What Were They Reading?

In attempting to declutter, I am culling my book collection. Parting with beloved tomes is one of the hardest parts of decluttering for me since I enjoy books so much! I’m keeping copies of all the books I’ve written and the many I have had the honor of representing. Because I tend to buy nearly every book that interests me, I have a massive stack to review.

Re-reading bestsellers from the past has made me think of writers and researching. By “bestsellers,” I am not necessarily referring to books that students are assigned to read in school as the best of the best in literature, although, of course, those are always good choices. Instead, I refer to books meant for entertainment and leisure for the audiences of that time. Books that accompanied readers to the beach, or whose primary purpose was to make readers forget their worries so they could become absorbed in the concerns of characters making bad choices, being victimized, and fighting for their lives. Plots in which good may or may not overcome evil because no character is so exemplary that a reader can root for her without reservation. Regrettably, unlike in Christian fiction, characters’ relationships with God tends to be none, not addressed, or set aside. This realization caused me to appreciate Christian fiction anew, by the way.

Reading an era’s bestsellers brings you to its sensibilities. For example, young people today see Nazis as frail and on their way to prison to live out perhaps five remaining years of life. Only a few decades ago, a Nazi could be a forty-year-old posing as a WASP, partying with the wealthy, indulging in cigarettes and champagne. And yes, most characters in secular novels back then smoked. These are just a couple of details a reader today may find jarring.

Some debates from decades ago still rage. Sexism and abortion were tied together in one memorable instance. The author rightly looked askance at people who use religion as a mask and for control. When his married employee impregnated a secretary, the religious employer gave the man a $1,000 bonus to pay for the abortion, transferred the man to another branch with a promotion, and fired the secretary. He paid for the abortion over the objections of an assistant who protested that she thinks abortion is murder. Will the debates over abortion and sexism ever be resolved? Not soon, according to popular fiction.

Reading popular novels will give you a sense and understanding of the era you choose. Enjoy the journey, and learn from it.


Your turn:

What era are you researching now? What books are you reading from that era?

What is the most surprising discovery you have made about your chosen era?

What eras are you interested in writing about in the future? Why?

22 Responses to What Were They Reading?

  1. sherri stewart November 21, 2019 at 6:30 am #

    I am researching the Nazi occupation of Haarlem and Corrie ten Boom. I’ve been studying the language, traveled to Haarlem in September, and am now having my manuscript read by a Messianic Jew to make sure that my main characters are accurate in their speech and traditions.

    • Wendy November 21, 2019 at 7:20 am #


      Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place is a very special book to me. Her coauthors are John and Elizabeth Sherrill. John passed away a couple of years ago, but Elizabeth is still with us. She has a blog, ElizabethSherrill.com that has some insights into their interactions with Corrie, that you might find interesting. Elizabeth is very gracious, but she has mentioned on her blog that she is no longer able to correspond with readers, due to problems with her sight. Still, the blog has information about Corrie that you might find interesting.

    • Wendy November 21, 2019 at 7:31 am #


      Also, there are videos on youtube that you might find helpful, that include Corrie ten Boom, and also some of the Sherrills.

    • Andrew Lambdin November 21, 2019 at 2:48 pm #

      I have been researching religious dissent between 1100 and 1300 in Europe. My resulting historical fiction work centers on a young page who struggles with the violence and intolerance of his society. One of my biggest frustrations is that I find difficulty in locating other novels of similarity. Without those examples, I feel handicapped with my upcoming submission attempts. CLR Peterson wrote a piece called Lucia’s Renaissance. It covers religious dissent, but in a later era.

  2. Tom Dimauro November 21, 2019 at 6:37 am #

    I’m currently working on a novel involving a young man who is sent by his European parents to live with relatives with the intention of getting an American education from high school through college. The young man comes to his new home in 1960 and lives through the tumult, revolution, and progress of the ‘60’s. While much has been written about this era, most centers on the rioting, the anti-war movement, drugs, free sex, and general anti-establishment fervor. However, I don’t think enough attention has been focused on the people who lived through the era who have became a success in business, government, medicine, and the arts. Not everyone of the period dropped LSD. Not everyone became lost in the fog of marijuana. Not everyone dropped out and “tuned in”. Today’s leaders, love them or not, are survivors of the ‘60’s and today’s youth will soon take their place!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray November 21, 2019 at 1:39 pm #

      Tom, my relatives were following the rules in the 1960s!

      • Tom Dimauro November 22, 2019 at 12:11 pm #

        So, as a child of parents of the ‘60’s, what’s your perspective of the era?

    • Kristen Joy Wilks November 23, 2019 at 3:26 pm #

      Will you be showing the racism of the 1960s? Especially among those who did not break the rules, do drugs, or protest? I would love to see a thought provoking book that includes why and how people perpetuated the un-Biblical beliefs of their time during day to day life. That would certainly be an interesting read. I know the shows my parents (as a teen and young adult of the 60s) showed me, such as Gilligan’s Island, that they considered clean, I’ve not been able to watch with my own children without a chat with them about the alarming racism revealed by the show. It’s so hard as a parent. Do you pick a modern show that might have swear words or violence or do you pick an old black and white that turns anyone of another race into a caricature? I can picture so many good scenes delving into this difficult topic. Not easy to write for sure. I wish you luck with your project!

  3. Roberta Ssrver November 21, 2019 at 7:14 am #

    Bravo, Tom Dimauro! As one of those who didn’t do drugs, free sex and anti-establishment demonstrations, I think the present generation needs a realistic picture of those who didn’t capture the news of our day. Those who got a decent education and respectable jobs and raised families with Christian values seemed to take a back seat to our attention-getting contemporaries. So, please complete the picture for the benefit of those too young to know what it was like in the 60s.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 21, 2019 at 7:27 am #

      Well-said, Tom and Roberta.

      If I may, I would like to add…

      Some did the duty that they saw,
      raised hand, and took an oath
      to ride the storm for higher law
      to which they pledged their troth.
      They stepped into a world gone mad
      (who’s friend, and enemy?),
      while in The World the pundits said
      they deserved our enmity.
      They did their best for God and country,
      but in the end, for one another.
      They were often sick and always angry
      but would die to save a brother.
      They did not return to honoured vaunts,
      but bore with grace each spittle-taunt.

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 21, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    The characters of yesteryear
    have much that they might tell
    to we who’re kept in prissy fear
    in a woke and secular hell.
    They didn’t have to parse their words
    in strict PC selection
    to ensure they were not headed towards
    a fell microaggression.
    Today a character’s minor slip
    can start a hashtag dumpster fire
    from a basement-dwelling (but oh so hip!)
    social justice warrior.
    It’s odd to envy those who are fiction,
    but not, perhaps, a contradiction.

  5. sharonkconnell November 21, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    Tamela! That’s like giving away your first-born. (GASP!) How could you? New bookshelves is the answer. LOL

    • Tamela Hancock Murray November 21, 2019 at 1:41 pm #

      Alas, but our next home is likely to be smaller, not larger!

  6. Laura Selinsky November 21, 2019 at 8:48 am #

    What era are you researching now? What books are you reading from that era?
    I’m writing historical fiction with fantasy elements. The books set between 1030-60 AD. Because I love teaching medieval lit., you’d think I’d be thoroughly prepared to write in period. Nope! I am reading a ton of background material about the material culture of the world 1000 years ago. If I want to poison someone with hemlock, (a now common invasive species in the setting’s country), I have to figure out when hemlock was introduced to that country and whether it was available for purchase or trade before it was introduced.
    So much reading…

  7. Pearl Fredericksen November 21, 2019 at 10:15 am #

    I’m reading a 750 page historical fiction about Ireland, that covers the era from the period from the 1600s to the early 1900s. The book is Trinity, by Leon Uris, published in 1976 by Doubleday & Co. I find it interesting to learn about how all the animosity between the Catholics and Protestants came about. Such a shame to Christianity that it has been used to manipulate people in the cruelest ways.

  8. Loretta Eidson November 21, 2019 at 11:31 am #

    One of the most difficult tasks I faced when downsizing my home was downsizing my book collection.

  9. Naomi November 21, 2019 at 11:45 am #

    I’m finishing up edits on a Biblical Novelization on Rahab. While trying to stay true to the culture in other Biblical novelizations, I believe “There is nothing new under the sun.” My characters deal with Mental health, PTSD and overcoming a Pharisee-like attitude from the new testament to love as the Lord does. I’ve read Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy as research.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 21, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

      Naomi, may I also suggest “Achilles in Viet Nam”, by Jonathan Shay? It’s the landmark book about PTSD among Viet Nam veterans, exacerbated by the extreme societal disconnect when they came home.

  10. Mina R. Raulston November 21, 2019 at 12:05 pm #

    Funny that I may be moving again in a few months, this time further away, so I am also giving away books, I’m keeping all my Bibles and Bible Studies, I’m keeping all my writing and business books. I’m keeping all copies of books I’ve written. I’m giving away any novel that I won’t read again. I get advanced copies to write reviews, and most of them I’m giving away.i thought about trying to sell them but I just want them out of my way now that my decision is made so I’m donating them to charity.
    I’ve published my own books and now have a small publishing house. In sorting through all my books I found a copy of every version of my first book as I learned the process of publishing. My first version was done in a hurry to meet a book signing opportunity at my church. That one is spiral bound and the cover is black and white. I had them done at Office Max. I printed 10 copies at an outrageous cost. I sold out and took prepaid orders for the rest. My second version was done through a book packager and still didn’t have an ISBN. My 3rd one had an ISBN that I bought from a reseller and listed on Amazon just under my name. Finally I started my publishing house, changed the ISBN to mine and birth of my books are branded, listed under my publishing house on Amazon, B&N, is distributed through Ingram Spark, and are available in both print and e-book. I’ve learned a lot since I first put my book out in 2009.
    My publishing house is Hat Rack Books, LLC.

  11. Cindy Stewart November 21, 2019 at 2:46 pm #

    I write WWII historical fiction set in Europe. I enjoy reading memoirs written by diplomats and other government officials (U.S. and foreign) who lived through the events I write about. Not only do I get good factual information, but I also gain insights into the local culture during the time period and how people perceived and responded to what was happening all around them.

  12. photojaq November 21, 2019 at 9:34 pm #

    I’m reading mysteries in the late1950s. So much smoking!! Still moral outrage at unwed pregnancies. A lot of class distinctions.

  13. photojaq November 21, 2019 at 9:42 pm #

    I’m also listening to audiobooks of the lives of early nineteenth and late eighteenth century missionaries. Their call and willingness to go anywhere. A year to 18 months at sea from the US to India, missionary infants dying, and wives or husbands, but stil the determination to stay where God called them. And so sad is the many deadly bouts of malaria because they did not know how the disease was caught. Also loved ones nursing consumption (TB) then coming down with it.
    My easy life is convicting.

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