types at San Diego Writers, Ink and on her ranch in Descanso. Stage performances have ranged from Macbeth to The Music Man. Her personal experiences as a visual and performing artist have been interwoven into her novels. She is a seasoned presenter at seminars, readings and community events. On her blog Crealivity she shares personal musings about the art of practicing a creative lifestyle.

Jill’s tenure as an inner-city educator spanned over twenty years incorporating her interest in the arts along the way. Positions have included being an Arts Magnet Coordinator and teaching on staff with the California Arts Project. Her B.A. and master’s degrees are from the University of San Diego and she holds an Educational Leadership doctorate from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. 

She has served on a variety of philanthropic boards, chaired the Creative Catalyst Program for Individual Artists through the San Diego Foundation and volunteers on the San Diego Arts and Culture Challenge Committee raising funds for local nonprofits and artists in need. She also gardens, practices yoga, tap dances and enjoys spending time in nature. One of her greatest joys is to hear from readers and visit book clubs because that’s what inspires her to keep writing.

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