History/Genealogy

“Glee” and Getting Your Historical Research Groove On


I love obscure facts. I think it’s fun knowing stuff. Maybe it pumps up my self-importance. I am the queen of unimportant knowledge, specializing in 1970s trivia, having lived through the decade that was a plethora of unimportant stuff. Pet rocks come to mind as an example. I’m having a great time with the research I’m doing for my debut historical fiction, which fortunately for all involved is not set in the 1970s. The internet and the library have a treasure trove of information to dig through. I’m always uncovering interesting facts related to my novel, which covers the time period from 1894 through 1920.

Did you know there were Gleeks in the 1800’s? No, I didn’t say Greeks. Gleeks, as in the devoted fans of the fabulously popular television show “Glee”, the one with characters Rachel, Finn, Sue Sylvester and Mr. Schuester.  Imagine the glee club’s costumes included bustles, petticoats, and handlebar mustaches and the glee club members were German immigrants, singing and playing German songs, classical pieces and opera. There was no Auto-Tune and beer was involved.

Sangerbunds, or “singer clubs” were very popular in the 1890s through the beginning of World War I in the United States. Towns and cities held Saengerfests, meaning “singer festival” which held competitions to determine the top singing groups. There were thousands of participants. Some groups started in beer gardens and local saloons, which were more like family-oriented community centers than the typical American saloon, and where group sing-alongs were a common form of entertainment. Others were offshoots of civic and political groups. Saengerfests became very prestigious in many cities that had a large German immigrant population, with competitions drawing tens of thousands of fans. Because of their popularity, they began building music halls for these presentations that would accommodate the crowds. In Saint Louis, one of the settings of my novel, the Exposition and Music Hall built in 1884 for the annual competition was built on the site that is now the location of the Central Public Library . In some cities these halls were the seeds that grew into municipal symphonies.

During the competitions there would be parades, speeches, refreshment stands and souvenirs. By 1908 it was estimated approximately 250,000 people were members of musical organizations. Unfortunately, anti- German sentiment during World War I and II and the closing of saloons and beer gardens during Prohibition caused the dissolution of many groups, but the Sangerbund tradition still exists in many predominantly German areas of the U.S. Here is a sample performance from a recent Saengerfest:

Saengerfests became so prestigious that presidents and celebrities of the time would make appearances. (Sound familiar?) President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at a 1903 Baltimore Saengerfest praising the Sangerbund tradition.

Fast forward to April 2010 when the cast of “Glee” gave a command performance requested by President Obama at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Popular culture intersecting with politics. Interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same.

Need advice for doing historical research? Here are three great links:

Author Jody Hedlund gives 4 tips on researching here.

Romance writer Shelly Thacker shares her steps to historical research here.

Haley Whitehall talks about the balance of research and writing here.

Don’t be afraid to follow rabbit trails (as long as they’re not too long) in your writing research. You may find some interesting tidbits to enrich the setting or characters of your story. If I decide my characters want to break out in song and dance, it will be perfectly logical for their time period and culture. Too bad they can’t sing Journey songs, because who doesn’t want to belt out “Don’t Stop Believing”?

“Enough with the jibba jabba, sing something!” –Sue Sylvester

Question: What interesting historical facts or events have you found in your research that have influenced your story or character’s evolution that you hadn’t planned on until you discovered it?

18 replies »

  1. LOL Thanks Jackie. I’m only at the beginning of my research, so who knows what other pop culture analogies will come from it? 🙂 History is very fascinating to me, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction as well.

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  2. Love this! My story first in the trilogy takes place in St Louis from 1917-1925. Early in that period the great influenza epidemic killed hundreds of people in St Louis and thousands across the US. Most deaths happened in the first few hours from complications of sudden pneumonia symptoms. One of my characters dies from this flu in the first scene.
    I love the 20th century history and have found a ton of ideas for stories there.
    Your pop culture analogy was great…love the way you tied it in!

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    • Thanks for stopping by Marcia. I grew up in St. Louis and after doing some genealogy research, I discovered so many interesting facts, both about my ancestors and the city itself, it inspired the ideas that have become the novel I am writing. History is fascinating to me, and also makes me thankful for the time I live in, it was especially hard for women back in the day!
      What is the name of your book, btw, I’d like to check it out! Thanks again for the comment.

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      • It isn’t published yet, but the working title for the trilogy is An American Showgirl, A Donnelly Family Saga. My mother was a showgirl in 1942, came from Kansas City, MO and traveled to NY…that’s what started me on this trilogy…her story, what happened to her parents and fictional children.

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  3. Sounds like a wonderful story! Keep us informed on your progress, that is definitely a book I would be interested in reading! The person from my background that inspired my story was my great-great-great paternal aunt. I discovered her hidden in the census records when I was doing genealogy research, and just following them showed so many things she went through. Combine that with that writer’s ‘what if…’ mechanism we seem to have, and all the ‘what-ifs’ brought together the fictional story. Lots of fun, but mostly hard work. Writing is hard work. Period. Good luck on your trilogy!

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  4. History is fascinating, and my favorite subject in school. I had teacher who was so excited about the Civil War that he brought it to life. He was an amazing teach and so inspiring! Great Post, glad I got to see it on Gene’s listing! I have released two trilogies…so I am so understanding you right now…lol! Good luck in all you do.

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  5. Thanks for stopping by, Amy! Two trilogies – impressive! I think I may have a second book to follow the one I am currently working on, but it’s kind of overwhelming to think about getting sucked into the rabbit hole of research, as it would be generational and follow the time period of the first. Where will the research end? LOL But at the same time, it’s a lot of fun. Thanks again for the comment.

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  6. I agree! Group singalongs to popular songs, snacks and beer? Sounds suspiciously like karaoke…but with lederhosen. Yeah, I think it would be great fun. Thanks for the comment, EllieAnn. Stop by anytime! 🙂

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  7. “Interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same.” Oh, this is so true. There really isn’t anything totally new under the sun, is there? I guess when you don’t have television or internet, Saengerfests would be the way to go. Sounds like fun!
    I haven’t had a story go in a different direction because of research, but I have come across some information that I didn’t intend on discovering that ended up being the basis of a story all by itself. (About industrial incinerators and what temperatures would be needed to turn flesh and bone into ash – yeah, I write some creepy stuff).
    I’m here via the repost youself post on educlaytion’s blog.

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  8. Thanks so much for checking out my blog, Amy. A story involving industrial incinerators and human bodies sounds very intriguing, would love to read it if it doesn’t scare me too bad. Now you’re gotten me thinking about a murdering Saengerfest tuba player hiding a body in his tuba until he could dump it in the industrial incinerator, but his cat finds it first. Oh my, good thing we writers have writing for therapy. 😉 Thanks for the comment and please stop by here anytime. I won’t bite, really. And Keeper Hubby hides all the sharp objects.

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  9. I’m the same way. Keeper Hubby gets so tired of me and my cheerful ‘Did you know…’ comments as I’m spinning along through Google or a research book. 😉 Thanks so much for your comment. I checked out your blog as well. Me likey! :~]

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