This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Value of Memoirs & Journals to Fiction Authors

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Whether you are writing contemporary or historical, it is important to have the appropriate culture of the setting in your book. If you are writing about a small southern town in Georgia, the environment and the people will be much different than a small northern town in New Jersey or a small western town in Oregon. This is even more true for novels set in other countries with language differences and deeply rooted cultures. 

If you are writing historical, you will also need to consider the changes in culture of your setting, depending on your time period. Specific events, sweeping political movements, pandemics, so many things could have changed an area in the span of only a few years. 

Certain resources are only going to tell you basic facts. For example, encyclopedias, articles, and history books tend to provide a brief summary on the history of when a place was founded, people, location, climate, well known events, and famous people in the area. It will not provide details on what was/is their culture. What do people do on a hot Sunday afternoon? On a cold blistery weekday? What kind of foods do they serve? I can guarantee sweet tea is available in most states below Virginia, but you'll be hard pressed to find in many states above the Virginia line. You won't find this detail in an encyclopedia or on most reference sites. What other details like this could be common knowledge to the locals in the setting you're writing about, but not necessarily common knowledge to you?

My advice is to find some memoirs, journals, and published diaries from some locals in the area where you've set your book. It might even be helpful to find published letters. Yes, most of these are typically historical documents, but they could serve as some great background to your contemporary elderly characters. Maybe your younger characters were raised by a strict Catholic or Baptist who made your heroine or hero hate rules. Your contemporary character could reminisce about his/her childhood days. A character's background makes them who they are in your book, just like in real life. It provides motivation for their behavior and actions. Best of all, it provides authenticity that you won't find in most reference books.

If you're writing historical, the things you discover could be your characters' world. Old journals, memoirs and diaries reveal private, everyday life that you won't find in a history book. It's the details between the lines of fact. It's where the real stories are and it provides kindling for your fiction.

So where do you find these memoirs, journals, published letters and diaries? 

Local Libraries
You might find a few of them in the local library, but it won't be in the typical historical reference section. You need to go to the genealogy section. That's where you will find handwritten, manual typed references that people have written themselves and contributed to preserve the local history of the area. Families whose elderly have passed on find things in attics and basements, and they contribute them to libraries and historical societies. 

Local Historical Societies
Look on the local historical society website as some provide listed references of local and historical documents that they have transcribed themselves. Sometimes they sell these references to help raise money for their society. They preserve homes and buildings in local areas and restore them to look as they did in their prime. Often, they offer tours, to help raise funds to keep up these sites.

Genealogy Societies 
A few genealogy societies and amateur genealogists provide scanned images of documents or transcriptions on their personal genealogy websites. Other places they upload their info include:
Please note: Rootsweb was a free service that Ancestry purchased a few years ago. Most of the info on Rootsweb is supposed to be free, but Ancestry is not free.

Blogs and Websites
For some, modern journals are blogs. Local blogs and editorials can provide some great details that you won't find anywhere else. Look for blogs by local historians, museums, newspapers that feature specific themes, culturally based blogs in the location you're researching. Avoid blogs where people try to conceal their location and blog about coupons or contests. Before reading blog posts, check out their links and page themes so you don't waste time on a blog that won't provide what you're looking for.


This is really helpful. Thanks. I like what you point out about blogs. That IS another great resource. I was thinking that those daily things, like drinking sweet tea, don't really come out in documents, but are mentioned, sometimes. You need to be listening for them.