What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


The greatest invention of all time

Yep. No power here!

Yep. No power here!

We lost electrical power Saturday. A little after noon, the TV went off, the fan stopped turning, the oven stopped heating, the clocks stopped ticking off seconds. In that moment, modern life as we know and love it stopped. We may as well have stepped back in time 100 years.

My husband picked up the phone to call MidAmerican Energy to report the outage. Oops! The cordless phone doesn’t work without electricity. Nor could we report it online with the computer. No electricity, no wi-fi. Thank goodness for a cell phone.

When I asked my 92-year-old uncle what he considers the greatest invention of his lifetime, he didn’t hesitate. Electricity. Born in 1922, he remembers when electricity finally made it to their farm.

“Everybody was waiting,” he says. Even though they didn’t have anything to turn on. No toaster. No radio. No microwave. No hair dryer. No electric lights. No TV. No computers.

As I write my novel set in 1913, I’ve done my level best to imagine life in that time. Living without electricity is hardest to get my head around.

“What did you do at night?” I asked my uncle.

“When it got dark, we went to bed,” he replied.  Life was not easy, but it may have been more simple.

My husband was getting ready to put two loaves of bread in the oven when we lost power. He remembered the old gas stove in the basement and went to get it going. We’d never used the oven and he learned the door doesn’t really close tightly. A resourceful man, my husband found a 2×4 to prop the oven door closed.

Cooking by flashlight.

Cooking by flashlight.

If he could make bread, I could make the blueberry cobbler I planned to serve the company coming that night. I took everything to the basement only to realize I’d be working in the dark. No matter how many times we flicked a light switch (and we did it plenty), the lights did not come on. A flashlight provided the little halo of light we worked by.

The good folks at the power company came right away, assessed the problem, and determined they’d have to dig up the cable. They assured us we’d have power again sometime that night. I think they feared we’d scream. But what are you going to do? I was grateful this didn’t happen last week when the temperatures were in the 100s. Or the day when we had 40 guests for a party.

Six men, a backhoe, and eight hours later, we had a hole in our driveway and the electricity back on. Just in time to go to bed. We retired that night very happy to be back in the 21st century.

What do you think is the greatest invention of your lifetime?