Wednesday 3 April 2024

Make me a better writer: Using the Research Arsenal to Construct a Vivid Setting


Using the Research Arsenal to Construct a Vivid Setting

When writing about the past, it can be difficult to construct a believable and accurate setting. Not only do you have to worry about how differently places would have looked in the past, but you also need to keep in mind what technology has been invented and what objects are commonly (and uncommonly) available. And unlike your peers who may write sci-fi and fantasy and can get away with a bit of make-believe, you’re tasked with recreating the world of the past in a way that can be examined and fact-checked.

Of course, your story is about much more than its setting and physical objects, but getting these details right draws your readers in deeper and creates a more vivid and believable world. For stories taking place during the American Civil War or in the mid-19th century more generally, the Research Arsenal has a wealth of information that can help you construct a vivid setting that will feel grounded and believable to your readers.

Using Quartermaster and Ordnance Specifications for Object Descriptions

When it comes to military gear and weapons, Quartermaster’s and Ordnance Specifications have an unbelievable amount of information about every type of gear the military would bring into the field. Just by browsing through these records, you can get a much fuller picture of the types of things soldiers had with them as well as descriptions of the color and size of each item. To better understand how these records can be used in constructing your setting, let’s break them down into several different types.

Weapons and Ordnance

Weapons and Ordnance covers everything from small arms like pistols to huge pieces of artillery. It also includes the many types of ammunition used by each weapon, as well as the tools and gear it took to maintain weapons and keep them in good condition. Looking up a weapon on the Research Arsenal also links you to historical period photos of it so you can see it as well as read descriptions.

Beyond the weapons themselves, you can also use ordnance specifications to learn about how weapons and ammunition were stored. This entry for ammunition stored in chests tells you the amount of ammunition, its total weight and the location in an ammunition chest that it should be kept. Regardless of whether you include this level of detail in your book, knowing it for yourself can trigger your imagination and give you a greater sense of how things were organized.

Books and Record Keeping

While naturally the greatest focus of the Civil War is on battles and weapons, it required immense logistics and record keeping to be able to effectively provision and order so many men at once. Each regiment was responsible for keeping track of the orders they gave and received as well as official letters they sent and received.

There are a great deal of quartermaster’s specifications dealing with these books, the ink and pens used to write in them, and even the glue that holds them together. The now infamous “red tape” used on documents also gets a mention.

One of the most surprising entries in this section is a description for making “cheese paste” which could be used for gluing parchment together. The description is included in full below.

Cheese Paste is made of fresh white cheese and quicklime. Pound the cheese in a mortar with boiling water : let it stand, and decant it : repeat this operation three or four times. Pound together 3 parts of this cheese thus prepared and 1 part of quicklime, moistening it with pure water till the paste ropes like honey. Prepare only a little at a time. It is used in pasting parchment and parchment-paper.

These different kinds of paste should be used cold. A supply for not more than 2 or 3 days should be made at one time ; but it may be preserved longer by adding alum in the proportion of 1/10th of the weight of flour. The depredations of rats may be prevented by dissolving a like proportion of colocynth in the water with which the paste is made.

Glue is dissolved in its own weight of boiling water. A glue-pot with a water-bath should be used, to avoid burning the glue. Remove the pot from the fire as soon as the glue is entirely dissolved.

Camp and Garrison Equipage

The term “camp and garrison equipage” refers to the bulk of miscellaneous items that soldiers needed to live and serve out in the field. It covers everything from pots and pans, to musical instruments, to flags and tents. For gathering an impression of what camp life was like, these items are an amazing resource.

As with all quartermaster’s specifications in the Research Arsenal, looking up the description also links you to images of the item, so you always have access to both written and visual descriptions. In the image below, you can see soldiers cooking on a stove.


If there’s one item you can’t escape writing about, even if only slightly, it would have to be clothing. Clothing in the military is especially unique, because it can tell you about a soldier's rank, area of service, and even sometimes the regiment in which they were serving. Knowing details like what the colors of rank chevrons indicate—infantry, cavalry or artillery (light blue, yellow, and red respectively)—can have a huge impact in crafting descriptions that demonstrate to your reader that you’ve done your research and offer a way to transmit a good deal of information about your characters more subtly and indirectly.

The photograph below is of an unidentified African-American sergeant in the Union cavalry. Note that the picture was hand-colored to show the golden yellow stripes and chevrons on his coat indicating his service in the cavalry.

Using Photographs to Create Descriptions

Beyond the written descriptions of Quartermaster’s and Ordnance Specifications, photographs offer an easy way to see everything from clothing, to camps, to battlefields, and see what day-to-day life really looked like. Crucially, they also offer glimpses of civilian life which is missing from other military records.

The Research Arsenal has thousands of photographs available to browse, all of them tagged and keyword searchable by all of the objects in them. Whether you’re searching for specific locations or just trying to get a general idea of camp life and battlefields, you can learn an extraordinary amount by browsing through the photo collection.

Using Letters to Create Descriptions

Finally, letters can be an amazing resource to turn to for descriptions of both camp and civilian life as well as descriptions of battles. As with searching photos, the best way to find letters related to what you’re looking for is to use the keyword search for a specific item, or else browse for letters written from the area that’s of interest to you.

Many soldiers wrote quite detailed descriptions of their camp and daily lives so that their friends and family could have an accurate understanding of what they were up to. On the civilian side, friends and family also wrote long letters to soldiers keeping them apprised of all of the major happenings in their hometowns, whether that be weddings, funerals, or other big events, as well as plenty of gossip about all the people they knew.


Building a convincing, period-accurate setting can take a lot of work, but the results are well worth it. A convincing setting not only does more to draw in your readers but it also allows you to solve story problems in an authentic and interesting way that wouldn’t occur to people who never bothered to do much more than surface-level research. The better you understand the times in which your characters lived, the easier it will be for you to unlock new story ideas. Finally, your authentic storytelling and understanding of the times will make your books instantly stand out to readers interested in the time period and they’ll be sure to pass along a good word about it to their fellow history lovers.

Click HERE to check out the database.

This database really is a game changer and we have secured a special 15% discount on The Research Arsenals annual membership.

Just type in YARDE at the checkout.

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting. I read a lot of historical fiction and I often wondered where authors do their research.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx