Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver had rescued us. It was then that I learned not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. 

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of a new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Copy editing, Proofreading, and Style Sheets

A style sheet is an important tool for authors. Today, we’ll discuss it, as well as copy editing and proofreading.

Good copyediting is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copyediting process before publication, and other edits and proofreading follow.

Good copy editing is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copy editing process before publication.

However, as we shall see, copy editing and proofreading aren’t the same things. Copy editors have numerous duties when reviewing a manuscript. First, this editor looks at the book’s overall picture then he/she delves deep.

A Few Things Copy Editors Look For

  1. Readability and flow: In other words, is the writing smooth, or is it awkward and difficult to read?
  2. Omitted or misspelled words
  3. Inconsistencies: For example, consistency in characters’ descriptions throughout the book. If a character is described as having red hair in one scene and black hair in another scene, the copy editor would catch this and tell the author.
  4. Punctuation: For example, Oxford commas or serial commas. Keep all punctuation, such as this, consistent. Whichever way the author uses commas (and other punctuation), the use must be consistent throughout the manuscript.
  5. Style: Did the author follow the publisher’s style requirements? For example, a publisher may want chapter headings spelled out (Chapter One) instead of using an ordinal number (Chapter 2).
  6. Format: Did the author follow the publisher’s format? Does the publisher want all the lines double-spaced? What kind of font does the publisher want writers to use? These kinds of things can usually be found on a publisher’s website. In the pre-computer days, we writers would send publishers a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) for writer’s guidelines.
  7. Fact-checks: Were the author’s facts accurate? Did the author misquote a source? And similar things.
  8. Plagiarism and Libel: Checks the author on these, and other literary legal matters, to be sure he/she didn’t break the law.

When writing our stories and books, I recommend using a style sheet. These come in handy for both nonfiction and fiction writers. I create my own style sheets, though templates are also available on the internet. By referring to them, we keep our writing consistent and make the copy editor’s job easier.

Fiction Style Sheets

Though this list is not comprehensive, here are a few things to consider when creating a style sheet for your novel or short story:

  1. Title and subtitle (if any)
  2. A brief summary of the book
  3. Style Used. Most traditional publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
  4. Punctuation, such as Oxford commas
  5. Unusual words/terms to keep their spelling consistent
  6. Format
  7. Characters: Names & nicknames, description, dialogue & special words they use, personality, occupation, motivations
  8. Setting(s), buildings & streets, etc.
  9. Time/Distances between settings (if needed)
  10. Dates of Events

Every writer, whether fiction or nonfiction, can (and should) design a style sheet to meet his/her own literary needs.


After a manuscript is copy edited, the next step toward publication is proofreading.

Whereas copy editors make suggestions and help improve an author’s work, proofreaders don’t do this. Proofreaders review a manuscript’s proofs—a manuscript’s final copy before it goes to print.

Proofreaders look for such things as grammar, punctuation, syntax, and typos. In other words, the small thing before the work is published.  

Britain’s Fourteenth American Colony

Before the American Revolution, Great Britain did not have thirteen colonies in what became the United States. Sounds kind of crazy coming from a former history teacher like me, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. How many colonies, then? Several more, but my focus will be on what some historians call Britain’s “fourteenth colony”: Mobile.

Mobile, 1780. Taken from Alabama Department of Archives and History

Mobile is situated at the mouth of the Mobile River, which spills into a thirty-mile-long bay emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s considered New Orleans’s sister city, as both were founded by the French: the Le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, naval officers who played a significant role in Canadian settlement too. In 1711, they founded Mobile and seven years later, in 1718, New Orleans.

The thirteen American colonies we’ve all heard about were Britain’s original colonies. The other colonies— such as St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Mobile—came under British rule by the Treaty of Paris (February 20, 1763) which ended the French and Indian War. Before this treaty, St. Augustine and Pensacola had been under Spain’s rule whereas Mobile had been under French governance.

British Dominions, Treaty of Paris, 1763

The British divided her new possession on the Gulf Coast into two regions: East Florida and West Florida. St. Augustine was East Florida’s capital, and Pensacola was West Florida’s. West Florida’s boundary was set at the 31st parallel, and later, at the 32nd parallel. On October 20, 1763, the British under the command of Major Robert Farmar assumed command of Mobile.

Another consequence of the French and Indian War: France had to pay off a war debt. To help do this, it turned over New Orleans to Spain in 1763, in a separate treaty, as well as a vast tract of land called Spanish Louisiana. Later, Spain would give this land back to France.

In 1780, General Bernardo Galvez, Spain’s governor of Louisiana, captured Mobile. For several decades the city was under Spanish rule, but it easily fell to American forces on April 13,1813.


John A. Garraty. The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877. NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.

Lucille Griffith, Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900, University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Malcolm C. McMillan, The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968.

“Spanish Culture in New Orleans,” https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/multicultural/cultures/spanish/

When to Tell, When to Show

“No fiction can or should be all showing and no telling” Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, by David Madden.

For those of us who’ve been writing professionally for a long time, we’ve heard this mantra repeated often: “show, don’t tell.” Although this is good advice, beginning writers often take this to an extreme and never “tell.” As novelist David Madden said in my quote, good fiction is a blend of showing and telling. If all we do is show, we wear down our readers. If all we do is tell, we bore our readers. So then, what’s the balance? Here are a few tips.

Tips on Telling

Use telling to do the following things:

  • To establish setting and background. This is especially good for historical fiction when events must be placed within a historical context. Historical fiction has more telling in it than other genres. Thus, readers who read this genre expect it. However, don’t use long paragraphs and numerous pages of description. All that’s necessary is the description of a few things to give readers a sense of time and place. Long paragraphs of exposition bog down our stories.
  • Summarize unimportant events. If characters are eating, just tell the readers. However, if what they’re eating and saying is important, then show it in some detail. If a character crosses the street, there’s no need to go into detail (unless it’s important), so just say Jane crossed the street.
  • To move quickly in time or from one setting to another in a story.
  • To avoid repeating the same events over and over, use a narrative summary. For example, if it’s a story about NASCAR racing, use narrative summary till you need to show the final, climatic NASCAR event.

When to Show

Always show a dramatic event. For example, don’t write: John fought off the robbers. Instead, write a scene where we see him fighting the robbers. Let readers see the fists flying, hear the screams, feel the knife blades sticking into flesh, etc.

Always show a character’s emotion. For example, don’t write: Jane got angry. This is telling the emotion. How does Jane show anger? Not everyone shows anger in the same way. I once had a roommate in college who chuckled when he got angry. So, be original when you show emotion. Use fresh metaphors and similes to help readers can visualize it.

Well, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you continue your writing journey. Till next week!


Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Second Edition. New York, New York: William M orrow, 2004

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, a Plume Book, 1988.

Spice Up Your Writing: Four More Ways to Do It

Photo by Marta Branco on Pexels.com


Hyperboles are a great way to emphasize a point or help readers experience a character’s feelings. Sometimes, they can even be funny. They’re also great to use in dialogue because they add authenticity to our characters. After all, people use these figures of speech all the time. So, what are they?


Rebecca McClanahan, in her excellent book Word Painting, calls hyperboles exaggerated metaphors or similes. They’re exaggerations, or over-exaggeration, that aren’t meant to be understood literally.


Doug lives like a dog.

Does Doug literally live like a dog? Of course not. This expression just means he has a hard life.

My golf bag weighs a ton.

Well, let’s hope my golf clubs aren’t that heavy. I’m using a hyperbole to show that I’m struggling to carry such an overloaded golf bag.


“Well, bless your heart.”


Euphemisms express politeness when the opposite is intended.


If an American Southerner ever says to you, “bless your heart,” don’t take it as sympathy or a compliment. Why? Because where I come from, it’s a euphemism meant as an insult.

Here’s another example: “I didn’t buy a used car. I bought a pre-owned car.”


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1963


Repetitions in writing, whether they’re repeated words, phrases, or clauses, aren’t always bad. It depends on why the writer did it. Some of history’s greatest writers and speakers used this technique, anaphora, to good effect.


So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania… (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963)


Litotes are negative expressions that mean its opposite—something positive.


You’ll be sorry you didn’t eat my wife’s pound cake.

Meaning: You’ll regret you didn’t eat it because the cake was delicious.

This ends my series on figures of speech. I hope you’ll use them to spice up your writing.


McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

Spice Up Your Writing: Alliteration, Assonance, and Onomatopoeia

Poets often use alliteration and assonance, but prose writers use these figures of speech too. I enjoy using them so much that I have to watch myself because I tend to use them too much.

Definition of Alliteration

The repetition of a word’s initial consonant sound or syllable.


Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Definition of Assonance

The repetition of vowel sounds in words.

There was a Young Lady of Niger

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

In this limerick, attributed to William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901), the “I” sound is repeated.

Reasons For Using Alliteration and Assonance

  • To create rhythm and music in our prose.
  • To set the mood.

Example of Mood

Look at the first line of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He repeats the “d” sound and the “h” sound.

It was a dark and soundless day near the end of the year, and clouds were hanging low in the  heavens.



Onomatopoeias imitate sounds to the things they refer to. Sometimes they’re called figures of sound instead of a figure of speech. They’re good to use as a sensory detail, which helps bring our prose to life.  


Buzz, hiss, chug, puff

The train puffed and chugged up the steep track.

The coffee kettle hissed.

Spice Up Your Writing: Similes and Personification


Although not as strong as metaphors, similes are great ways to follow that time-tested literary maxim: show, don’t tell. They’re easily identified by the words like or as.


A simile compares two unlike things that have one thing in common.


Her heart fluttered like a butterfly.

His excitement soared as high as the moon.


  • Don’t use a simile that’s a cliché. Clichés are ineffective.

Cliché: Cindy was as busy as a bee.

Cindy was as busy as a hamster running on her exercise wheel.

  • Don’t use a simile where no comparison exists.

Bob flexed his biceps like spaghetti.

Be Original

The first similes that come to mind are usually cliché because we hear them all the time. Go ahead and write them in the first draft, if you need to, and then in your revision work on creating a fresh image, that is, something original.


Personification is a figure of speech that’s easy to use, helps create mood, and makes our writing more vivid.


Personification is a literary device that gives human attributes to non-human things.


Flames danced in the fireplace.

Darkness slipped into my room.


  • Don’t overdo personification.
  • Use personification strategically, in places where you can create atmosphere and mood.
  • Keep your personifications fresh/original. In other words, be creative with them.

More on figures of speech next week.

Spice Up Your Writing, Metaphors

Robert Frost (1874-1963), Author of “The Runaway”

Metaphors are the strongest of all the figures of speech, and as we’ll see in this post, there are several types. If well written, they’ll evoke emotion in our readers and draw them deeper into our stories.


A metaphor compares two different things, saying one thing (or person or place) is something else.


John is a ticking time bomb.

John is not a literal time bomb, but the time bomb image tells us he has a fierce temper and may even need to take an anger management class.

Analysis of a Metaphor

A metaphor contains two parts: the tenor, and the vehicle.

John is a ticking time bomb.

Tenor: John, because he’s the subject of the metaphor.

Vehicle: Time bomb, because it’s the metaphor’s image.

Types of Metaphors

Absolute Metaphor


The tenor has no connection with the vehicle.


John is a ticking time bomb.

No connection exists between John and the time bomb. In other words, he won’t literally explode. John’s metaphorical explosion, however, might build into a fit of rage. The connection exists between John’s rage and the bomb, not John and the bomb.

Extended Metaphor


These metaphors extend for longer periods in a sentence, paragraph, or page by using two or more parallels between two unlike things. They’re often used in poetry.


Robert Frost’s poem, “The Runaway.”

The poem is copyrighted, so visit this link to read it: The Runaway by Robert Frost | Poetry Foundation

The Metaphor: a horse. Frost uses a horse fearful of his first snow to represent a child who’s run away from home with no one to comfort him.

Mixed Metaphor



A mixed metaphor combines two or more metaphors that have no logical connection to each other.


Don’t count your chickens before they hatch and swim away.

Chickens hatch, but they don’t swim. Thus, I mixed two unconnected images—chickens and fish.

Next Week: Similes

Spice Up Your Writing, Figures of Speech, An Introduction

Use figures of speech in our writing, but don’t overdo them lest they conceal the story from readers.


A figure of speech is a literary device that enhances our writing but is not to be taken literally. It can be used to create a special effect, create emotion and make our writing more visual.

Figures of Speech, A List










Although there are other figures of speech, we’ll study the ones I listed above in future posts.

Next week: Metaphors and Similes

Some Copyright Basics

As authors, we need to become familiar with the basics of copyright and copyright law. In this blog, I share a few things regarding it, but I encourage authors to study and research it for themselves as well.

Why Register A Copyright?

The Law: the moment a work is in fixed form, it is copyrighted under the law. So, why register a copyright with the copyright office? Here are two reasons.

  • It provides proof in a court of law that you are the owner in case someone infringes on your copyright. The Copyright Office provides a Certificate of Registration and a Registration Number indicating the effective date of registration for each copyrighted work.
  • You cannot file a lawsuit for infringement in federal court if your work isn’t registered. Without registration, it’s more difficult to prove ownership. The law gives authors three months to register after publication, or else they must be registered before the first infringement occurs.
  • Your work will be listed in the Library of Congress.

For details on how to register your copyright, download Circular 2, “Copyright Registration.” See links at end of this blog.

Mandatory Deposit: It’s the Law

Although authors don’t have to register their work with the copyright office, the law requires them to deposit a required number of copies of their work with the office. If an author registers his/her work, they will meet this requirement because depositing their published work is part of the registration process.

For more information, download Circular 7D, “Mandatory Deposit of Copies or Phonograph Records for the Library of Congress.” See links at end of this blog.

Infringement & Plagiarism


Ideas cannot be copyrighted. After all, how many Civil War novels are out there? How many historical romances with similar plots? No plot is truly original but the story’s expression, the way the author writes it, must be the author’s original work.

For example, if I create a character, say an army scout just like Hondo Lane in Louis L’Amour’s novel Hondo, I’ve infringed on his copyright. I can write a Western using an army scout as the main character, but my scout must be unique to me— how I depict/express him.


Plagiarism is “literary theft.” It’s presenting someone else’s work as your own.

What Are Some Plagiarisms?

  • Copying another author’s work word-for-word and using it as your own.
  • Paraphrasing another person’s words and ideas without crediting the source.
  • Authors plagiarize themselves when they use one of their previously published works in a current work and don’t cite it.

The above information on plagiarism comes from the MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2016. I recommend every author get a copy of this book, especially those who write nonfiction.

I recommend going to the copyright office’s website, download the circulars that apply, then read and study them. As authors, we need to at least become familiar with its basics.

Recommended Links

Circulars | U.S. Copyright Office

Copyright Protection – Why Should You Register Copyrights? – Gerben Law Firm

Top 10 Reasons You Should Register Your Copyright – FindLaw

Recommended Book

MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2016.