Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Should Writers Read Newspapers? by Sandra Ardoin

Newspapers can be a valuable research tool. While I’m writing the following from the viewpoint of a historical writer, most of the tips can apply for those who create contemporary stories.

Over the past few years, libraries, historical societies, and archives from thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia
Image Courtesy of Grafixar at morguefile.com
have contributed to a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress to form a national database that makes historic newspapers public. That database can be found on the Chronicling America website.

Since these organizations submit digitized issues to Chronicling America, not all newspapers are listed on the site. The available dates range from 1836 to 1922, though there are search mechanisms for finding additional papers in various archives. Search by date or keyword.

To illustrate some tidbits of what you’ll find and reasons why searching newspapers will add authenticity and uniqueness to your story, I’ll use examples from one page of an actual newspaper found on Chronicling America: The Madisonian from Richmond, Kentucky, February 3, 1914.
  • Story Ideas – Has your well run dry? Do you need something to stir your imagination? Try this headline: “Post Office Robbed at Crab Orchard.” Twelve hundred dollars in money and stamps were stolen from the post office after nitroglycerin was used to blow the safe. No one heard the explosions because the perpetrators used mail bags to muffle the sound. It was assumed the robbers got away on an early train. But what if the thieves didn’t blow the safe for the money? What if there was something in the post office they wanted or wanted to destroy, something incriminating, perhaps. Who? What? Why? When (it could happen today)? Historical and contemporary writers, are the creative juices flowing? 
  • Cultural/Social Attitudes – On Wednesday, Edward Baxter Perry gave a highly touted classical programme and lecture to a “large and cultured audience.” On Sunday, Dr. E. B. Barnes sermonized on “Marriage and Misery” at the Christian church and expressed his view that those who were miserable in their union should be allowed to divorce through the civil courts. The next week he would preach on “Marriage and Happiness.” 
  • Weather/Farming Reports – Unlike today, most early newspapers did not have an official section for weather reports and forecasted temperatures. However, sometimes we’re given an indication of the weather through a particular article. A small paragraph about the groundhog seeing his shadow advised people to look out for “squalls, bursted water pipes, and plumber’s bills.” 
  • Political News Both Local and National – Presidential executive orders have been in our news quite a bit in recent months. The Madisonian ran a paragraph stating that President Wilson signed an executive order for a permanent government for the Panama Canal Zone and gave the person he named as the first civil governor. 
  • Prices – A three-line tidbit advertised signs for sale through the newspaper. Available were “For Sale,” “For Rent,” and “Furnished Rooms for Rent.” Prices for the cards were ten and fifteen cents. 

Here are some additional facts I’ve uncovered in the past while looking through old newspapers:·         
  • Railroad schedules that have come in handy when I want a character to travel from one location to another
  • The yearly subscription cost of a newspaper
  • Advertisements for various businesses and products (including the infamous patent medicines)
  • Period names/Terms/Turns of Phrase
  • Businesses of the day and some of the goods they carried, along with prices
  • Jokes and humor of the period
  • Parenting/Marriage Advice


Even if you’re writing a contemporary story, scour the newspapers in the vicinity of your setting for little tidbits that make your story come alive. It could be local businesses or products, parks, local government, etc.

Do you regularly check newspapers (old and new) for facts and ideas for your stories? Have you found something interesting that hasn't been mentioned above?

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As well as being the Wednesday hostess on the Seriously Write blog, Sandra Ardoin crafts stories with stalwart heroes who melt the hearts of strong, sometimes unconventional heroines. Connect with Sandy on various social media sites and at sandraardoin.com.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Sandra, I enjoyed your post today. I do read two newspapers every morning over coffee...the LA Times and our local one. I'm struck by the little inconsistencies between them...e.g. one will have 101 people in a disaster, the other 106, Ya know? But yes, I do get ideas from articles I read. And yes, ots of new info although I can't pinpoint one specific example right now LOL.

    In terms of writing technique, newspaper writing frustrates me, most of all the refusal to use appositives in giant articles with ten people in it...by the time you get to the third page, you have no idea who that name is. AND the preponderance of massive, one-sentence paragraphs. Oh well, it's still my morning activity.

    Best wishes always!

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    1. Thank you, Tanya. I'm always amazed at how I can listen to three different news stations and get three different versions of the facts. :) I'm glad you find your newspapers helpful for story ideas!

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  2. I can't say I've studied historical newspapers, but I check out our local paper every day. A newspaper article sparked the idea for Journey's End. Great post, Sandy. :)

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    1. Thanks, Dora. I didn't know that about Journey's End. Read on! :)

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  3. Fun article, Sandy! Old magazines - like the Delineator - also have great articles on current trends at the time. Another helpful resource I've discovered is a facsimile of a 1902 Sears, Roebuck and Co catalog that I was able to purchase through Amazon. I have gone to that book (it's over an inch thick) to find details on a vast number of items. It has photos, descriptions, and prices. Since I'm writing a series that covers 1902-1905, it's been a godsend!

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    1. Thanks, Dawn. Those reprints of catalogs are wonderful. Good point! Years ago, I received one (free somewhere) of a 1908 Sears catalog. At the time I wasn't writing historicals, but I kept it just in case--still have it. There are also Montgomery Ward catalog copies from the latter 1800s.

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