Combining Dreams & Research to Write Historical Fiction

Please welcome Anna Brentwood, who is sharing with us her the path toward her dream-inspired 1920's historical novel with lots of gangsters, action and details of a long-lost era. Take it away, Anna....

‘The Songbird with Sapphire Eyes’ came to me in a sequence of three very detailed and realistic dreams, so in a sense, I didn’t choose the story or the time period rather the story and the time period chose me. 
Because those dreams were so vivid, detailed and haunting, I was inclined to think they were some kind of past life memory. At first, I was more interested in finding out if there were any verifiable facts I could discover to prove that this might be true. It wasn’t until much later (think ten years later) that I got the opportunity to indulge my inner writer and had a chance to dedicate myself to writing and researching Hannah’s story, eventually making it into a novel.   

When I did begin, I felt more like a psychic detective, often able to verify information I’d imagined as “fact”. I often deduced the rest through imagination, interview, meditation and research.

To understand the 1920’s and its impact, one has to realize what the world was like prior to those years. People were coming out of the Victorian era; America was still becoming the melting pot it had been founded to be with hoards of immigrants landing daily on its shores. There were staunch societal and moral restrictions and rampant social inequities and for most people, life was brutally hard, short and contained very few pleasures.

While most of us imagine the 1920’s as fun-filled, exciting and happy, the reality for most people living then was anything but. People were either very rich or very poor. There was no middle class and people had to actually work for a living. Prejudice and discrimination were rampant and there was no such thing as human or civil rights. If one was lucky enough to even have a job, think long hours, unhealthy work situations, low pay and every kind of harassment possible. Children were often sent away because their families could not feed them or orphaned and had to go out into the world on their own. Folks were pretty much at the mercy of their employers and there were no unions, no social, state or federal service programs. If you didn’t work, you or your family could actually starve to death and did. If you didn’t pay your bills there was servitude or the poorhouse.

There was no air-conditioning and no such thing as a thermostat. Cars were just becoming available and horses were the most common form of transportation. Streets were often dirt, rough and hard to navigate and cities were filled with garbage and refuse and waste from the horses. The smells were disgusting and flies were everywhere.

Large cities had hundreds, if not thousands, of smokestacks. Clouds of pollutants –- sulfur, ammonia, and coal dust – settled on laundry, lungs, and gardens. Tanneries with their slaughter houses, bone boiling, and manure added their own unique flavor to the air around them. Pollution was accepted as the necessary price of progress and early street sweepers who were hired to keep the streets clean were not just picking up gum wrappers. In twelve months a city with 15,000 horses produces enough manure to cover an acre of ground to the depth of 175 feet.

Wives belonged to their husbands and were for cooking, cleaning and having babies. A man had the right to “discipline” and beat his wife. Divorce was a disgrace. Cocaine, heroin and opium were common household and medicinal remedies and alcohol was prescribed for everything from nervous disorders to disease. No one knew that smoking caused lung cancer and almost everyone smoked. Taverns were mostly frequented by men and some had drains in the floor so a man could just stand and urinate from his spot at the bar. There was no television, cell phones or computers. If people wanted to keep in touch they had to write letters. Hobos were common and begging was an actual profession and after a hard day in the factory or on the farm, most people didn’t have electricity, indoor plumbing, running water or electric lighting.

Most jobs were for men. Women without benefit of the protection of family or a husband who had to go out into the world alone were at the mercy of anyone and anything. There was no such thing as women’s rights. A woman alone had to rely on her wits or her body and it wasn’t hard to go from being a good girl to a bad one.

In Hannah’s world, when the twenties roared, people were more than ready for a good time even if they only lived it vicariously through others or the moving picture shows.

In the 1920’s, morality was being redefined daily and society began changing. It has never stopped since.

Women discarded their corsets in the twenties, hemlines got shorter and just a glimpse of a woman’s limb or a whispered indecency could enslave a man, and did. Men wore hats, took them off indoors and tipped them when they opened doors for the ladies or just wanted to flirt. There was no need to lock doors, children respected their parents and obeyed and heaven was the reward for hard work. In most cases, people were kinder, more considerate, watched out for their neighbors and honored their word. Yet, when one didn’t want to play by society’s rules, crime could pay and the sky was the limit. Fortunes were made or lost in a night and criminals often mingled with kings.
I could go on and on but the more I understood the history, I could not help but adore the 1920’s and admire Hannah and her friends even more.
Their world was so different from ours, the choices for women so limiting, yet Hannah not only survived, she thrived. And even when her world had long ended, her spirit bellowed on for me to let everyone know what she’d learned. And that is, that every life lived, whether well, foolishly or barely has a purpose and no matter the risks, it is better to live life true to yourself, than to just exist to be safe or comfortable.
Anna (which is her real first name) was a bookworm almost since birth and was recognized as a writing PRO by Romance Writers of America in 2002. An active professional member of Willamette Writers, RWA, the Rose City Romance Writers and NIWA, Anna grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Philadelphia’s, University of the Arts where she majored in Illustration.
Anna's debut novel, ‘The Songbird with the Sapphire Eyes’ first began as a series of dreams that so haunted her they became a personal quest to explore possible past life memories. The journey was both eerie and exciting and the manuscript finaled and won second place in the Women’s Fiction category of the 2006 Tara Awards.

Anna is inspired to write about interesting characters whose lives take them on journeys we can all enjoy and perhaps learn something meaningful from. She is busy working on a
sequel to 'The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes' which will take readers on a journey through the 1940's with Johnny and Hannah's son, wartime hero, playboy and New York mobster, Anthony Gallo.

A wife, mother and doting new grandmother of two, Anna lives in a log home on 45 wooded acres on Oregon’s coast range with her former Navy-Seal husband and a menagerie of animals that include one pug, one cat, one horse, two wolf-hybrids, a red-tailed hawk named Lucky and a feisty but lovable African grey parrot named Warlock

You may contact Anna at or through her website at



 In 1918, Kansas City is Sin City.      

Forced to leave home at age fourteen, beautiful Hannah Glidden struggles to survive, but with help from her childhood friend, Meg, mistress to a wealthy married man and her roommate, the irrepressible, flapper extraordinaire, Rosie, she thrives as a cabaret singer.

The early 20’s roared. Fortunes were made or lost in a single night, and criminals mingled with kings. Neither the government nor Prohibition could stop the flow of alcohol or the lure of the “good life.” Handsome rum runner Johnny Gallo is part of New York's large, growing criminal empire where the sky is the limit. The ruthless Gallo has a knack for knowing the right people, and a single-minded devotion to getting what he wants. And, he wants Hannah.

Hannah goes with Johnny to Al Capone’s Chicago and eventually to Brooklyn, New York where she basks in the glamorous shadow world of gangsters and their gals. Johnny becomes a force to be reckoned with, but in time the free-spirited Hannah clashes with her controlling lover.

She faces the dark side of her dreams but dares to defy Johnny despite the dangers and unwittingly discovers that for her, dying just might be the only true path to freedom after all.