One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a historical novel is getting glimpses of how ordinary people led their lives in times gone by. Standard biographies of famous people, traditional accounts of history—these rarely include such information, so if you want to discover more, you sometimes have to get inventive with your research techniques.
For my current WIP, I needed to know what people knew about what was going on in their city and the world, how they got their information, what they read on a daily basis and what they read for entertainment. Because I’m working in the early 20th century, information like this is a great deal easier to find out than it would be in, say, the 17th century—partly because of the wealth of searchable newspaper archives online, and plenty of period photographs.
Here’s a little of what I discovered:
New York had several well-established daily papers by 1910. Some of the more famous include The New York Tribune (founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Horace Greeley), The New York World, The New York Sun, The New York Times, and The New York Journal (Hearst’s paper). All of them published morning and evening editions they sold for a penny, making them affordable to all but the poorest residents. The World and the Journal engaged in a circulation war, writing sensationalist headlines and even sometimes fictionalizing their news reports, in the late 19th century. This was the origin of what was called Yellow Journalism.
Investigative journalism was also born during this period At the time, politicians and others who found themselves the target of this practice called it muckraking. A particularly famous example is the investigation into Standard Oil’s practices under John D. Rockefeller by the progressive woman journalist, Ida Tarbell.
When it came to more entertaining options, New Yorkers enjoyed the Nickelodeon. These were store-front moving picture theaters that cost a nickel to enter, and where viewers could watch a series of ten-minute or so films in a wide variety of genres—comedy, drama, documentary, and more. Their heyday in New York was from 1905 to 1907, but they remained very popular in the poorer neighborhoods for several more years.
New Yorkers also bought Nickel Weeklies,the precursors of the Dime Novel, in the thousands. These heavily-illustrated publications served up serialized fiction and adventure stories to many different age groups. Readers came back week after week to get the next installment of their favorite tales. Their colorful—almost lurid covers are now highly collectible.
As with all research, knowing what to leave out is just as important as what you put in. My characters won’t sample all these forms of news and entertainment on the page. But I’ll know all these things are a part of their lives off the page.