Ooh, all that research!

If you tell a normal person you write historical fiction, the reaction is usually something like 'Ooh, I'd never have the patience to do all that research!' (Translation: 'You're a bit sad really, aren't you?') While I believe all genres require us to find stuff out - or risk regurgitating our own lives onto the page - it's true that research is a big part of writing a historical novel.

When I was working on that book I wrote a while back, I did most of my research in archives and libraries. I loved it - it’s wonderful to experience the texture and smell of documents that have been touched by someone 250 years ago, to imagine the circumstances in which some love-lorn, happy, depressed or bored person was writing – whether they were secretly scribbling a letter and hoping their mother didn't look over their shoulder, or whether they were falling asleep at work, writing down the last records of the day and looking forward to going home for tea.

This time around, though, I have the internet, and boy does this make life easier. To some people, online research sounds plain lazy – surely most of the web is cobbled together by a few pasty 13-year old American boys while they trawl The Google for pictures of boobs?

Living next door to the British Library and having no other commitments might make 'proper' research a doddle, but few writers live in this ideal world. Some are working 12-hour shifts, some are looking after elderly relatives, some have disabilities that make public transport a nightmare, some have toddlers climbing over us all day... and all night. No matter how committed we are, we can't always drop everything to go and Be a Writer.

I'm not advocating having a glance at Wikipedia and taking it as The Truth, but I am hugely enthusiastic about the digital resources available. Here are a mere five ways I use the web for research:

1.Digitised facsimiles of original books or documents. Google Books and the Internet Archive come in very handy. Project Gutenberg also allows you to download free transcribed ebooks of public domain works and there are iPhone apps to give you access to these on the go.

2.Academic papers. I use PubMed Central a lot, but that's just my area of interest - there are many more, and Intute lists reputable sources. Google Scholar lets you search a huge number of articles in all fields. Some services require registration, and others make you pay to download a paper, but this could still work out cheaper than travelling to a library at the other end of the country.

3.Services from the local library authority. This varies depending on where you live, but your library might subscribe to resources that are only available to institutions rather than individuals, and let you access them from home by logging in with your library card number. For example, I have free access to the British Library’s 19th-century newspapers archive this way.

4.Checking the location and availability of documents or books you might want to visit 'in person', or easily requesting an inter-library loan.

5.Viewing historical images. Sometimes a painting or photo can inform or inspire you far more than text. While I use Wellcome Images and the US National Library of Medicine quite a bit, there are more general pictures at the National Gallery, the Mary Evans Picture Library, the LIFE archive, Wikimedia Commons... and plenty of others.

These are only a minuscule proportion of what I use, never mind what's available. I'd love to hear about your favourite online resources too.



Old Kitty said...


Great post! Not much to add except to re-iterate to use your library. Libraries (local, academic or otherwire) are a fantastic resource for any kind of research or as a starting point to opening up your research. Please, please, use your library. There's always bureaucracy involved, admin, paper work, rules and regulations etc but once past all these (patience, patience) you'd be amazed as to what may then be avaialable to you(says I who works in one).

Take care

Gillian McDade said...

Interesting post, Caroline! While using many of the resources you listed here, I also read reams of reports/first hand accounts of people who had survived gulags (for a River To Cross) as well as literature from organisations which work in the country. Undercover videos also provided what I needed. And for a 'closed off' country such as North Korea, Google maps is a great tool for the finer details.

Essie Fox said...

What an interesting and useful post. Some great links there. Thank you,Caroline.

Helen Black said...

I use the net all the time for research.If I want to know the likely route drugs take from Africa to the UK, it's all there at the drop of a finger. Or where most guns come from. Or a name for a Lithuanian character.

I also use the net extensively to get the feel of things, so while I was writing book three I went on lots and lots of Muslim chat sites, fashion sites, religious sites etc. Similarly for my WIP I'm spending lots of time on You Tube watching films uplaoded by gangs in the UK. It's disturbing but it's giving me an 'in' iyswim. How these kids dress, speak, stand etc.

For wtiters, I think it opens up what we can write about tremendously.
HB x

Caroline Green said...

Fascinating to learn about the resources for histficers, Caro. I use the internet so much now, mainly for my 'day job' as a journalist, I honestly don;t know how I managed before. For specific science research, I find Science Daily very useful. For writing I like to look up what baby names were popular in specific years, to help with naming characters.

Administrator said...

Great links, Caro.

I use the internet for my research, and the library, they are good at ordering books in from other branches.

As some of you know, for my Egyptian book i contacted an egyptologist on line and emailed her questions no book could answer, during my writing of the first draft. I also emailed a museum for help an exchanged emails with a woman who specialised in organic dyeing, which i needed to know about.

so, my advice would be, don't be afraid to contact useful people over the net as well. I've regularly contacted complete strangers and they have always been very generous with their time.

Brian Keaney said...

www.victorianweb.org is very useful

Caroline Green said...

Yes, me too, Sam. I think people are actually flattered to be asked most of the time.

Pam said...

I totally agree. Most of my research has been online, and for awhile I felt a bit guilty about it, and now I feel that it's been a blessing - never could have written my dissertation without access to all the newspapers that have been digitized.

Geraldine Ryan said...

A very useful post, Caro! I also use it for popular names and for names I can use for characters of a different ethnicity to mine.

But I have to admit that one of the reasons I chose short stories over novels is that I'm very lazy and hate researching anything. I have heaps of admiration for those who do research!

Colette Martin said...

Caroline -- I'm with you -- you the research is all part of the fun!

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks all for such interesting comments and for sharing more resources. I certainly see research as the best part of writing, closely followed by the editing part - it's the first draft scribbling that's the hard bit for me!

Crafthole said...

As a heritage professional working in the research side of archaeology the rise of the internet is an absolute boon. Most research libraries (and all copyright libraries as far as I am aware), many museums and local archives now have online catalogues that immensely simplify tracking down what is required. In some cases these online collections can be viewed without recourse to a visit. The list of potential sources is now almost Legion and a simple adherence to checking one's references should stop you falling for any major bloopers. As well as work I find the resources now available on the web an invaluable asset in participating in and running historical wargames and role Playing games based on historical themes. Any way I have waffled on far too long now: Just one fantastic collection I can mention is that maintained by the Imperial War Museum, which has an excellent online catalogue of its collections; through which you can view a stupendous array of historical photographs, letters, historic accounts and mapping. You can then order copies of these online for a very reasonable fee (if for personal use) and they will be delivered electronically through Pak'n'post or on disc by snailmail.

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks, Crafthole - 'a simple adherence to checking one's references' is the absolute key to successful online (or indeed offline) research as far as I'm concerned.

Emma Darwin said...

I use Google Image a lot - if I want to know just what two people can get up to in a hansom cab, an image from the Smithsonian is much more use than any about of chapter and verse about when they were introduced and how they were built.

Also Deb's Historical Research Page is wonderful, and wonderfully random.

The big caution I would say is be careful that you don't end up with US information for your British book.

And I wouldn't be without my London Library subscription for the world, not least now it has a growing list of academic resources (JSTOR and the like) which I can log onto from home. Now I'm about to lose my university affiliation, I'll be using it even more.

On the other hand, I'm a great believer in leaving the research behind, and just possibly not doing it in the first place. Certainly not when you've got your WIP in the other hand. Juicy research facts so often become darlings that you can't bring yourself to murder.

Fionnuala said...

Wow! What a wealth of information Caro!As a non hist fic girl, I find most of what I need on t'internet but I alkso love listening to other peoples conversations!
Interesting you love the research and editing. I much prefer the first draqft splurge! Fx