Landscape, language, arts, culture, current events—these are some things a novelist must research before writing her novel. When I was researching my Ellis Island series, one thing I looked at was what people were reading at the turn of the twentieth century. You can discern a lot about a person by observing his/her reading choices, so why not do this for the characters in a novel?
It doesn’t matter if you are writing historical or contemporary, but books were far more valuable and treasured in years past, so I think historical novels ought to include them. It’s not only fun for the writer but also for the reader who most likely enjoys books as much as you do.
In my series I wanted to have my characters read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz because it was taking the country by storm. Everyone was reading it. It’s no wonder because so many people related to Dorothy Gale—displaced in the strange new world that America was becoming. My Irish characters had be emerged in the storytelling tradition that the Irish are known for. My American characters had to be enthralled with the futuristic tales of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Public libraries were not as accessible back then so I imagined people traded books, talked about them, and looked forward to new ones coming out, perhaps even more than people do today.
My advice for novelists is to research what people were reading at the time of your setting, and also look at what the newspapers were saying about the books being released. I’ve been hearing how much my readers are enjoying learning about my characters’reading tastes.
Cindy Thomson’s newest novel is Annie’s Stories (Tyndale House Publishers, July 2014,) the second in her Ellis Island series. She is also the author of Brigid of Ireland, Celtic Wisdom: Treasures From Ireland, and co-author of a baseball hall of famer biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story. She has written numerous magazine articles mostly on Irish genealogy, and blogs at www.cindyswriting.com.