Tag Archives: historical research

Cyber Research 101H – part 2


Okay, we’re at the Archive. We have a topic, and we are facing the empty search box.

It’s really simple.

You might put in “medieval Paris” and you will get a lot of old books about even older times. This is a bit dangerous, as apparently some of those Victorians were smoking strange stuff in their Meerschaums when they wrote about the past. It has been said that the farther back you go, the more modern your references need to be. I’ve been studying the Middle Ages since high school (figured it was necessary to write high fantasy) and the changes in how we picture the Middle Ages just since then have been amazing. Now, I can read the big volumes by Paul Le Croix and call BS on a lot of his weirder stuff, and even what was considered normal back then. This is no place for beginners.

No, as an inexperienced researcher, you don’t want to read what Le Croix said about knightly combat or ladies’ costume (his interpretation of a sideless surcoat had my costumer’s eyes bugging out in disbelief). What you do want to do is look at the zillions of pictures he collected, like a big Pinterest page. You want to read him very cautiously. Take what he quotes from original sources and back away from his own interpretations.

What you are looking for are the medieval French primary sources, like The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, the closest we have to a medieval etiquette book, or Froissart’s History, which is the Hundred Years Wars and events roundabout, as researched by talking to people who were there, or sometimes heard from Grandad. It may not even be accurate, as Herodotus or Xenophon may be inaccurate in their histories, but it’s what people believed happened. Mere facts you can get from modern historians. You are looking for everyday life and its flavour.
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Cyber Research 101H


On Nanowrimo historical fiction forums, I’ve seen people asking for help, lots of help, “because I didn’t go to college so I didn’t learn how to research.” So we who did owe them that help, y’know. I never heard of a course in research, except freshman English did include a passing reference to the *Guide to Periodical Literature* or whatever it’s called. You can tell how often I use it. It’s academic.

In general, people learned how to find things in libraries by wandering around a library to kind of see what they had. Every library has a different collection, like only one of all I’ve visited ever had a copy of *Regency Boximania.*  I remember in Virginia I was sited to access four separate libraries. Sigh. Or in Makiki I was fifteen minutes from the two largest collections in the state.

Now I am three blocks from a branch library, but between its limited hours and pop collection, it has proven perfectly useless to me. So I totally sympathize with other forumites who say, “That sounds like a great book, but I’m hours from a university library/live in a part of the world where they don’t have that in the libraries/Amazon won’t ship here.” Or all of the above.

If you are online, you have access to some excellent libraries *for historical fiction research.* Notice the limitation, please. You *can* dig around and find more modern reference if you are willing to buy subscriptions to academic archives like JSTOR. But while doing science research for techno-thrillers, science fiction, and some mysteries means you need the most up-to-date information, when it comes to getting the everyday life part of histfi, the free online libraries are a treasury of the period books you otherwise have to a) find out ever existed, b) hunt up a copy, and c) finance the purchase.

The problem with online is that you can’t just wander the stacks and find the right subject section. You have to learn the basics of the search engine.

Your best source is Internet Archive (https://www.archive.org), home of the Wayback Machine that can help you find vanished sites or their older versions.

It has also become the central card catalog for free books on the Web. Google lists all its free books here. Pretty much all of Project Gutenberg is available. Hatha Trust links through. A lot of the Library of Congress *American Memory* project is here, though sometimes a separate Search there will turn up more, especially in prints and photographs and maps. More of University of Michigan’s *Making of America* is showing up, though they have a stunning collection of antique periodicals you need to check out  directly.

The first thing you need is to get an idea of which books or kind of books you need. For that, I already wrote the 50 Books list (http://www.hollyi.com, click on 50 Books). It’s just to make sure you get the broad idea of the times and don’t, say, spend all your time on etiquette and steamboats and forget to learn about food, medicine, and fares for a Hansom cab across London.

You’ll notice the sample lists are filled with a mixture of boughten books and freebie ebooks. That’s just how I do my own research. For example, my ongoing WW2 project includes both US Army periodicals from the Archive, and *Marianne in Chains* about life in Vichy France, which arrived in an Amazon box. Some things you can’t get for free, but you can get pretty cheap second-hand. Others are just worth the new cost: the authors deserve their royalties, right?

In ebooks, the general rule is to take the PDF. The only books that are proofread are Project Gutenberg. Everything else is only OCR’d and more or less full of robot hash if you go for the Kindle or Epub versions. With PDFs you are at least getting the pictures of the pages to read. Also, other versions may lose the illustrations, or make maps or stitch charts unreadable. I have over 2000 non-fiction ebooks: learn from my mistakes.

Also, older-made PDFs from Google may omit all illustrations, whether maps in a history book or fashion plates in a pattern catalog. Use anyone else’s PDFs by preference: theirs, you have to stop and check.When I’m downloading 30 different books, I don’t want to slow down that much, because I’m recording bibliographic information at the same time.

Do keep a list, if not a database, of what you get (you can see my earlier posts on databasing them). If you don’t know you have it or where to find it, then it’s like you never got it. I often hunt one subject/topic a day, so the list kind of writes itself, as you can Copy and Paste the biblio info from the download page. So I get everything on Napoleonic Chemistry in one place, or Medieval Medicine, or 1894-1903 travel.

NEXT: How to Make the Most of Search

How Much History?


Quite an assortment of you from around the world are either following this blog or have liked it and, I’m sure as I do to others, drop by now and then.

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped by my site to read my theory on basic research for historical fiction, 50 Books. Everyone who likes writing histfi knows that doing the research can take over your life, which is part of the fun. The 50 Books theory is to guide the neophyte into not missing important areas, and remind the rest of us that, oops, we need to check how the other classes are living or what really goes into getting a meal on the table, or a table with a meal on it, or how long to get from hither to yon, or what the small talk is about.

Along with that, I have some exemplar guides, finished and partial, for myself or researched for others, on different periods I’ve written in, or planned to write in, from 396 BC Peloponnese to WW2 New York. Sometimes it’s the research failures that pulled the plug on the project, and using the 50 Books has helped me figure that out, and where the holes occurred (which doesn’t bring the sources I need into existence). At least one is a project off in the stages of “I need to assemble the research and begin reading”: in this case, I want to make sure I have my gaps filled before I sit down to a shelf-load of books, and especially before buying those expensive Osprey military monographs.

My concern, as I consider revising the list that goes with the theory is — do I have too much history in researching historical fiction?
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