7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Historical Museums

Wouldn't it be great if we could interview historical figures in person to answer all our questions when doing research for our historical novels? Unfortunately, during my recent visit to Virginia where I had the pleasure of meeting our Colonial Quills and CACW's leader, Carrie, the closest we came to this was kissing a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Yorktown Victory Center.  What we did enjoy though, were visiting the many historical museums and enjoying the living history in the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown where we got to talk to several historical interpreters. I'm not a stranger to historical museums and have visited so many from Maine to Mississippi that I've lost count, but never have I enjoyed such for three successive days. Carrie was a wonderful tour guide and helped me make the most of my short time there, highly recommended tip #1. I hope you'll enjoy some of the highlights of my adventure as I share with you how I maximized my research while visiting historical and living history museums along the way.

(Click to enlarge)
The first stop on the well planned trip ironically was a spontaneous detour to an art museum. At a brief stop at a welcome center in NY we were delighted to learn about a special rare exhibit in Utica, NY - Wedded Perfection: Two centuries of wedding gowns. What a beautiful lesson in taking time to smell the roses, er, view the gowns. Is there a difference? The display was lovely and I was especially drawn to this beautiful 1740  Robe à l'Anglaise. The gowns were a feast for the eyes and I did get to touch a small display of laces and fabrics. It would have been perfect if I could only have touched the gowns, or dare I say try one on?

Carla's Mom, Carla, Carrie
But museums are not only about viewing historical collections, though that is most certainly fun. My plan was to gain a better feel for the colonial period by engaging as many senses as I could.  So when I got to Colonial Williamsburg I was excited about riding in an authentic horse drawn coach with Carrie and my traveling companion Mom. Carrie quickly prompted me to think about the way the ride felt and sounded as it rumbled along at the slow gait, enabling me to experience that which my characters might in a given scene. We also had lunch at a colonial tavern (a setting for my novella). My delicious fare included corn and shrimp chowder made from an original 18th century receipt. Oh, and lest I forget, I also had a chance to write my pen name with a quill pen at the Post Office (though I was informed that a proper lady would not use both her maiden and last name as I did).  Naturally, I went home from my trip with a feather quill pen from CW and an ink bottle from Jamestown. I am a "Quiller", after all.

To get the most of your museum visits be alert to the many sights, sounds, tastes, textures you find (even static museums have interactive features). Listen to the sound of the printing press or the loom, feel the heat of a cooking hearth, smell of gunpowder smoke, admire the craftsmanship, experience the the atmosphere and accommodations of work and home, pay attention to the spoken language and manners, taste authentic food, enjoy the music,
the muse . . .

At the Yorktown Victory Center, Carrie shared with me how going there inspires her, another great advantage of visiting historical museums. And at Jamestown I was able to contrast the migration and settlement of the 1607 pilgrims to the 1620 pilgrims at Plymouth. Growing up in Massachusetts I was educated well on the religious reasons for pilgrimage, and now learned more about the motivation of business of the Jamestown colonists. We had a great time talking with the interpreters there - they practically had to throw us out!

Some of the highlights other than being immersed in the colonial period for a few days were to research some of the trades involved in my novels such as milliner, tailor, silversmith, ship carver, etc. The "Fashions and Accessories from Head to Toe" exhibit at CW was wonderful and included videos to watch of colonial dress. I was especially interested in quilted petticoats and also enjoyed the quilt exhibit. Earlier, I was able to speak to Mark Hutter, an interpreter who portrays a tailor at the Margaret Hunter Shop. He was gracious enough to give me a business card with a contact for further research on my topic. This proved to be extremely helpful, for a few days later I learned that my novel featuring a quilter and a tailor, A Design for Love, was accepted for publication!

Another research topic was ship figurehead carvings for my novella Carving a Future (Colonial Courtships). An exhibit at CW provided some wonderful carvings with an informative display. Then, on my way home we made another impromptu stop at Mystic Seaport: A Museum of America and the Sea in Connecticut which features an exhibit of gorgeous carvings and also a ship carver's shop. I had the opportunity to interview two gentlemen there who provided me with a great deal of information on my topic. Although Mystic Seaport depicts mostly early 19th century life on a coastal town, the historical interpreters were very knowledgeable of the trade in the 18th century as well.

Talking to curators and historical interpreters is an amazing resource to assist with research for our historical fiction. Listen carefully to the things they say. Even in the exhibits that don't seem as important to your research - you never know what you might learn that will spark some ideas. I actually picked up a few unexpected tidbits that I plan to use, one from the wigmaker. (Below are some of the interpreters that we had the privilege of speaking with.)




Tips to maximize your visit to a historical museum:

Plan ahead and review exhibits that you want to see. Be aware of calendar of events and special programs. Obtain a museum map for navigation and prioritizing.
Plan your questions ahead of time. Bring paper/pen or a recorder.
Be courteous of other visitors and arrange interviews if extensive research is required.
Get contact information (business cards) of curators and interpreters. 
Experience and collect information that engages all the senses to help bring your novels to life.
Photos: Ask permission to take photos as a courtesy and to post online if you plan to do so. Take plenty, including the signs with text on your topic to save research (bring extra batteries, memory cards, film).
It doesn't stop on location. Visit museums on the web (websites and even facebook) for more information including educational opportunities and contacts.

I hope you'll join me at Writing to Distraction in days ahead where I'll share more about my road trip and historical adventures. But for now, I'd like to hear about yours. What are some of the fascinating finds that you've discovered at historical museums that have contributed to your research? Do you have any tips to share?


  1. Carla, Great article! I really enjoyed researching with you and we sure did get to talk with some wonderful craftsmen that day! Glad you missed out on the earthquake and the coming hurricane!

  2. Great article, Carla, and what a lovely tour guide you had! I enjoyed all the pics as well...especially the kiss with Thomas!:)

  3. I'm always a sucker for a museum. The latest was a visit to the Edison-Ford Estates in Fort Myers, FL. Learned a lot I never knew about these two iconic entrepreneurs we all take for granted a hundred years later.

  4. Love your article, Carla. I do believe that your writing just gets better and better. I would feel that I had been there, even if I had not. So, be thinking of where we should go next. Love, Mom

  5. It was such a fantastic time visiting these museums and getting to meet our dear Carrie!! A special time for my Mom and I to share as well!

    Carrie, I can't believe I missed all the excitement and will have to rely on your experience of being in a colonial tavern during an earthquake for my colonial series I'm working on involving natural phenomenon. 18th century folks certainly thought these natural events were signs of the times as many of use do today.

  6. Olivia, I just checked out the Edison-Ford Estates online and it looks like a fascinating place of discovery. I do believe we take much for granted and it is always refreshing looking at the history of inventions and innovations of our forefathers/mothers!

  7. Wasn't that a fun pic, Diana! I had so much fun with Carrie, and her amazing son Clark is quite a good photographer.

  8. Not to put too fine a point on things... but your "weaver" is actually spinning and not weaving. I get this all the time when I spin at demonstrations. People come up and ask if I'm weaving. One doesn't weave on a spinning wheel. One weaves on a loom.

  9. You make a good point, Pegg. The woman was the weaver and demonstrated that, but she also showed us how spinning as well. I'm going to add some links to the pics. Thanks!

  10. Carla,

    I write ancient historicals set in Ireland, Scotland, and Roman Britain. My manuscripts are full of items from archaeological discoveries that can actually be see in museums today. Everything from mirrors to dishware to jewelry to perfume flasks.

    I delight in indulging my love for archaeology by finding these items and featuring them in my stories.

  11. Renee, what a great way to authenticate your stories! It's wonderful to be able to combine your love for archaelogy with your writing. Likewise, I often infuse my stories with my love for genealogy. It's such a treat to "restore" the artifacts and breath new life into them.

  12. Carla, Oh, love this post so much! I read it yesterday but couldn't comment so am back to try again:) You've done all of the things I dearly love - the tavern fare, coach ride, exhibits, etc. I know your head must be swirling:) The wedding gown display sounds amazing! And the ship figurehead info is fascinating to me. It's unique to the CBA so I know it will be a wonderful, welcome addition. Though you have a wonderful time, I'm SO happy you're back!! You were missed.

  13. Great post! Wish I could visit there someday...

  14. Wonderful post, Carla! I think you covered about everything in your tips. Thank you! I visited CW, Jamestown, and Yorktown back in 1985, and your descriptions make me want take another extended field trip back there as soon as possible--with a side trip to see that exhibit of wedding gowns!

  15. Oh what a treat to see this and I'll be over to visit for more details! It sounds/looks like a dream trip and I appreciate your suggestions Carla.

    I want to say again how glad I am you ladies got together and pulled all your talents and JOY into this blog.

  16. I'm late to comment on this wonderful post, Carla. Playing catch up with my blogs. You've shared some excellent tips, and I'm especially appreciative about that wedding gown display in Utica, a place I hope to visit on my own research trip... some day.

  17. I'm chiming in late too! Been working and editing.

    As a former museum employee/tour guide, if you see something that you can't touch but the tour guide, don't be afraid to ask the guide if the item can be brought close enough for you to get a better view. We're more than happy to do so, provided it doesn't distract us from keeping an eye on a large group.

    And don't hesitate to ask if you can have a private tour for research purposes. We're more than happy to help you out. In fact, writers are some of our FAVORITE people. We're just as fascinated with everything as the guide. And I can tell you from experience a guide loves nothing more than a juicy question that lets us show off our knowledge.

  18. Great post! I've been to many of these places, but it was before I started writing for publication. I would love to go back and and check them out through my "writer eyes."


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