No matter what type of stories we write, we often have to do research. Maybe we have to research the setting, the characters, or a situation, such as legal information for a character’s job or a story premise. Or maybe we can’t even remember the details of world events from ten years ago, and we have to remind ourselves of the highlights we lived through. *smile*
The difficulties of research increase if we need to reference aspects of history. The best research sources are always primary sources, direct from those who know, but primary sources can be especially tricky when it comes to historical research.
Historical fiction author K.B. (Kathy) Owen is here with us today to share her top seven resources for researching historical details. While the first three are focused on the U.S., the remainder are valid for other locations.
Please welcome Kathy Owen! *smile*
Researching Historical Details Online:
7 Free Research Sources
Those of us who write historical fiction can certainly attest to Truman’s statement above. Researching those precious tidbits…what’s on the menu at ladies’ restaurants? What did a woman’s bicycle attire look like?…can be immensely rewarding. It’s like a treasure hunt.
Of course, there’s a “dark side” to research, too. It can consume an enormous amount of time.
Sometimes we have very little to show for our hours (or days) of searching. Much of what we do find we can’t use without killing the pace or confusing the reader. And the maze of links, sites, and keywords often makes us feel that only a Sherpa guide accompanied by a pack of bloodhounds could extricate us. (Forget GPS…we’re historical writers). *wink*
It’s a labor of love nonetheless. Our readers appreciate the extra dimension that history gives, whether it’s a romance, a mystery, a young adult novel…the list goes on.
Historical mystery is my special love. I’ve just published the fifth book of my Concordia Wells Mystery series, set in an 1890s fictitious women’s college in Hartford, CT. (More on that below).
I’ve discovered some helpful resources over the past few years that I’d like to share with you. While a couple of the sites are specific to nineteenth-century America, most are general resources. I call them my “Top 7.” And they are all free.
A note about sources: I prefer primary over secondary whenever possible, although secondary sources can be helpful as long the work was carefully researched. A lengthy bibliography is a good indicator (and can point you to even more primary sources).
Top 7 Free Online Primary Sources
#1: Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers (1836-1922):
This site is my all-time favorite! In the “advanced search” mode, you can customize the specific date or range of dates, select which state in the country you want, and designate keywords or a particular phrase a certain number of words apart (handy when we’re talking about an entire page of a newspaper). After you click on a result, you can zoom in with ease, convert the entire page to a pdf, and snip to your heart’s content.
These period newspapers give us insight into much more than the major events of the time. There are stories about stupid local criminals, social doings, advertisements for bust cream, celery tonic, fountain pens, and so on (some ads have sketches!).
Another great benefit is being able to read the colloquialisms of the time. I’ve found many turns of phrase that I later wove into my novels.
#2: Library of Congress:
The online catalog of the Library of Congress is a challenge to navigate, but only because it is so vast. I recommend the “advanced search” feature.
LOC has an impressive collection of maps, letters, articles, books, and recordings. It was there that I first read Mark Twain’s handwritten letter of complaint to the telephone company:
“The Hartford telephone is the very worst on the face of the earth. No man can dictate a 20-word message intelligibly through it at any hour of the day…. And if you try to curse through the telephone, they shut you off. It is this ostentatious holiness that gravels me.”
#3: Making of America, Cornell University Library:
Here’s the MOA site description, which explains it more concisely than I can:
“The Cornell University Library Making of America Collection is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. This site provides access to 267 monograph volumes and over 100,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. The project represents a major collaborative endeavor in preservation and electronic access to historical texts.
The Making of America collection comprises the digitized pages of books and journals. This system allows you to view scanned images of the actual pages of the 19th century texts. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has been performed on the images to enhance searching and accessing the texts.”
#4 & #5: Non-U.S.-Only Resources:
The next two online sites are useful for access to book-length primary texts. Some of my favorite domestic cookery/hints books (think Martha Stewart in the 19th century), etiquette books (Miss Manners for Victorians), and telephone directories came from here.
With Google Books, it’s especially easy to add them to your library. You can also search within the texts for certain keywords.
#5: Google Books
#6 & #7: Visual Resources:
Here are two sites you might not expect:
I kid you not, there are some really cool historical clips on YouTube! (Of course, this won’t be of help if your historical period is WAY back, before film. Sorry, guys.)
I remember watching a clip of San Francisco in the 1890s (before the 1906 earthquake). I was amazed by the mix of conveyances—street cars, bicycles, pedestrians, horseless carriages—all dodging each other and weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon!
Ah, surprised you, right? You probably thought Pinterest was just about making cutesy things out of pallets and mason jars, but it’s so much more.
I’ve found Harper’s Bazaar fashion plates of 1890s attire, floor plans for historic buildings, cough syrup ads (formulated with cocaine!), and 19th century city maps (great for naming streets).
It’s a visually-based site, which I find refreshing after hours of reading cramped text. When you find a pic that intrigues you, you can click on it and trace it back to its source for more info. Sometimes the link is a dead end (a pin of a pin, so to speak), but you can always have Google search more broadly for the image.
Here’s one last tip, in terms of collecting and organizing your research. I am a big fan of Microsoft’s OneNote, which allows you to send material you find online directly to your notebooks (which you organize by sections and can index by keywords) using the “print” feature.
OneNote allows you to do so much: charts, to do lists, audio recordings…and everything saves automatically! Jenny Hansen wrote a terrific guest post on my site with her Top Ten OneNote Tips and a guest post here at Jami’s with more about using One Note to organize our writing research and notes.
K.B. Owen taught college English at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A long-time mystery lover, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Beloved and Unseemly is the fifth book of the series.
Check out K.B.’s book page to learn more about the Concordia Wells Mysteries.
Beloved and Unseemly, book 5 of the Concordia Wells Mysteries
A stolen blueprint, a dead body, and wedding bells….
Change is in the air at Hartford Women’s College in the fall of 1898. Renowned inventor Peter Sanbourne—working on Project Blue Arrow for the Navy—heads the school’s new engineering program, and literature professor Concordia Wells prepares to leave to marry David Bradley.
The new routine soon goes awry when a bludgeoned body—clutching a torn scrap of the only blueprint for Blue Arrow—is discovered on the property Concordia and David were planning to call home.
To unravel the mystery that stands between them and their new life together, Concordia must navigate deadly pranks, dark secrets, and long-simmering grudges that threaten to tear apart her beloved school and leave behind an unseemly trail of bodies.
Thanks, Kathy! I say ditto to all of your comments about OneNote, but I’ll admit that getting the details of history right has always intimidated me.
My favorite genre to read is historical romance, but I don’t think I’ll ever write it. My upcoming release, Stone-Cold Heart (and its spin-off series that I’m working on for NaNoWriMo), feature gargoyle heroes who have recently encountered the modern world, and trying to find the right voice for those characters is hard enough. *grin*
So I’m glad we can all benefit from Kathy’s knowledge here and ensure that we have the tools if we want to go that route in our writing. Whether we write historical fiction or we just need to reference people, places, or events from the past, we want to do our best at being accurate with our writing.
Well-researched details can bring settings and situations to life, whereas mistakes and goofs can yank readers out of our story. So it’s in our best interest to find the right sources for our story. *smile*
Do you write historical fiction? Or have you ever had to reference historical details in your contemporary writing? What aspects of historical writing do you struggle with the most? What online sites do you use for historical research? Do you have any questions for Kathy?
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