The Gilded Age: What is it really?

The Gilded Age: What is it really?

It’s release month for Counterfeit Love and I thought it might be fun to share some of my behind-the-scenes research of the Hidden Hearts of the Gilded Age series. I’ll also be running a giveaway all month long with each Counterfeit Love / Secret Service post for your chance to win one of three prizes. Read through this post to the bottom to discover the details.


What is the Gilded Age?

When most people think of the Gilded Age, they generally think of the lavishly rich, fancy ball gowns and dinners, and New York. However the Gilded Age is so much more complex than that, and that’s why I love to write during this era.

The Gilde Age is actually a term coined by the ever sarcastic and famous satirical writer, Mark Twain, in a book he collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner on called The Gilded Age. The term Gilded Age was meant as a jab at the gross materialism and political corruption of his time. While everything was glittering, beautiful, and elegant on the surface, the moment one scratched at it, they’d discover gross corruption at the core. On a caricature level, the late 19th century was a period of massive immigration, socio-economic turmoil, rapacious Robber Barons, unscrupulous speculators, corporate buccaneers, shady business practices, scandal-plagued politics, and vulgar displays of materialism and wealth. This is one of the reasons why I love this era. It is so complex and intricate that I just never want to leave studying it.

While most people expect stories of the wealthy and elite when seeing “Gilded Age,” I love to take a look at it from the experiences of the varied classes and their experiences. There was a dark underbelly to the Gilded Age, and I love to explore it. However, I do like to see it from the perspective of the rich as well. It is like examing two very different worlds, and I find it incredibly fascinating.

A Period of Transition

During the 1870s, society as a whole was transitioning from largely agrarian to industrial–in part due to the repercussions of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and in part due to the massive innovations brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Many farmers and immigrants shifted to big cities to work in the factories that provided steady work and steady pay. The way businesses operated transformed and cooperations emerged with a focus on gaining the most profit possible at the cost of others. Labor unrest was a constant issue during the Gilded Age as corporations were treated as people rather than businesses, an especially terrible slap in the face to now freed slaves who were people but had only been considered property.

This was a period where Robber Barons emerged–people who because rich through often ruthless and unscrupulous business practices. Of course, not everyone who became rich met that definition, but this was largely the view of society outside the ranks of the upper-class society. These corporations had huge influences on politics, and often politicians were portrayed as merely being the puppets of those corporations. The period from 1870 to 1900 was marked by increased poverty, rising inequality, and bubbling discontent beneath the gilded filigree of society.

Big Picture Events and Issues

Image by jimo663 from Pixabay

While the “Wild West” will live on in infamy, it was during this period that the western frontier actually began to close. The open ranges were closed in by barbed wire fences. Millions of acres of land were snatched up and populated. Native Americans were confined to reservations and then pushed farther west onto new reservations. Treaties were made to the disadvantage of the people and another Trial of Tears occurred. In fact, part of my family’s heritage cannot be traced back any further than this time because of how much was lost in this tragedy.

Technology and communication exploded during the Gilded Age. Telephones, electricity, machines, even the mass-circulation of newspapers and magazines, redefined aspects of the United States in unprecedented ways. With technology came more leisure time for new sports and entertainment to be developed. Transporation grew exponentially, opening up the country to easy travel and new migration patterns. Over these years, horse-led transportation diminished as trains, automobiles, electric trolleys, and others were developed.

Mass immigration poured millions of people into country giving rise to anti-immigrant reactions. Limitations on immigration from certain places started to appear, and the grouping of immigrants arriving shifted to larger numbers of Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Russian peoples. Often these unskilled workers sought out cities where they could work at factories, often for horrifically low pay.

I talked a little bit about big business already, but this period is when the modern American economy emerged. Our economy became more globalized, dependent on products from around the world to supply the materials needed. Small businesses were consolidated and bought out. It was a dynamic time of wealth and poverty.

Politics too played a significant role during this time. The 1880s and 1890s especially were years of turbulence. Political conflicts were constant with corporations having an influencing hand in many areas. Farmers and laborers fought for fair representation and support against those corporations who they felt took advantage of them. You also have the beginnings of suffragist and civil rights movements.

Why I Write Gilded Age

As you can see, there is just SOOOO much conflict and depth that can be mined from this time period. I love looking at all the different perspectives and challenges that were faced by the people. So while you might think of all that glitters when you see the words Gilded Age, know that it is so much more than that, and I hope to bring some of those aspects and struggles to life in my stories.

A Second Gilded Age

Something I found interesting in my research is that the term Gilded Age has been applied to our current era by many different sources. There are parallels, but not completely. I just thought it fascinating, and if you’d like to read a succinct article on some of that, you can visit the History Channel’s article about it here.


Your chance to comment: What sort of things do you think of when you hear “Gilded Age” in relation to a fiction story?


Enter the Rafflecopter below to be entered to win one of three prizes: (Grand prize) – A signed copy of Counterfeit Love with a book sleeve made by my Momma, a toe bag with story-related prizes inside, (2nd prize) – A signed copy of Counterfeit Love with a book sleeve made by my Momma, socks, and a bookmark, (3rd prize) A signed copy of Counterfeit Love with a book sleeve made by my Momma and a bookish zipper bag. Entries run from March 1st to March 31st, 11:59pm EST. *Open to those legally able to enter, U.S. residents only for the physical prizes, international winners will be given a prize of equal value to whichever level they win.*

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Research: Love It or Hate It, You Gotta Do It

Research: Love It or Hate It, You Gotta Do It

This month’s “From the Author’s Desk” is a long post about researching for your novel that I wrote for another blog meant to help other writers. I wanted to post it here too, so I could include it in my For Writer’s Tab. I hope you’ll find it an interesting look a the practical side of preparing for a novel.

Research: Love It or Hate It, You Gotta Do It!

Research. You either dread it or love it. Regardless of your sentiment, as a diligent writer, you have to do it and do it right. Whether new at the researching game or old hat, it is my prayer that this post will give you a little bit of guidance, a few resources, and a “whole lotta” inspiration.

I will be tackling this from the historical fiction angle, but anything written here can be applied to any genre’s research needs.

Where do I start researching?

Think of the act of researching as similar to drawing a tornado—you start with wide broad spirals that narrow down to a very focused point the closer you get to the ground, or in this case, your story.

With this in mind, I recommend starting wide and shallow before you ever write the first word of your story. Get a feel for what the politics, economy, culture, major events, fashion, etiquette, industries, technology, and social constructs were like for the setting of your story. These could have potentially content-altering information that can cripple a story if you find out too late.

Honestly, my favorite way to get a broad overview is to find children’s history books on the topics. They often have lots of interesting tidbits while giving you a broad sense of what is going on. It also helps to guide you in to more narrow and deeper research.

Once you have a general understanding of the times, then you can really narrow in on the specifics of your character and situation. Below I’ve listed some topics for consideration and some guiding questions to help you determine what is going to matter most to your character.

Major Topics for Consideration:

Each story is going to have unique needs, so you need to gauge your research based on those needs. If your story isn’t going to have a huge political influence, stop researching politics after you have a general feel for your story’s need. If your story has a rich socialite and a poor man, you are going to need to know the intricacies of upper-class society’s expectations and how they differ from someone who has never experienced it. I think you probably get the idea. 😉

Politics: What major political events were going on during the setting of your story? How might they affect your characters? Most of us don’t live in a bubble, and what is going on in the world filters into our lives and our discussions. Take that into consideration to be sure that there isn’t something that would greatly impact your story’s plot.

For example, if you have your character’s father the owner of a railroad during the railroad strikes, that is going to affect your character in at least some manner. If your heroine lives during the era of growing awareness of women’s rights (a much longer period than you might realize), how will this influence what your character believes, thinks, and says?

Culture: This means looking at the region and locale of your story. What foods, activities, and sayings are common to that area? Are there certain expectations that aren’t included elsewhere? Do they have certain fashions? Are there certain people groups common to that area that would influence the culture of that city?

Cincinnati is heavily German. When I moved here, I experience lots of new-to-me foods, building styles, and a TON of Catholic schools. There were two for the area I’d grown up in. Do your research and you’ll be surprised about what will really add richness to your story.

Economics and Social Status: Different social classes have different expectations and behaviors. How are those going to affect your character? What obstacles will that create? Consider the careers they would be likely to have. What industry do your characters rely on? What is going on in those industries which could affect their lives? The more you know about these things, the stronger your story will be.

When researching my manuscript Counterfeit Love, I discovered there was a “Long Depression” lasting from 1873 to 1896. At the time, they called it the “Great Depression.” What I learned changed and set the baseline for the struggles my heroine faced, even though I never directly connected the two for my reader.

Organizing the Research

As much as I hate to admit it, taking notes which are easy to reference is critical. It is really important to keep a running bibliography so that you can back up your research when questions, and you can reference something if you get confused as you look over your notes.

I use a program called Scrivener, and under the research tab, I create folders. My “big folders” are named by the topic: Setting, Etiquette, Fashion, Gardening, etc. My broad needs are labeled for quick reference.

Inside each folder, I break it down to it’s smaller component topics. My current character is a master gardener, and I am a black thumb, so under my gardening folder I have topics like Master Gardener (which will include examples, requirements, real people, and their gardens which I can reference), Plants Heroine Works With, etc.

Beyond that, each book resource will get its own folder. Each website gets a single text document. I name these text documents and book folders by the name of the resource, and also by the topic if the resource is focused on a single topic. I take my notes in a table format:

Page Number

Exact Quote

Personal Notes/ Observations

Possible Plot Points

1

“ABC”

It’s the alphabet

A letter goes missing

It is a bit tedious, but I do find that it has been invaluable in brainstorming, reviewing information, and finding a specific fact quickly.

Each person has their own method, this is just mine, so do not feel like you HAVE to do it my way. Do be sure to keep track of your resources though. You never know when you will have to justify something you wrote.

Conducting Research

When it comes to conducting research, it is easy to get lost in the mire of possibilities. You can visit museums, websites, historical societies, read history books or primary sources, travel, or even search satellite maps.

Most of my research is done from home and online. To find my resources, I usually start with a search of my local library’s catalog or a Google search to find some reputable resources. Yes, I even go to Wikipedia—but only as a starting point to direct me somewhere else. I get what information I can, and then I look at their bibliographies. This is how I narrow down what I am going to read.

I prefer diaries, books, and newspapers written during the era I’m writing. This can be difficult and expensive if I’m not careful. I highly recommend seeing if your public library has a subscription to Historic Newspapers websites. Mine has several. From home, I can read newspapers and search for topics in those newspapers for free. It is marvelous.

For books, there has been a wonderful movement to digitalize old books and most of them are free to read. Below I’ve given you a list of my favorites. You can search by title, year, subject, or even keywords. It has been a lifesaver, especially during these strange times which makes research extra difficult.

While finding books from eh 1880s can be expensive and difficult, there are a lot of books that have been digitalized and can be searched for free. Below, I’ve given you some of my favorites. 

Online Resources

https://babel.hathitrust.org/ – This is my favorite resource. It can take some weeding through, and you’d definitely want a specific title, but I have found countless resources here.

https://books.google.com/ – They list them all, whether you can read them or not, so just make sure they say Free E-book when you click on it.

https://archive.org/ – This one has gotten in trouble lately for pirating current books, so make sure you are only looking at books printed before WWI. Generally, I only go to this website once I have a specific title in mind. There are usually multiple copies of the same book and it does take some weeding through.

Search for the historical society of the area you are researching. Some of them have online resources, some will be thrilled to talk to you and help you out, and some will never answer back. Either way, they are a go-to resource for information you would never have imagined.

How to Avoid Rabbit Trails

Oh, the wonderful things you can find when researching! And oh how much time you can waste. What helps me to not waste hours down a rabbit trail (and I still do often), is to keep the specific thing I am researching in mind.

When I come across something else that strikes my fancy but isn’t what I need at that particular moment, I add a note and the website link to a folder I title “Research This Later.” 90% of the time I don’t go back to it, but having it tucked away for later helps me to release the rabbit trail and stay focused.

It’s a simple trick, but it works well. You could also set a timer for how long you are going to research this topic, but I find I turn those off and just keep going.

While writing your actual manuscript, I recommend you do not go and research something the moment you find you need it. Just make a note in your manuscript like this: [RESEARCH FASHION]. The primary concern with drafting is getting the story down as quickly as you can. Research can cause you to lose that momentum.

How do you decide what to use?

Throw all you want or find interesting in your first draft. This is your place to just see where the story takes you. Once you begin the revision process you can decide what needs cut. To make that decision, ask yourself: “What does my read absolutely need to see and understand the story?” and “Does this slow my story down?”

If it is needed AND slows your story down, see if you can change up the presentation of the information. Can it be communicated briefly through fascinating dialogue?

If it isn’t needed, even if it doesn’t slow your story down, you’ll probably need to cut it. You can always leave it and see what beta readers think. However, what I’ve observed in today’s readers is the more concise you can be, the better.

Cutting that beloved material from your first draft can be hard, but you can still use those materials in blog posts, social media posts, and promotional opportunities later on. You already have the content, and readers may find it interesting.

There is really is so much more that could be said about research, but I have surpassed my word count. If you have questions or want to learn more, feel free to contact me.

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