Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

How to use real estate ads for research

One of the many mistakes I made while researching and writing my abandoned storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in 1952 was reading current real estate ads for historic properties as though they’d always been that way. Regardless of which city, era, or type of housing you’re writing about, you should never assume a house or apartment is completely unchanged from the day of its creation.

So you go to a site like Zillow, choose the neighborhood or street you’re researching, plug in age range (e.g., 1880–1930), square footage, number of bedrooms, and style (condo, townhouse, apartment, detached house). You read the descriptions and look at the photos and floor plans, and start basing your fictional homes on your favorites.

Except you may be barking up the completely wrong tree.

Yes, that home physically existed in that year, but it may have looked a lot different. If it’s in a major city (e.g., NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore), and your story is set anytime from the Depression through these cities’ nadirs in the Seventies and Eighties, odds are it wasn’t used as a single-family home and was a lot smaller.

Unless one were lucky enough to already own one’s home and have fully paid it off, the Stock Market crash forced many people into new dwellings. They could no longer afford rent on luxury apartments or upkeep of rambling estates. Many townhouses and rowhouses were split up into duplexes, triplexes, and SROs.

Some townhouses had as many as 29 SRO apartments!

Others were split up in response to the severe housing crisis following WWII. Many large apartments were also chopped up into smaller units, and some tenants were pressured or outright forced into moving or accepting the decreased square footage of their homes.

Likewise, many estates in cities like St. Paul and San Francisco were used as boardinghouses and apartments. People were able to get them for free or cheap, but had a lot of work to do fixing them up.

The same went for townhouses which escaped the division into SROs, duplexes, and triplexes.

And speaking of townhouses and rowhouses, many had entry floor businesses (restaurants, shoe stores, bookstores, candy stores, business classes, photography studios, florist shops, etc.). Even if a single family owned the property, they may not have had residence on every floor.

Many amenities featured in modern apartments and condos didn’t exist until very recently. It’s one thing to create a fictional building with a pool, gorgeous courtyard, a few upscale businesses on the lower floors, and maid service, but things like dog parks, communal treehouses, Yoga studios, and bowling alleys wouldn’t have existed in all but the most contemporary hist-fic.

The above is from 1936, so it’s not entirely implausible for your characters to be well-off during the Depression and have a luxury home. However, that wasn’t very common. Not much new housing was built after the Stock Market crash, and an architect or realtor in touch with reality wouldn’t have built, developed, or marketed such upscale housing.

The former hotel being refurbished into condos in all but name, an urban kibbutz of sorts for an unrealistic amount of my characters to all conveniently live in, was beyond unrealistic. People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split up into SROs.

Forget about terraces, a three-story penthouse, sprawling apartments, a steamroom, indoor pool, libraries on every floor, and private-entry elevators! Those would’ve been added decades later, not during such a severe housing crisis.

Co-ops were uncommon until the Sixties, and condos didn’t exist in the U.S. till about the same time. However, some luxury apartments called it even after a certain amount of years paying rent, and became condos in all but name.

Obviously, things like air conditioning, central heating, and electricity were added at much later dates, but those generally aren’t the only changes. Wine cellars, wet bars, private gyms, spa rooms, I’m looking at you! Elevators are also almost certainly very recent additions.

And if that house was built before 1950, you know it wouldn’t have been a tacky open concept originally!

It’s fine to use modern real estate ads as a jumping-off point for creating your own fictional homes, but it’s also important to look up vintage ads.

You also want to look up the average home and rent prices in that area in that era. Plugging modern numbers into an inflation calculator won’t give an accurate price, since the cost of living has gone WAY up over the last few decades.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Greeted by the temple caretaker

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now taking shelter from the rain in a temple which appeared abandoned.

Main hall of Tokyo’s Senso-ji temple, Copyright Tak1701d

“We should look for the monks’ living quarters,” Mizuki said as she unhitched the cart. “I can’t wait to sleep inside again.”

“May I interest you girls in a warm room and hearty meal?”

Umiko looked to her left and saw an elderly woman with regal bearing, a yellow robe sweeping the floor, and a very large stomach. “I hope we aren’t intruding in your beautiful temple, honored lady, and that we haven’t insulted you by bringing a horse inside. We only entered to take temporary shelter from the rain.”

The strange elder smiled. “There’s no need to apologize. Only I live here most of the time, and it’s my duty to serve all guests. What would you like to eat?”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“Anything you see fit to serve us, of course, esteemed elder,” Mizuki said. “We’re the guests in your temple.”

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Baku to the rescue

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now in the forest, where they encounter Baku, a yokai assembled from various animal body parts. Despite his fearsome appearance, Baku is a very powerful force of good and a holy protector of humans.

Sculpture of Baku, Copyright Momotarou2012

A huge bear walking on its hind legs menaced out from a cluster of trees on the left and promptly raced back to its lair at the sight of Baku. An eerie blue light then appeared on the right, slowly turning into a giant reptile. The moment it began creeping towards the human intruders, Baku leapt on it and gobbled it up.

“Do you understand speech, Baku?” Umiko called. “We want you to walk with us till we exit the forest. You’re the supreme yokai, and everyone fears you.”

Baku paced up alongside the cart, pawing at the ground. As the travelers proceeded through the woods, Baku took turns walking on all four sides of the cart. Every few minutes, Baku leapt at ghostly lights and fearsome creatures, devouring them all. Other yokai fled at the sight of him.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Entering the forest

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. At the beach, they encountered friendly shojo, an orangutan-like race of yokai, who gave them twenty bottles of wine. Though shojo wine can cure diseases, the girls need to stay on the road and find Shoki.

Sculpture of Baku, Copyright Momotarou2012

Umiko had never ventured inside the forest. Everyone in her family, her tutors, and many of the servants had terrified her away from it with tales of horror about yokai lurking among the trees, in caves, underground, and in the skies. Some of these yokai were cannibals who loved feasting on humans daring to disturb their homes, particularly when those humans were children. It was better to be safe than sorry.

All too soon, the light gave way to darkness, and thick clusters of branches blocked out the sky. Umiko looked straight ahead as she rode Ayumu through the dark forest. The wheels of the cart rolled over many dead leaves, stones, bark, and broken branches, and the crunching sounds were amplified in the silence.

Umiko held Ayumu’s neck more tightly when a monstrous creature appeared in front of her. It had the body of a bear, the head of a lion, the tail of an ox, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the trunk and tusks of an elephant, and the legs of a tiger. The creature stopped and sniffed the air before gobbling up a thick white mist with a crazed curving shape.

The ten lines end here. A few more are below.

“That’s Baku,” Mizuki said. “He’ll protect us. A baku never hurts humans.”

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Shojo wine

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, have set off on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now on the beach with shojo, an orangutan-like race of yokai who are generally good to humans.

Wine offerings at Meiji Shrine, Copyright Berlinuno

“Please have some of our wine,” a tall shojo repeated. “We love serving humans.”

Umiko took a drink from the extended blue bottle. The liquid which hit her tongue had a taste like nothing she’d ever experienced. It had a distinctive flavor of grapes, but everything else was hard to decipher.

“What do you use in your wine?” Umiko asked as Mizuki drank. “Do you grow underwater grapes?”

A slender shojo shook her head. “Our wines are made with secret recipes. All humans are allowed to know about them is that our wine tastes delicious and distinctive to good people, and can be poisonous to evil people.”