A Walk down Memory Lane
by Ruth Axtell
I was recently emptying out and cleaning a bookshelf, one that held my non-fiction. I realized that most of my reference books are books I’ve acquired over the years (decades) to aid me in researching whichever story I happen to be working on at the time. They are grouped by subject, so they are like a roadmap of my writing career.
For example, along half a shelf were books on Sephardic judiasm, judiasm in the first centuries A.D., synagogues across Europe, the formation of the Methodist church, and portraits of the great 18th century revival. These books cover the period when I researched and wrote my first-ever regency historical, Winter Is Past, a love story between a Sephardic Jew in London and a Methodist nurse. Talk about star-crossed lovers.
Another shelf has books on the history of the American sailing ship, piloting, seamanship, and small boat handling, for a historical romance I did about a wooden boatbuilder (Lilac Spring).
Getting back to regencies, here are some of my favorite reference books, which I collected in those years preceding Google: Quacks, Fakes and Charlatans in Medicine (used primarily in researching The Healing Season, a story about a surgeon in regency times); Moers’ The Dandy (great resource for information on Beau Brummell and all those who aped him); Colley’s Britons, for a general history of the nation; and The War of Wars, a very thorough history of the Napoleonic wars. The Streets of London from the Great Fire to the Great Stink is a detailed description of street life in regency London (which I also needed in writing The Healing Season). The London Encyclopedia, which I was fortunate to get used, is a wonderful resource on just about any geographic building and landmark in London and its environs. I used a 16th century mansion, Osterley Park, within a short train ride from the center of London, for the country estate of one of my characters in The Rogue’s Redemption. I was able to tour the place in person, but if I hadn’t, there it is listed in The London Encyclopedia, complete with a print of it on page 568.
For a different kind of London residence, there’s a print and entry for the Millbank Penitentiary, built in 1821. It was pulled down in 1903, so you need a reference like The London Encyclopedia to pinpoint what buildings did and didn’t exist in London 200 years ago. I set my first regency in Belgravia, until a critique partner pointed out to me that this London neighborhood had not begun to be developed until AFTER the regency. Oops! Thank goodness for sharp-eyed and knowledgeable critique partners.
For regency fashion, I have Ackerman’s Costume Plates 1818-1828, which has detailed prints of late-regency gowns.
This is only a portion of my historical research books, which I don’t pull down from the shelves so much anymore. These days it’s easier to “google” an item in question. But having read these books cover-to-cover at one time or another certainly gave me a more in-depth knowledge of the 19th century than just googling disjointed pieces of information would have.
What are some of your favorite reference books for history?