Resources For Historical Research

Anyone who writes historical fiction can tell you a lot of research goes into it. Beginners in the genre might wonder where to start. The following tips and sites are for nineteenth century research, but they can be used for any research project.

Travel:  Your story will have a setting or location even if it’s a mythical town. If you can travel to that location and scope the land, you’ll be able to add details you could never find out from goggling.

For instance, I live in northern Ohio. Somewhere from another part of the country might never catch on that to an Ohioan toward the river means south and toward the lake means north. They also might not catch on to the fact that most days in northern Ohio are cloud covered. This means someone from Arizona might have sunny day after sunny day in a story about Ohio. Ohioans would read that and find it laughable. If you can’t travel to where your setting is, find someone on the Internet who lives in the area and can scope it out for you.

Culture:  Cultural mores in the nineteenth century were different than today. Reading literature from that period will help. Another guide that’s very good is a Writer’s Digest Book called A Writer’s Guide to the 1800’s.  This book is invaluable for learning about nineteenth century culture.

Museums and Colleges:  Almost every area of the country has local museums that specialize in local history. One thing most writers don’t realize is they love to talk about their history with writers. Calling these museums and asking for the curator will give you a resource that’s invaluable. Also a local college history department is a great resource. One suggestion I would make is to have a list of questions ahead of time. 

Maps:  The nation has changed a lot in the last 150 years. Find old maps in the library or on the Internet to map out your setting before you write about it. Also use Google Earth to map out the terrain.

Dictionary:  Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary will not only give you the definition of a word, it will give you the year of origin. This helps you know if any word you want to use is too modern for your historical. An example would be ruckus. If my story is dated 1858, I wouldn’t want to use that word because it’s year of origin isn’t until 1890. But I could use the word, fuss, because it’s been around since 1701. Also I couldn’t use war effort in a novel about the Civil War because war effort started being used during World War 2.

Pictures:  Photographs are a great way to find out what people wore, how they did their hair, how they decorated their houses, and what their towns looked like.

Books:  Books are still a great resource for historicals. Use a little creativity when it comes to checking out books. For instance, if you want to know what to call different parts of a steam train, a children’s book might be the best place to find the information.

Internet Searches:  You can find out almost anything on the Internet if you know how to look. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, try different search words or a different search engine. Some of the most common are Google, Yahoo Search, MSN, and Bing.

Wednesday’s post will give you a list of Internet resources for nineteenth century research you can use.


4 thoughts on “Resources For Historical Research

  1. Great information!
    Some of the other things I’ve learned (through writing my historical set in 1812-1819 and having it critiqued by published writers and professional editors) is not to use too many foreign terms. One or two details per paragraph or page is enough to set the time and place. The same rule applies to dialog. Your fiction novel is not a place to show off all your knowledge; it can kick people right out of your story.
    If other pertinent events happened in that time period and your characters would know about them, make sure you reference them in some way.
    Also, check newspapers (most are archived online or micro fiche) to make sure you aren’t missing something pertinent to your location and time period.

    Don’t forget about time of year, droughts, floods, harvests, holidays, world leader deaths, disease, wars, etc…

  2. Thank you for sharing this excellent resource. I’m writing a novel that takes place before the CW. You’ve helped answer some of my most plaguing questions.

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