Research: Would She Say That in 1877?

Yesterday morning West Houston RWA enjoyed a terrific presentation on research, given by our own Deeanne Gist.  Dee spends an impressive five months on research before she begins to write a novel, and not just for her American-set historical tales.  Even her contemporary romantic suspense novel (Beguiled, written with J. Mark Bertrand) required detailed research on its Charleston setting).

It Happened at the FairDee brought along samples of her research material for her upcoming release, It Happened at the Fair, set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and available April 30.  For this novel Dee accumulated numerous spiral binders of newspaper clippings and first person accounts of the Fair, as well as an enormous, disintegrating “Book of the Fair” she found on EBay, full of contemporary descriptions and photographs.

One of our chapter members asked Dee how she tracked down colloquial expressions appropriate for her characters, setting, and time period, and Dee laughed and said she bought every book on slang she came across.

I know my personal library doesn’t rival Dee’s, but I’ve written historical fiction, and I have shelves of research books on a wide variety of nineteenth century Americana, including several on language and slang.  My favorites are three volumes by the late Stuart Berg Flexner, not least because they are the sort of books one can open at random and be pulled into an hour of happy browsing.

Even the titles are tempting to a word nerd like me.  I Hear America Talking, An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases, was published in 1976.  Listening To America, An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from our Lively and Splendid Past followed in 1982.  Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley, published in 1997 and edited by Anne H. Soukhanov (Flexner died in 1990) combines material from the earlier books with updates and additions.  All three appear to be out of print, but thanks to Internet sources like Amazon and, this no longer means unavailable.  The books are excellent resources for writers and great fun for readers.  They cover, with colorful phrases, historical vignettes, and (important to writers) dates, topics from religion to sex, business to sports, food to technology.  With indices, illustrations, and quotations.

Opening I Hear America Talking at random, I find on page 71 that “Canoes and Cannibals were two concepts Columbus and his men brought back to Europe from the West Indies (they also brought back syphilis, but that’s another story).”  On page 208, I learn that “gravy train” dates from the 1940s but came from the earlier (1910) use of “gravy” to mean profit or illegal gain through political conniving.  And on page 377 I see that “Zombi, often spelled zombie, was also now first recorded (in 1871) . . . Zombie was both the name of a snake god and of a spell that could animate a dead body.”

See what I mean?  I’d better put them back on the shelf right now, or I’ll get nothing else done this evening.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl Bolen
    Jan 13, 2013 @ 22:43:36

    My head is still spinning over Dee’s presentation. Just tonight I was hunting something in one of the many 3-ring notebooks I use for Regency research and couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wish I had one of the those master spreadsheets like Dee uses to reference her research. But I don’t think I’d ever get a book written if I did all that Dee does. And I’m also spreadsheet clueless.



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