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Creating Authenticity from Estate Sale Treasures

Some priceless items found at estate sales (Photo by Monica Bhide)

Please welcome our guest Monica Bhide [1] whose first novel Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken [2] released earlier this year! Monica’s work has appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Saveur, The Washington Post, Health, The New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, AARP The Magazine, Parents, and many others. Her books have been published by Simon & Schuster and Random House (India). The Chicago Tribune named Bhide one of the seven food writers to watch in 2012. In April 2012, Mashable.com [3] picked her as one of the top ten food writers on Twitter [4]. Connect with her there and on Facebook [5].

***Monica has generously offered to give one lucky commenter a signed copy of her novel Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken [2]! To be entered in the contest, please leave a comment and we will select a winner at random.***

Creating Authenticity from Estate Sale Treasures

Disclaimer: I have not revealed any personal information here or in my book from any materials I found. Even the words in the letters mentioned below have been altered a bit to respect people’s privacy.

One of the things I always look for as a writer is inspiration to create an authentic sense of place, time, and character.

My most recent book, my debut novel, released earlier this year. That book is set in a monastery in Delhi, and for that I traveled to Delhi and was able to go to several monasteries and talk to many monks. While this endeavor cost time and money, it was doable since monasteries are public places and I could go inside and ask questions quite freely.

My current novel is based in Washington, DC, and the suburbs of northern Virginia, where I live. I am currently working on creating characters who were born and grew up in this area. I have lived here for many years and know much of the area well, but the locations I selected for my book aren’t those I am familiar with. (This was deliberate, to force myself to learn new things.) I was really struggling with trying to get a deep sense of what it must have been like for families living here in, say, the 1960s through now. I did not want to use Google or the libraries – I was looking for something more firsthand. I wanted to find a different way.

Of course, one easy way was to talk to people who live in the places I was focused on. So I began to visit the areas regularly and talk to owners of stores, people walking their dogs, and so on. Then, quite by chance, I was invited by a friend to an estate sale in one of my places of interest. Visiting the house where the estate sale was being held, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I found amazing things in the house: old letters dating back to the 1920s, beautiful postcards from that time that the person had collected. The house and its contents revealed so many stories.

Here is what I learned from visits to various estate sales as ways to create an authentic sense of time, place, and person.

  1. Papers: So many estate sales sell boxes filled with old letters, postcards, and photos. For me, this was the BEST thing about visiting the sales. I picked up a box filled with over two hundred such pieces at one sale. There were letters from the 1920s from Paris, from the 1940s from Ohio, from the 1950s from Morocco. It was fascinating to read the language – “I had muggle and crackers for breakfast.” (I don’t know what muggle is, other than the current Harry Potter reference, but it gave me food for thought. Maybe the family had their own “food words.” We certainly do. Maybe muggle was milk?) To understand the angst of teens was different and yet the same: “Mother, the hairs on my legs are back and wont go away.” The mention of political events of the time: “Mother, I still cannot believe that Roosevelt is dead,” stated one letter from a college student. “When we were first told, I thought someone was talking about a pet who had died.” Added bonus: the feel of the lined envelopes, the purple 3 cent stamp on the envelope – all terrific details I can embellish and use in my book. Cost: box of papers, $2
  1. Clothes: The estate sales I visited had closets full of clothes, from fur coats (one woman had 19 of them) to shawls from around the world. I took furious notes, since I could not afford to buy the coats! I touched, I felt the fur, I wondered if my character would ever wear it. Oh, and then there were the hats. It was like a dress-up playdate for me and my characters as I wandered from closet to closet wondering what they would wear and why they would choose that. Cost: shawl, $3
  1. Dishes: So this is interesting. I discovered, at some of the older homes, that people loved to collect dishes, which is nice but pretty mundane. Then I stumbled onto one home that had a collection of intricate crystal salt cellars, and I just knew that my character could collect these. It was not something that would have occurred to me otherwise. Cost: salt cellar, $5
  1. People: No, people are not for sale at estate sales. What I mean here is that I talked to a lot of collectors who show up at the fancier estate sales. They know so much. I talked to one woman who was appraising lamps, and she told me how she thought one of the lamps was a rare one from Europe. Again, it is a detail I can easily add to my story, even if the actual lamp was beyond my dollar budget. Cost: conversations, free
  1. Books: Of course, many estate sales are filled with books. While I love buying books, I was more interested in the inscriptions in them. I found one from a graduating high-schooler (dated early 1970s) to her friend: “friends and music are the only two things in life that are a constant” Cost: reading inscriptions, free
    “…breakfast of muggle and crackers…”
  1. Photographs: It really amazed me to see how many of the sales included old photos. I found pictures that were decades old. One in particular stayed with me: an image of a nurse holding a newborn. It is a black-and-white image dated 1922. There is a small cut on the nurse’s hand. The light from the window gently lights up the face of the baby. Just so much inspiration in one photo. Cost: photograph-filled box, $1
  1. The setting: Walking around the house, at one particular sale, I took notes on the unusual layout (kitchen on topmost floor), the style of garish-golden furniture, the paintings on the walls, the style of cabinets, and so on. All this really helped me decide what kind of a house my character would live in, how would his bedroom look, what would the view be from his window, etc. Cost: ambience, free

Finally, at one estate sale, I found an unopened letter from the 1920s. It was in great shape. Not a rip or a tear. To say that it provided me all kinds of inspiration for the week it remained unopened would be an understatement. It was a letter from a college kid to his mother. Why had she not opened it? What would I find when I opened it? What did it all mean? I did open it. What did I find inside? I will let you use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

For me, going to estate sales has proved to be a boon to creating believable places, settings, and people. The cost has been a few dollars, as documented above. The experience and rewards, priceless.

PS: If there are no estate sales in the area you want to research, try going on realtor.com to see if there are houses for sale there. I have used the photos to create a sense of place as well. If there is an estate sale but you cannot attend, go to Google and see if they are offering pictures of what is on sale. Many sales are quite good about this, and it helps you get information as well. One last point: not all estate sales are worthwhile. I have been to a fair share that offered little of use. But then, I have had futile search days at the library as well! This is just one more tool for your research arsenal.

Have you used estate sale items or similar for inspiration in research? What are some other research tips you can share?

***Please leave a comment to be entered to win! Monica has generously offered to give one lucky commenter a signed copy of her novel Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken [2]! A winner will be selected at random from comments.***

About Monica Bhide [6]

Monica Bhide [7] is an award winning writer, literary coach, poet, storyteller, and educator. As a bestselling fiction and internationally renowned cookbook author, Bhide is known for sharing food, culture, mystery, and love in her writing. Having roots and experience in many places, Bhide inspires readers everywhere with present day stories which transcend cultural, chronological, geographical, economical, and religious borders. Bhide’s short story collection, The Devil in Us, topped the list on Kindle as a bestseller in its category of Literary Short Fiction. Her memoir, A Life of Spice, was picked by Eat Your Books as one of the top five food memoirs of 2015. Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi picked Bhide’s Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009), as one of the “Best Books Ever” for Newsweek in 2009. A respected writing authority, Bhide appears regularly on NPR and conducts sold-out workshops on writing, food, culture, and scheduled speaking events at prestigious venues as the Smithsonian Institution, Sackler Gallery, Les Dames d’Escoffier, Georgetown University, and Yale University. She has taught all over the world including conferences in London, Dubai, US etc. She has also been the “Writing Coach in Residence” for the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists.