We writers of historical fiction come in two varieties: those who hate research and those who love it. I come down on the love it side. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I enjoy research so much that I can spend hours chasing details, events, people, and places that yield little to no usable information for my WIP. Old stuff is interesting. I’m in love with it. Some days, I guess you can say that I find myself chasing rabbits!
When it is important, however, I can get very serious about research. Approaching research as a puzzle that needs solving can take the stress out of the job. I’m a big fan of puzzle pieces provided by primary sources. Personal journals, diaries, old newspaper articles, anything written during the time setting of my WIP is pure gold. Of course, winnowing out these sources takes work. The farther into the past we go, the greater the challenge. Ancient history? Difficult, but not impossible. Writers of historical fiction engaged in research can benefit from thinking like historians. Use primary sources first, then check out the published works of historians, especially the footnotes and bibliographical citations. Don’t have access to the resources available to an academic, you say? You may be surprised. Below are listed some ways in which you and I can gain access to accurate historical information, often without leaving home.
I. Google – A.K.A., Writer’s Best Friend!
A. Google Search – Everybody does it. I know I’m preaching to the choir. But really. Is there a better way to put the world at your fingertips? A carefully worded search entry will yield more information than you will probably ever need or use. The biggest problem will be in separating the sites with accurate information from those of lesser quality. Want to know what Regency England looked like on a map? Type in “antique maps of Regency England.” The sources and images go on for pages.
B. Google Maps and Google Earth – Want geographical and topological information on a place you’ve never been? Take a look at the present day location via satellite. While modern roads and buildings will have changed the landscape, the basic overall geography and topography of an area will not have changed all that much. Compare the new with the old maps from your antique map Google search and you will have a pretty good idea of what your location looked like in the past. An added bonus of Google Earth is the references to and pictures of local attractions and historical sites that come with many searches. It’s a great way to travel without the cost and inconvenience of boarding an airplane.
C. Google Books – Lots of good stuff in their library!
D. Google Scholar – This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of academic scholarship for the amateur history sleuth. Type in your particular topic and pages of citations will crop up. Better yet, some of the citations will come with information on where the physical book or article can be located within your own community via WorldCat.org. On the subject of Regency England, Google Scholar lists, among many citations, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, 1811-1901, by Kristine Hughes. WorldCat.org tells me that it can be found in no fewer than six public and college libraries in my area, tells me how far away each library is from my home, provides the Amazon and Better World Books buy links, Goodreads reviews – the list goes on and on.
II. Genealogical Sites
Some charge a monthly fee, but others are free. With a little tweaking and ingenuity, you can view wills, criminal court records, trial documents, and other primary sources. Here is a sampling of sites that offer at least some information free of charge:
One of the greatest fears of many historical fiction writers is that they will unintentionally get “it” wrong, whatever it happens to be. I’m sure we’ve all seen work torn apart by persons who believe they have greater knowledge or insight into a particular era. If confronted in a manner where a response is unavoidable, being prepared with a list of your sources never hurts. When historians get into an argument over details, the words “cite your source” are usually somewhere in the fray. Even academicians, perhaps especially academicians, do not always agree on details regarding the past. If you have done the work and selected details from the best sources available, then merely citing your sources with a confident smile should be sufficient to quell all but the most aggressive critics. As for those types, you know, the ones determined to ruin another person’s day, be prepared for teeth marks on your tongue. It also helps to keep repeating to yourself, “Bless his heart, he probably forgot to take his meds today.”
So what about you? What research secrets can you share with the rest of us?